Pillars of Caste: Purity versus Pollution

I continue to reflect on the eight supporting pillars of caste systems described by Isabel Wilkerson in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. The fourth pillar, Purity versus Pollution, is based on the belief in the purity of the dominant caste and impurity of lower castes. This belief causes the dominant caste to take extreme measures to ensure that it is not polluted by lower castes, including physical segregation, excluding the lower caste from public places, denial of citizenship, etc.

It is upsetting to read about the ways white people have historically enforced racial purity. I can only imagine how difficult and dehumanizing it was to be on the receiving end. “All private and public human activities were segregated, from birth to death…” White and black school kids studied from separate sets of textbooks, blacks were prohibited from drinking from the water fountains used by white people, schools and hospital wards were segregated. “In southern court rooms, even the word of God was segregated.” Whites and blacks swore to tell the truth on separate bibles.

Well into the twentieth century, African-Americans were banned from white beaches and lakes and pools, both north and south, lest they pollute them, just as Dalits were forbidden from the waters of the Brahmins, and Jews from Aryan waters in the Third Reich.

Isabel Wilkerson, Caste

Since water is often used as a symbol of purity, Wilkerson wrote about America’s history of using “the sanctity of water” to keep white people from being polluted by blacks. In 1919, a black boy in Chicago was stoned and drowned for inadvertently breaching the boundary that separated the white swimming beach from the black one. The town of Newton, Kansas went to court to keep African Americans from using the pool it built in 1935. The town argued that white people wouldn’t go into water that had touched black skin. The state supreme court sided with the town and the public pool continued to exclude blacks until 1951.

In 1951, Al Bright, the only black player on a little league team in Youngstown, Ohio, was not allowed to celebrate at the city pool with his teammates after the team won the city championship. Eventually, a lifeguard agreed to let him in the pool, but only after all the white people got out. A lifeguard pushed the boy around the pool on a raft, telling him “don’t touch the water,” while a hundred or so people watched from the sidelines. He never forgot this humiliating experience.

How did America get to point of treating black people as “untouchables?” Wilkerson described the American caste system as an accelerated system because it is relatively young compared to India’s caste system. America’s founders used the biblical account of Noah cursing Ham as justification for placing Africans in the bottom caste, then “they shaped the upper caste as they went along.” The United States based its caste system on racial absolutism, a “hierarchy of trace amounts.”

Even a drop of African, Asian, or Native American blood would taint the purity of a person who would otherwise be accepted as European and would disqualify the person from being admitted to the dominant caste. Wilkerson wrote that Louisiana had a law on the books as recently as 1983 defining a negro as having more than 1/32 negro blood. Louisiana further defined its sub-castes based on the percentage of African blood – mulatto, quadroon, etc.

Many people who are considered white today would not have been deemed white by America’s founders. In 1790, Congress restricted citizenship to “free white persons.” But whiteness had not been defined. Immigration and marriage laws were used to control who could be in the dominant caste. Immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Italy, and Poland were not considered white enough.

Wilkerson also discussed “the trials of the middle castes” or “the race to get under the white tent.” Because the rewards of citizenship and the privileges of the upper caste were extended to people who met the definition of white, immigrants from Asia or India tried to qualify as white because their skin was white.

No matter what route a borderline applicant took to gain acceptance, the caste system shape-shifted to keep the upper caste pure by its own terms. What a thin, frayed thread held the illusion together.

Isabel Wilkerson, Caste

Another point Wilkerson made about caste purity is that the dominant caste has constantly worked to keep the lowest caste on the bottom. “Well into the civil rights era, the caste system excluded African-Americans from the daily activities of the general public in the South, the region where most of them lived.” The exclusion of African Americans “was used to justify their exclusion. Their degraded station justified their degradation.”

I am disgusted with America’s history of treating people with dark skin as impure. Only hypocrites consider themselves pure because of the color of their container. What matters is not the purity of your blood but the purity of your heart.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

Matthew 23:27-28

As I read about these pillars of caste, the fact that some of these supports have crumbled tempts me to take comfort. I’ve never heard anyone say that the slavery of Africans was God’s will. Interracial marriages are no longer prohibited. We’re making progress in the fight against racism, aren’t we? But the last decade or so has shown me that we have a long way to go. The toxins are still there.

****

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash