I was happy when my book club chose to read Caste (2020) by Isabel Wilkerson. I’d already read The Warmth of Other Suns by Wilkerson and had Caste on my reading list. Although the underlying theme is still race in America, I found Caste to be very different from Warmth of Other Suns. Caste explains how slavery created a caste system in America that still survives today. Wilkerson does this by exploring the eight pillars of caste and comparing the caste systems in America, India, and Nazi Germany. Although I found Warmth a little more interesting because Wilkerson focused on the lives of specific people, I thought this book was very well written and enlightening.
The eight pillars of caste:
1. Divine will and laws of nature: Just as the “untouchables” in India were told they should accept their lot and work hard to be born into a better life, the Bible was used to defend slavery. Noah cursed the descendants of his son, Ham, with servitude. The belief that African-Americans were descended from Ham was a primary justification for slavery.
2. Heritability: In America, if you were born to a slave mother, you were a slave. It didn’t matter that your father was Thomas Jefferson, and you were 3/4 white.
3. Endogamy and Control: endogamy is limiting marriage within a certain community. No fuss was given when landowners raped their female slaves to bring them more slaves. But intermarriage was unthinkable. 41 of the 50 states passed laws making intermarriage a crime. Alabama did not throw out its law against intermarriage until the year 2000. [Fortunately, the Supreme Court holding in Loving v. Virginia made this law unconstitutional in 1967.] “Even then, 40 percent of the electorate in that referendum voted in favor of keeping the marriage ban on the books.” (111)
4. Purity v. Pollution: The Jim Crow laws in the South are examples of separating the castes. Wilkerson discussed how intensely (and often violently) swimming pools were kept segregated. She had a heartbreaking story of one black boy who played on an all-white baseball team. They decided to have a party at the local swimming pool, where he was not allowed. All his teammates were inside splashing around, while he sat in the grass, outside the fence. Eventually his coach convinced the lifeguards to let the boy into the pool. They had all the white people get out of the water, and then put him on the raft and pushed him around the pool. He was told, no matter what, do not touch the water.
5. Occupational Hierarchy: Post slavery, Black people were severely limited in what kind of jobs they could do, and there was intense, and often violent, pressure for them to “stay in their place.” In addition, the South Carolina legislature decreed after the Civil War that “no person of color shall pursue or practice the art, trade or business of an artisan, mechanic or shop-keeper.” without obtaining an [expensive] license that is only good for a year. The license only applied to people of color, cost $100 and had to be renewed every year. $100 in those times was close to $1,200 today.
6. Dehumanization and Stigma: Unfortunately, Wilkerson had plenty of examples to show dehumanization from slavery, post-slavery, and much more recent times. The prevalence and acceptance of lynches is especially disturbing. These were family functions where they sold memorabilia and sent postcards to family and friends. In addition, James Marion Sims, who would later be heralded as the founding father of gynecology did horrific experiments on slave women giving birth. [Wilkerson recommends Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington for more on this subject.] It’s also very reminiscent of the medical experiments of the Nazis.
7. Terror as Enforcement, Cruelty as a Means of Control: During slavery there was whipping, burning, castration, and other horrors to keep people in line. After slavery there was also lynching and other violent reprisals for any Black person who did not conform.
8. Inherent Superiority v. Inherent Inferiority: the assumption that one is better than the other to justify their conduct toward the lower caste.
Wilkerson also discusses how the caste system still affects all Americans today. It gives us health problems, it limits opportunity, and it affects us deeply–sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously. It is here that it is especially helpful to see the comparisons between India and the United States. I think it might be easier for an American to see the long-term consequences of a caste system in India, where Americans are more of a neutral observer, than in the United States, where our perception has already been affected by the caste system here.
Highly recommended. I will leave you with some random facts I learned while reading.
-“The French writer Alexis de Tockqueville toured antebellum America in the 1830s and observed that only the ‘surface of American society is covered with a layer of democratic paint.'” (79)
-“[W]hite felons applying for a job were more likely to get hired than African-Americans with no criminal record.”
-During WWII the French military was told by the US military to not be so friendly with the black soldiers. “The fact that military command would take the time in the middle of one of the most vicious wars in human history to instruct foreigners on the necessity of demeaning their own countrymen suggests that they considered adherence to caste protocols to be as important as conducting the war itself.” (225)
-Majority of white voters did not support President Obama in either election; Obama carried every state that Abraham Lincoln had won in 1860.
-In 2015, police were killing unarmed African-Americans at 5 times the rate of white Americans.
-Federal government paid reparations to the slave owners but not the slaves.
-The third Monday in January is Robert E. Lee Day in Mississippi and Alabama.
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