Foundational Change by Frank Freeman

Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents
By Isabel Wilkerson
Random House, 2020
$32   496 pp.

The American Prospect proclaimed Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents “the missing puzzle piece of our country’s history.” To this I would add that it is also the missing puzzle piece to understanding what we have gone through since the election of 2016. Since then, I have bent over backwards to comprehend how the GOP, of which I was once a loyal member, went off the rails, and how so many people I once respected as thinkers and cultural commentators have contorted themselves to defend a racist nationalist agenda, not to mention supporting a man who so obviously longs to be a dictator. I have tried to find reasons for this shift in the GOP as, variously, the fact that poor white Southerners (which is my ancestry) were the only group you could still get away with making fun of in America; that white males were continually criticized in the media and made the source of all the bad in the world; that manufacturing jobs had gone overseas and wages were down; that it was all about the abortion issue. In short, I told myself that the reason people voted for Trump was not racism but economics and cultural markers.

Caste complicates and denies this narrative coolly and methodically, but not without passion. Economics and culture factor into what happened, but Wilkerson’s book has convinced me that a much larger part, a deeper current we can’t always see, is what I’ve heard Bruce Springsteen call “the browning of America.” It has taken me a long time to see this. Perhaps I have not wanted to see it, because it means looking into my heart and confronting all the times I should have spoken up but did not; the times I took for granted, subconsciously, my own “superiority”; the times I laughed at or smirked at comments that belittled people of other races, most often Black people. I feel as though a fire that was lit inside me by the Collected Essays of James Baldwin has been reignited by Isabel Wilkerson.

Wilkerson is the author of The Warmth of Other Suns, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction, as well as a journalist, teacher, and popular lecturer. In this, her latest book, she argues in her latest book that America has a caste system every bit as rigid and deeply rooted (though not as detailed and variegated) as the one in India, and every bit as soul-crushing, demeaning, and cruel as the one the Nazis enforced during their reign. I was skeptical of this argument at first, especially the similarities between Nazi Germany and the South, but Wilkerson makes a convincing case if you are open to it. Many, she knows, will not be; hence the epigram at the beginning of the book, taken from Baldwin: “Because even if I should speak, no one would believe me. And they would not believe me precisely because they would know that what I said was true.” This is paired with a quote from Albert Einstein—an outspoken supporter of the rights of Black people, horrified when he emigrated to America and saw that Blacks were being treated as the Nazis were treating the Jews: “If the majority knew of the root of this evil, then the road to its cure would not be long.”

To expose “the root of this evil” so that it can be cured is Wilkerson’s goal. It begins by defining what this root is: the fact that since before our country was founded, from when the first settlers of Jamestown, Virginia, bought and sold slaves in 1619, Blacks have been the lowest caste in America, and all other immigrants besides the original English have had to show how “white” they are in order to stay above the lowest caste and enjoy the privileges and opportunities of their new country. The more the Germans, Irish, and Italians could make themselves “white,” the faster they could move up in society. “In the American caste system,” Wilkerson writes, “the signal of rank is what we call race, the division of humans on the basis of their appearance. In America, race is the primary tool and the visible decoy, the front man, for caste.” She tells us that for our country to heal its divisions, we must first understand their cause:

[I]n the same way that individuals cannot move forward, become whole and healthy, unless they examine the domestic violence they witnessed as children or the alcoholism that runs in their family, the country cannot become whole until it confronts what was not a chapter in its history, but the basis of its economic and social order. For a quarter millennium, slavery was the country.

I’m not sure about the last sentence of that paragraph. Elsewhere Wilkerson compares a country to a house: when there are problems with the plumbing or the walls or the foundation, you have to face the problems or they will just get worse. Continuing that analogy, even if slavery was the economic foundation of much of our country, does it follow that the whole house was a wreck? If slavery was all that our house was about, it would not be worth saving from falling. Why not burn it all down if it is all rotten?

