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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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

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Pillars of Caste: Divine Will

Caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.

Isabel Wilkerson

In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson identified eight pillars of a caste system. I would describe these “pillars” as beliefs (or excuses) that are used to justify treating one group of people as inferior to another on the basis of something as insignificant as skin color. A caste system is not necessarily based on race. It can be based on gender, age, religion, social class, etc.

The first pillar Wilkerson discussed is “divine will and the laws of nature.” She began by describing the divine justification for the Indian caste system. In an ancient Indian text, Brahma, “the grandfather of all the worlds” was said to have created the highest caste, the Brahmans, out of his mouth or head. The lower castes were said to have been formed out of lower parts of the body – the arms, the thighs, the feet. The “untouchables” were considered so low, they were even beneath the feet of the lowly Shudra, “the servant, the bearer of burdens.”

In America, Christians historically used what has been called the “curse of Ham” as justification for enslaving people with brown skin. If you read the biblical text, the curse of Ham was actually Noah’s curse of his grandson Canaan, Ham’s son. Noah was angry at Ham for telling his two brothers that he saw Noah naked. The curse was not a curse of God and it had nothing to do with Ham or Canaan’s skin color.

Christians have used selected scripture as a pillar supporting the withholding of privileges from women in ministry. One day, when a woman gave the sermon at my church, I saw a man turn to his wife and say, 1 Corinthians 14:34. I immediately knew that he was referring to the verses that have been used to justify preventing women from speaking in church. “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.”

I have struggled to understand why Paul would write that women should not be allowed to speak. I found a compelling response to the question, Are women to remain silent in the church? in a blog post by Dennis Regling, an evangelist. He wrote that Paul often quoted other people before refuting what they were saying. Paul would use the Greek symbol ἢ before refuting the previous passage. The symbol basically means nonsense! or say what?

Both of these examples illustrate how important it is to use discernment when you hear someone attempt to use the Bible to justify something that you know is not consistent with who God is. Our response should be an emphatic . Nonsense! God created human beings in his image. We are to love one another as we love ourselves, to treat other people the way we want to be treated.

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Toxins in the Permafrost

After the racial protests of 2020, I began reading to learn more about racism in America. The most informative book I have read so far is Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Part One of the book begins with a powerful analogy. In 2016, a heat wave hit the Russian peninsula of Yamal. So many children were getting sick from a mysterious illness, the authorities declared a state of emergency. Then scientists discovered that the extreme heat had eroded the permafrost, exposing Anthrax, a toxin that had been buried in the carcasses of reindeer since 1941.

Racism is a toxic pathogen. For much of my life, I believed that America had largely buried it. But just as unusually hot weather in Siberia exposed long-buried anthrax spores, rising heat in human hearts exposed long-denied racism in the United States. What reignited the flames? Wilkens pointed to one catalyst: the U.S. Census Bureau’s projection that by 2042, the U.S. will no longer be a white-majority nation.

The prevalence of racism today is often attributed to institutional or systemic racism, the embedded social practices that lead to discrimination against people of color. According to Wikipedia, the term institutional racism was first used in 1967 in the book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation. Institutional racism is much more subtle and harder to detect than individual racism. Today many whites quickly condemn individual racism as immoral but are not so quick to condemn the racist practices embedded in our culture.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. visited India, he was introduced to a group of high school students as “a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.” King was surprised and a bit peeved to be described as an untouchable. But he realized it was true; he and other black people had been consigned to the lowest caste in America for centuries.

A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it.

Isabel Wilkerson

Years ago, missionaries visited my church to talk about the Dalits, India’s lowest caste, once known as the “untouchables.” We were given clay cups to remind us of the daily oppression of the Dalit people, who aren’t allowed to drink from the same cups as people in the higher castes. The oppression of the Dalits seemed like an other world problem. Now I realize that caste is very much a part of my world. It is not a foreign problem.

In Caste, Wilkerson draws parallels between the unnamed caste system of the United States and those of India and Nazi Germany. As described by Wilkerson, the upper caste consists of white people of European descent, the middle caste is made up of Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans, and the lower or bottom caste is made up of black people of African descent. White people have historically been the dominant caste, the favored caste, the ruling majority. Black people have historically been the subordinate caste, the disfavored caste, the powerless minority.

In another powerful analogy, Wilkerson compared America to the stage of a long-running play.

The actors wear the costumes of their predecessors and inhabit the roles assigned to them. The people in these roles are not the characters they play, but they have played the roles long enough to incorporate the roles into their very being, to merge the assignment with their inner selves and how they are seen in the world.

Isabel Wilkerson, Caste

White people have become accustomed to our dominant roles. We take little notice of the people in the back unless they try to veer from the script; then we step in and put them in their place. If they protest too much, we silence them.

Caste makes distinctions among creatures where God has made none.

A native of India

The American caste system is a tragedy. As a nation, we have an ugly, horrific history of dehumanizing people based on the color of their skin. And although those of us living today did not create this system, we inherited it and may unwittingly play a role in keeping it in place.

The caste system thrives on dissension and inequality, envy and false rivalries, that build up in a world of perceived scarcity….A caste system builds rivalry and distrust and lack of empathy toward one’s fellows.

Isabel Wilkerson

Today, we can see the American caste system at work in the restrictive voting laws that are being enacted all over the country. I believe that these bills are designed to keep the ruling majority in power. Others have pointed out the symbolism of the governor of Georgia signing a bill that restricts voting rights while surrounded by white men standing in front of a painting of a slave plantation.

I agree with Wilkerson that understanding the American caste system may be the key to dismantling it. In part three of her book, Wilkerson describes what she calls the eight pillars of caste, the beliefs and practices that keep a caste system in place. I will reflect on each of these pillars in future posts.

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