When I read the opening sentences of the New York Times review of journalist- author Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, I was glad it was soon arriving on my Barnes & Noble pre-order.
I’d been deeply impressed by Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Warmth of Other Suns, the story of the Great Migration by Black Americans leaving the evils of the Jim Crow south and travelling to the urban centers of the north and west, only to face many of the same restrictions and deprivations.
It took Wilkerson a decade to write Caste, which the New York Times describes as an “instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote non-fiction book of the American century thus far.”
Oprah was equally swept into the intensity of reading Caste. Not only did she select it for her book club, saying it might be the most important book she’s chosen. She also sent 500 copies to the CEOs of the largest US corporations and to governors, mayors, and college professors.
While I was reading all this, my own book arrived and, truly, I was gripped from the opening page. As I progressed, pausing every 25 pages or so (simply because Caste is so intense you need time to think about what you’ve read), I considered the book in the context of the US Covid-19 numbers.
The US has the highest number of infections and deaths of any country on the planet. A close second is Brazil, with notorious segregation, and third is India, which many of us most associate with the words “caste system.”
Lethality of caste systems
Wilkerson starts by pointing out that the words “caste” and “race” are not interchangeable. She described castes as an artificial hierarchy that helps determine standing and respect, assumptions of beauty and competence, and even who gets the benefit of the doubt and access to resources. “Caste focuses in on the infrastructure of our divisions and the rankings, whereas race is the metric that’s used to determine one’s place in that,” she says. (Click here to read the whole interview, which is excellent.)
The US caste system ranks its citizens by skin color. Income, education, and talent have nothing to do with caste distinctions. There are subtleties of caste in the US that are often mysterious to outsiders. White Protestants rank themselves higher than Catholics. Episcopalians rank themselves higher than Baptists.
The Nazis wanted race to be an issue, but many Germans “looked like” they could be Jews and vice versa, so their caste system was predicated on who you were related to.
In India, the caste system is so deeply entrenched that your position in it is based on your family name, where you were born, and your family’s occupation. Although there are five main castes, there are hundreds of subcastes, down to the outcaste, better known as the Untouchables, but renamed Dalits.
Visiting India, Martin Luther King, Jr., was shocked to be referred to as an American Untouchable until he grasped their point. Until the end of World War 2, Jews and Gypsies were Germany’s Untouchables. In the US, Black and Native American citizens remain the Untouchables and much of our economic and political currency is spent keeping them “in their place.”
The caste pyramid, in life and in Covid
What we learn from Caste is that Black Americans, and to a large degree virtually anyone not white, are on the slippery slope of the caste pyramid, often barely hanging on.
While the top of our caste pyramid works from home during the pandemic, disparities in health, education, and job opportunity keep many people of color on the front lines. If you read Covid statistics you know susceptibility to infection is greatly increased if you’re Black, Brown, Asian, or Native American.
What America has accomplished with its caste system is an astonishing waste of human potential. In the 18th and 19th centuries, there were actual debates in Washington about who counted as white, with the Italians, Greeks, Irish, and Jews barely making the grade. Asians were blocked in 1882 by the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Once any European was accepted as white, new arrivals (most showing up decades after slavery had been abolished) were just as diligent about continuing the caste system as any white citizen of the Jim Crow south.
For many years in both the north and south, newly minted white immigrants kept Black families out of schools, neighborhoods, occupations, and unions, pushing them toward substandard housing. To this day, in many parts of the country, Black Americans are denied the right to vote.
When Dr. King marched through our own suburban Cicero for fair housing, thousands of first-generation European immigrants shouting “white power” hurled rocks and bottles at the marchers. King later said it had been more violent than anything he’d experienced in Alabama or Mississippi.
During my own childhood, my family would have been appalled to be considered racist or even class-conscious, but members of my extended family did own businesses that paid Black employees less than white ones, owned overcrowded apartment buildings that would now be categorized as slums, and regularly moved from one neighborhood to another when word spread that it was “changing.”
Trump initiated his presidency with a Muslim ban and then started constructing his wall, separating children from families and caging the children. He is striving to eliminate health care’s reach and recently promised “suburban housewives” protection from low-income housing. These are all re-runs of the Jim Crow South.
Although I’m a Democrat through and through, I also know we need a multi-party political system. Checks and balances are important. But caging children, tear-gassing protestors, and encouraging Jim Crow segregation? Republicans supporting this surely know better.
Here’s an interesting historical point from Caste. Well before the concentration camps and the slaughter of the Holocaust, back in 1935, the Nazis were creating the Nuremberg Laws to limit the rights of Jews. To get some ideas on how to accomplish this, they actually sent observers to the US to see what they could learn from the Jim Crow South. Their report revealed shock at the intensity of Jim Crow and how the “laws” were arbitrary and randomly enforced by whippings and lynchings. They were also astonished at how naïve white Americans were about their ideas of so-called freedom, democracy, and equal justice for all.
Somehow, the US needs to recognize it’s wasting tremendous resources—human, spiritual, and financial–to maintain its caste system. This is money and physical energy that could be spent changing society, and yes, ending Covid-19.
We’ve got the highest per capita prison population on the planet (including disparities for people of color) and the largest and most expensive police state. Vast swaths of the US suffer with substandard housing, education, nutrition, and medical care. What isn’t spent maintaining our caste system is allocated to the population at the top of the pyramid in the form of tax benefits.
We need to recognize that Covid-19 is much more than a deadly virus. It should be a wake-up call to us all, alerting us to our worst traits, but also with the potential of bringing forth our best. We need to evaluate our statistics against those of countries that are handling the pandemic well.
We need to look deeply into ourselves and understand the answers to two questions that apply to both Covid and caste: “What went wrong, and when?” and “How can we extricate ourselves and never let this happen again?”
David Edelberg, MD