Nevertheless, the part of the foundation that was rotten was very rotten. Wilkerson continues with a citation from legal historian Ariela J. Gross:

What the colonists created was “an extreme form of slavery that had existed nowhere else in the world. . . . For the first time in human history, one category of humanity was ruled out of the ‘human race’ and into a separate subgroup that was to remain enslaved for generations in perpetuity.”

The Greeks and Romans had slaves, but they were usually the results of war, and slaves occasionally won their freedom back. Not so in America.

In the movie I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin tells an audience that he does not believe in “race.” He does not have time to elaborate in the film, but Wilkerson does. She points out that “Two decades ago, analysis of the human genome established that all human beings are 99.9 percent the same.” She quotes J. Craig Venter, the geneticist in charge of the genome mapping, as saying, “We all evolved in the last 100,000 years from the small number of tribes that migrated out of Africa and colonized the world,” and adds an explication:

Which means that an entire racial system, the catalyst of hatreds and civil wars, was built on what the anthropologist Ashley Montagu called, “an arbitrary and superficial selection of traits,” derived from a few of the thousands of genes that make up a human being. “The idea of race,” Montagu wrote, “was, in fact, the deliberate creation of an exploiting class seeking to maintain and defends its privileges against what was profitably regarded as an inferior caste.”

In arguing that what she calls “casteism” should be recognized as a deeper and harder-to-unroot level than “racism,” Wilkerson writes, “Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you.”

II

The most eye-opening chapter in Caste, to my mind, is titled “The Nazis and the Acceleration of Caste.” In all of our recent political upheaval, both sides have hurled the term “Nazi” at one another, but we should all fall silent before the knowledge that the Nazis looked to our segregation laws in developing their own plans for the Jews. Wilkerson quotes Yale legal historian James Q. Whitman: “In debating ‘how to institutionalize racism in the Third Reich . . . they began by asking how the Americans did it.’” This is the parallel Einstein noticed when he came to America, but it is harder to see when one has grown up in a society in which the inferiority of one race has been taken for granted for 400 years. When you were taught as a child, as I was, that Robert E. Lee was a noble figure, that the War Between the States was about economics, that the South was not about slavery but rather about gentility, manners, and the myth of the “Southern gentleman,” it is a shock to read the following:

The Nazis were impressed by the American custom of lynching its subordinate caste of African-Americans, having become aware of the ritual torture and mutilations that typically accompanied them. Hitler especially marveled at the American “knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death.”

Let’s pause here for a moment. Hitler “marveled” at how Americans saw themselves as innocent “in the wake of mass death.” This lesson, then, inspired the Nazis to see themselves as innocent in the wake of the Holocaust. Wilkerson continues:

By the time that Hitler rose to power, the United States “was not just a country with racism,” Whitman, the Yale legal scholar, wrote. “It was the leading racist jurisdiction—so much so that even Nazi Germany looked to America for inspiration.” The Nazis recognized the parallels even if many Americans did not.

However, the Nazis did not go as far as America did with its “one-drop rule” that said if a person had one drop of Black blood, he or she was Black. That rule, Wilkerson quotes Whitman as saying, was “too harsh” for the Nazis.

There was something else the Nazis did not do: make postcards of their atrocities:

This was singularly American. “Even the Nazis did not stoop to selling souvenirs of Auschwitz,” wrote Time magazine many years later. Lynching postcards were so common a form of communication in turn-of-the twentieth-century America that lynching scenes “became a burgeoning subdepartment of the postcard industry. By 1908, the trade had grown so large, and the practice of sending postcards featuring the victims of mob murderers had become so repugnant, that the U.S. postmaster general banned the cards from the mails.” But the new edict did not stop Americans from sharing their lynching exploits. From then on, they merely put the postcards in an envelope.

Wilkerson notes that one of the witnesses to a riot-lynching in Omaha and called it “the most horrendous sight I’ve ever seen” was Henry Fonda, whose sense of justice led him to often play characters who call “for a life to be spared.”

