By Dominique Paul Noth
The timing and the content couldn’t have been worse for Nikki Haley (former South Carolina governor and Trump official) and for the handful of black speakers at the Republican National Convention as they proclaimed that the United States was in no way a racist country, no more than their great leader Donald Trump was racist -- even as the family of Jacob Blake was gathering in Kenosha to face the grim future of the father, brother and son paralyzed by seven police bullets fired into his back while his children watched.
The speakers -- particularly Haley who is often touted as the future of the Republican Party – were either demonstrating intellectual naiveté far beneath their stations or, more likely, unbridled hypocrisy to sound like they were tight with Trump despite his behavior.
There is an argument to be made that the word “racist” is thrown around too readily by Black Lives Matter people, making every white who doesn’t feel racist angry that they are so described.
But all the whites who defend themselves that way should be reading “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” Isabel Wilkerson’s compelling new book that explores the idea of “racism” being an over-used pejorative but compels readers of all skin colors to brush away their cosmetic thinking and delve deeper into American and world history.
There they must confront the controlling scaffolding of prejudices that reach centuries back in human behavior and in the weaponry of domination. Readers can’t escape how deeply racist, even unknowingly racist, the dominant white society has been in the US.
|Author Isabel Wilkerson|
In America that bottom rung has been blacks however educated, whether brought here as slaves or self-motivated as immigrants. The dominant caste in America is white and has wielded the biggest determinative influence on all of our upbringing and social treatment. That high caste determined and rigidly taught that black skin denotes lower intelligence, a constant need for the whipping rods of abuse and rape and the shuddering fear of possible infection if allowed to share swimming pools or water fountains.
There is no scientific basis for this viewpoint, which dates back before our Founding Fathers. It is a harsh conditioning in a nation where we still talk of American exceptionalism without realizing what a horror of prejudice was built up as gospel for generations of people who seldom questioned this relentless contrivance from the crib to the coffin. And even today the inheritors of this caste system don’t recognize how the original artifices linger or have been restrung.
Wilkerson’s book -- a pinwheel of revelatory fireworks -- spins out more shocks of discussion than can be dealt with here. But let’s build on a few.
To begin with, “caste” whatever the system is an artificial ranking of human groups, one group selected as superior, sometimes based loosely on ancestry but involving and redefining other traits. In the US it was “whiteness” as understood as European Caucasian, though “Caucasian” is a ridiculously narrow term. White men with property were given special standing in the original US Constitution and often that property was slaves counted as three-fifths of a person. White women were originally not included in the Constitution since they had other ways than property or income or the vote to generate a semblance of dominance -- at least that was the nicer part of the thinking.
The lowest caste was “the blacks” applied to many groups hijacked from Africa, then graded to encompass native Americans though they provided no lasting threat or plantation value and could even be viewed as quaint, then India, China, Asia and South America, all quite different even within themselves in physical appearance but generally reflecting a darker or different skin color, so only over time could some of them escape into a different compartment of the basement.
Ironically, any sincere study of American immigration shows how European groups from Rumania or Southern Europe were originally portrayed like “darkies” in American political cartoons until they proved “worthy” of being considered white.
It turns out that “white” is a purely US concept, since variety of pigmentation has been generally accepted elsewhere in the world or over time didn’t matter. In the US, as Wilkerson explains, racism “does the heavy lifting” for our caste system, taught from childhood as a more powerful code than grammar, an “invisible guide” to how we process information about others. Whites instinctively react to a black person in the room, even recoil, trained by centuries of built-in attitudes.
The world’s most famous caste system is in India, allied with religion and social hierarchy and passed down for centuries. Skin color plays a minor part. It is more where you were born – which side of the tracks? -- what your family is named and what the family first did for a living. But ingrained are haughty attitudes, manners, stepping aside, a social deference to the higher castes. This creates resentment, often subdued, among the lowest (the Untouchables or Dalits) who are made to feel like base servants however high they rate in intellect or ability. Modern India knows this is a horrifying antiquity, but the built-in attitudes linger.
Wilkerson relates how, on a visit to India, the Rev. Martin Luther King originally bristled when he was introduced as a leading figure from “America’s untouchables” until he thought about it and agreed.
Aside from India and the US, Wilkerson explores the caste system of Nazi Germany and many readers will be dumfounded to realize how deeply Hitler and his party in the 1920s and 1930s drew their planning from the most extreme caste system in the world, the United States.
