Pillars of Caste: Occupational Hierarchy

Isabel Wilkerson began her discussion of the fifth pillar of caste systems by comparing the bottom tier to a mudsill. The mudsill, or “sill plate,” is the first layer of wood installed on top of the foundation wall. The floors and walls and everything else that makes a house are built on top of the mudsill.

In a caste system, the mudsill is the bottom caste that everything else rests upon.

Isabel Wilkerson, Caste

Wilkerson quoted James Henry Hammond, a U.S. senator from South Carolina, who said (in 1858): “In all social systems, there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill.” Hammond described this low class as “the mud-sill of society.” He said that blacks are an inferior race and that being made slaves was actually an elevation over the status “in which God first created them…”

Hammond was a monster. But as Wilkerson noted, he gave voice to the economic reasoning behind a caste system that was initially based on slavery. Well into the twentieth century, Blacks did the hard, dirty, menial work that Whites didn’t want to do.

As Wilkerson wrote in chapter four of Caste, this is a long-running play. “The actors wear the costumes of their predecessors and inhabit the roles assigned to them…The roles become sufficiently embedded into the identity of the players that the leading man or woman would not be expected so much as to know the names or take notice of the people in the back, and there would be no reason for them to do so. Stay in the roles long enough, and everyone begins to believe that the roles are preordained, that each cast member is best suited by talent and temperament for their assigned role, and maybe for only that role, that they belong there and were meant to be cast as they are currently seen.”

It makes me sad to think about the millions of Black bodies and souls abused by the American caste system. It is a shame that so much human potential has been squandered because of occupational discrimination. I feel for Blacks who have been denied equal opportunities because of our caste system.

When I think about some of the jobs I had before I earned my degree, I am very grateful that I was not pigeonholed into a role that didn’t fit my talents and interests. Even though I was poor, no one expressed doubt that I could be anything I wanted to be.

While more roles are open to Blacks today, thanks in part to the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, progress has been very slow. Blacks are still underrepresented in managerial or white-collar jobs. Whites still act surprised when they hear that a black person is enrolled at an elite university or that a Black person occupies a role dominated by whites.

My company and many others have launched diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in response to the racial unrest of 2020. I hope that these efforts bear fruit. I commit to listening to people of color and to acknowledging the ways Whites have kept Blacks on the lowest rung of the ladder.

Why aren’t black employees getting more white-collar jobs?

Barriers for Black Professionals

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Photo by Josh Miller on Unsplash

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.

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Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

Pillars of Caste: Endogamy

Endogamy is the practice of marrying within a specific social group, religious denomination, caste, or ethnic group, rejecting those from others as unsuitable for marriage or other close personal relationships.  – Wikipedia

Endogamy is the third pillar of caste as enumerated by Isabel Wilkerson in her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Wilkerson describes this pillar as “an ironclad foundation” or a “firewall.” When laws are enacted to prevent ethnic groups from marrying or having intimate relationships with each other, it enforces the concept of inequality. Endogamy has been used for centuries as a powerful legal means of keeping people of color below the dominant, white caste.

The practice of endogamy has powerful social repercussions. As Wilkerson noted, when there are no shared familial connections, people are less likely to feel empathy for the other caste. People in the dominant caste will not “have a personal stake in the happiness, fulfillment, or well-being of anyone deemed beneath them.” When endogamy is enforced, those in the dominant caste are more likely to see the lower caste as the enemy, as a threat, as not “our kind” of people.

Wilkerson wrote that Virginia became the first colony to prohibit marriage between blacks and whites in 1691. The majority of states followed suit, with some also outlawing marriage between whites and Asians or Native Americans. The Supreme Court overturned these laws in 1967 but it wasn’t until the year 2000 that the state of Alabama repealed its law against intermarriage.

I recently read about Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple whose case was decided by the Supreme Court in 1967. Mildred Loving was a black/Native American woman and Richard Loving was white. The Lovings were convicted for breaking Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, a law criminalizing interracial marriage. At their sentencing hearing, the trial judge said, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

Although laws prohibiting interracial marriages have been repealed, the belief expressed by the trial judge still persists and not just among white supremacists. Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, wrote about what she calls “fear of a black planet.” She interviewed a member of the British National Party who fears that white people will become an ethnic minority in Britain. He “recommended” that she “get the hell out of this country” and go have kids somewhere else, connected to her own heritage. This fear of people of color (not just blacks) becoming more powerful is expressed as “taking back our country,” “preserving our national identity,” and in concerns about immigration.

Wilkerson is absolutely correct that interracial relationships lead to empathy and caring about the happiness, fulfillment and well-being of those considered as “other” in a caste system. The mixed-race little girl in the image is my adopted niece Maddie, now a college student. I have been blessed to have a Vietnamese sister-in-law and several mixed-race nieces and nephews. Every one of them deserves the same opportunities for happiness and success as my white family members.

Mixed-race relationships are not nearly as controversial as they used to be and that is a good thing, in my opinion. People should be allowed to love other people fully, regardless of skin color. But Eddo-Lodge opened my eyes to issues that come with mixed-race relationships. The increase in mixed-race marriages and mixed-race children “brings those difficult conversations about race and whiteness and privilege closer to home (literally) than ever before.”

Eddo-Lodge spoke to a mixed-race woman she called Jessica, who grew up primarily around her mother’s white family. For most of her life, Jessica didn’t talk to her family about race because she was raised in a “color-blind” way. Jessica’s family did not prepare her for what she would face in the world as a mixed-race person. Jessica’s mother never thought race was an issue for her because there were no racial incidents. But Jessica grew up feeling different because she was the only black child in class and lived in a white town surrounded by white family. I can’t help but think of my niece Maddie who also grew up in a white town surrounded by white family.

As an adult, Jessica is more conscious of race. She is more aware of and sensitive to the racism in her own family. She wonders why her family didn’t think about her needs as a mixed-race child. She wasn’t exposed to the Jamaican side of her heritage. Jessica believes that when white people are in interracial relationships, have mixed-race children, or adopt children of another race, they should be committed to being actively anti-racist.

As interracial relationships have become more accepted, I think it behooves all of us to be actively anti-racist and to have difficult conversations about race. The Almighty God created human beings in his image and He commanded us to love one another with no conditions. Proverbs 17:5 says, “whoever mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker…” The same thing can be said for those who show contempt for people of color.

Pillars of Caste: Heritability

In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson wrote about the pillars of caste systems – beliefs that uphold a system of hierarchy. In a caste system, those in the upper caste(s) believe that those in the lower caste(s) are naturally inferior and were born to play a subordinate role in society. Wilkerson called the second pillar of caste heritability. Heritability is a measure of how well differences in genes account for differences in traits. When a trait can be passed on through genetics, it is heritable.

Wilkerson wrote that unlike social class, caste is a fixed measure of a person’s standing. A person can move from a lower to a higher class through ingenuity, education, and/or hard work. “If you can act your way out of it, then it is class, not caste.” In a caste system, even upper class people are subjected to “humiliating attempts to put them in their place.” In a caste system, people are labeled based on the way they look on the outside and that label determines what they can and cannot do in society. Sadly, the label is often out of sync with the person inside.

Even the most accomplished people of color are disrespected by whites. Wilkerson told a personal story about going to a retail store in Chicago to interview the store manager for a news article. She arrived early for her appointment. When the manager arrived, she went up to him to introduce herself. The manager told her he couldn’t speak to her because he was running late for an appointment. When she told him that she worked for The New York Times and was there to interview him, he didn’t believe her, even when she showed him her ID.

Wilkerson noted that all human beings are 99.9% identical in their genetic makeup, a fact confirmed by the Human Genome Project. The differences we see result from a tiny fraction of our DNA. Skin color, hair texture, and facial features are heritable, but physical traits are arbitrary ways of discriminating between human beings.

Wilkerson wrote about a school teacher who, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., decided to teach her students what it is like to be judged on the basis of an arbitrary trait. She divided the students into two groups based on eye color. She told the kids that people with brown eyes are not as good as people with blue eyes. She told them that brown-eyed people are slower and not as smart as blue-eyed people. The students with brown eyes were not allowed to drink from the water fountain and were not allowed to go to recess with the blue-eyed students. The teacher noticed an immediate change in the students’ behavior. Those in the disfavored group under-performed in their schoolwork.

All men must have been created equal; most certainly they are not all alike. The idea of equality derives from ethics; similarity and dissimilarity are observable facts. Human equality is not predicated on biological identity, not even on identity of ability. People need not be identical twins to be equal before the law, or to be entitled to an equality of opportunity.

Theodosius Dobzhansky

Even when presented with living proof that people in the lower caste are intelligent, talented, equal human beings, the upper caste persists in denying the lower caste the full benefits of their humanity. As the geneticist Dobzhansky said, human equality is not predicated on biological identity. Human equality is based on our identity as beings created in the image of God.

Whatever black people can do, white people can do. Let me repeat that. Whatever black people can do, white people can do. If this sounds strange, it is because we are so accustomed to pretending that white people set the standard for human achievement. This is not true.

Let’s tear down this pillar of the American caste system.

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Unequal by nature: a geneticist’s perspective on human differences

How Heritability Misleads about Race

Photo by Photoholgic on Unsplash

I will not be silent

I will not be silent
in the face of injustice.
I will stand up 
for the oppressed,
for people of color –
children of God.

I will stand up against
the lie of white supremacy
the sin that begat slavery
the sin that begat lynchings
the sin that begets inequality
the sin that begets injustice.

In this land where
liberty and justice
are not for all
I will protest freely
I will act justly
I will love mercy.

I will be an instrument
of Your peace.
Where there is hatred
I will sow love.
Where there is darkness
I will be light.
I will not be silent.