In fashioning their language and treatment of Jews and non-Aryans to create their Undermenish – their Undermen or subhuman bottom caste – they consciously decided they could not go as far as Americans had done. In our country, “one drop of black blood” rendered you unfit to be considered white, but Germany had a problem. Hitler had black hair and non-Aryan features, as did many in the Nazi Party, so America’s rules had to be adjusted, even allowing some grandfathering while forbidding any more mingling of Jews and other Germans.
The Nazis deeply studied popular American eugenicists in the 1920s to evolve Hitler’s theory of Aryan supremacy, even contemplating if they could take the Jews and the rest of the “inferior stock” and weed them out and sterilize them, but in the end decided they could not go as far as the Americans had with the blacks. Amazing to think the concentration camp ovens would eventually be created because the American caste rules were too extreme.
My late mother, obviously and proudly Jewish, an opera singer who had to flee Germany in 1933 as did her blond husband, an anti-Nazi writer, recalled to me in both amusement and deep anger how some of the Jewish girls she grew up with looked more blond and Aryan than the Third Reich leaders. Yet she was luckier than they to run away.
She would have found the Republican 2020 convention mind-bending. Maybe as Wilkerson forecast when she described how the then dominant class in Germany 1934 “underestimated his cunning and overestimated his base of support, which had been the very reason they had felt they needed him in the first place. At the height of power at the polls [this leader] never pulled the majority they coveted and drew only 38% of the vote . . . The old guard did not foresee, or chose not to see, that his actual mission was ‘to exploit the methods of democracy to destroy democracy.’ ” Wilkerson was talking about Hitler – who did you think of?
The choices of the dominant caste about who will occupy the basement are never a matter of science but of training. It is a matter of who is defining the castes and setting the rules. The outcomes can be strange. Blacks in a bizarre echo created divisions based on lighter or darker black skin, associating lightness with the white masters centuries before who had forced themselves on black slaves. Whites sometimes put those “whiter” offspring in fashion ads, which today forces another form of black rebellion in the arts community.
The caste system allows the dominant whites to adjust to society-imposed differences from 400, 100, even 50 years ago, while still retaining control. That results in subtler forms of discrimination but also in permutations the top caste never imagined but leaps to contain.
Wilkerson makes you think about all this with example after example. She describes encounters from real life that may casually sound like some white person having a bad hair day or a short temper which we all suffer – until you examine how often it is dominant caste against less dominant and how often it involves, as the India caste system does, lording over someone you assume has less power than you have.
She reminds you that black and brown people, and all the other minorities, are almost chafing in anticipation of 2042 when whites are projected demographically to become a minority in this country. But she also reminds us that 2042 is a rather useless change in the math. White domineering finance power and influence are projected to last for nearly three more centuries! And remember, the dominant caste can decide who to accept as members and they are looking hard at Ted Cruz and others in the Latino community, a more fertile field than the occasional Clarence Thomas, Tim Scott or India-heritage Haley.
“Caste” forces all manner of thinking on its readers – as I said it is hard for any “white person” not to re-ponder the many engagements in your own life as not just exercises of white privilege but of caste assumptions.
For all skin colors, caste works on our subconscious as well as on our conscious. Caste believers dismiss any self- blame if shootings on the streets of Kenosha are traced to white power, arguing that if only the protesters would have stayed home nothing would have happened. Out of caste training, they tend to want blacks and Jews to behave meekly as they did in Trump’s fictional good old days. On the other side of the caste line, there is a push for rebellion as some sort of payment for centuries of pain.
It is hard not to be moved by the tolerance and patience of black parents – and yet to wonder if years of bending to caste dominance may partly explain the unbelievable Christian compassion of so many in the black community when their family members are crushed in a hail of bullets.
And it’s even harder to recognize that “Caste” may reveal that Trump is on to something, however immoral it may sound in the daylight. There may be a rationale for his constant savagery and harping back to dark days ahead if his followers dare buckle.
In a 2004 best seller, Thomas Frank asked “What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America,” a scathing and revealing examination of why white working class and lower middle class members voted again and again against their own economic self-interest. It seemed to many sociologists a pure blindness to actual financial realities then and now.
Trump may be sending out a perverse message to re-elect him as the keeper of the caste system because retaining caste structure may actually be the self-interest of the white subsets attracted to him. Under Trump, the poorest and lowest white person in America can still feel superior to any black. “Caste” politics may never bring them a reward. But the poorest white can go to his covid grave pretending there is someone he’s better than.