III

In part 3 of her book, “The Eight Pillars of Caste,” Wilkerson describes the “ancient principles” she found in common between the caste systems of India, the Nazis, and America. Pillar number one is “Divine Will and the Laws of Nature.” Both India and America rooted their caste systems in sacred scripture. Christians said that Black people were the descendants of Ham, who had seen his father Noah naked and whom Noah had cursed as a result. Because Noah had cursed Ham and Ham had headed south, supposedly to Africa, and the descendants of Japheth to the west, the descendants of Ham could be enslaved and used for profit.

The second pillar is “Heritability,” the idea that there is “a social hierarchy determined at birth.” Or, to paraphrase Lebron James, no matter what you do in life, if you are an African American, that will always be the most important thing about you. The third is “Endogamy and the Control of Marriage and Mating,” or the establishing of laws against racial intermarriage. The section on the fourth pillar, “Purity versus Pollution,” contains some shocking stories about the lengths to which white people would go to never swim in the same water as a Black person. The Nazis did the same to Jews, who could not step on the beaches of their summer homes. Blacks and whites could not even touch the same Bible when swearing to tell the truth in the courtroom—there were two Bibles, one for each race.

The fifth pillar, “Occupational Hierarchy,” explores how Blacks were forced to become entertainers and athletes to move up in society. The sixth, “Dehumanization and Stigma,” speaks for itself. As Wilkerson writes, “Both Nazi Germany and the United States reduced their out-groups, Jews and African-Americans, respectively, to an undifferentiated mass of nameless, faceless scapegoats, the shock absorbers of the collective fears and setbacks of each nation.” This treatment included “gruesome medical experimentation at the hands of dominant-caste physicians.”

The seventh pillar is “Terror as Enforcement, Cruelty as a Means of Control.” Wilkerson points out how the Nazis and the Southern plantation owners both “sowed dissension among the subordinate caste by creating a hierarchy among the captives, rewarding those who identified more with the oppressor rather than the oppressed. . . . They would select a captive they felt they could control and elevate that person above the others.”

The final pillar is “Inherent Superiority versus Inherent Inferiority.” What strikes the reader here is that the Nazis lasted only 12 or so years, but Black people have been treated as inferior for centuries, forced, as the Jews were, to step off sidewalks into the gutter for their “betters” and kept in place with “the bullet or a rope”:

It was the spring of 1944, the same year that a black boy was forced to jump to his death, in front of his stricken father, over the Christmas card the boy had sent to a white girl at work. In that atmosphere, a sixteen-year-old African-American girl thought about what should befall Hitler. She won the student essay contest with a single sentence: “Put him in a black skin and let him live the rest of his life in America.”

Wilkerson goes on to recount how, after World War II, Blacks were not given loans for affordable housing as white people were; how “white felons applying for a job were more likely to get hired than African-Americans with no criminal record”; how Blacks who tried their best to advance in society were the ones punished the most for being “uppity” (a word I often heard as a child).

Bringing things up to the present day, Wilkerson explores how a curious thing began happening in the 1990s: poor, relatively uneducated white men began killing themselves, often with opiates, in droves. Some of this was due to economics, she writes, but also—and her claim comes backed with data and research—because many of these white men did not know who they were anymore and sensed they were losing their inherited superiority, the last thing of value they had. They couldn’t stand to be on the bottom rung. As Baldwin points out in his essays, thinking you are superior to another group of people hurts you just as much as it hurts the victim. This forces the “superior” caste into “a narcissistic isolation from those assigned to lower categories.” Groups of people can be narcissists, gazing into the mirror of their collective nostalgia for the “good old days.” And then a leader comes along who they can relate to. Wilkerson draws here on the work of psychologist Erich Fromm:

The right kind of leader can inspire a symbiotic connection that supplants logic. The susceptible groups sees itself in the narcissistic leader, becomes one with the leader, sees his fortunes and his fate as their own. “The greater the leader,” Fromm wrote, “the greater the follower. . . . The narcissism of the leader who is convinced of his greatness, and who has no doubts, is precisely what attracts the narcissism of those who submit to him.”

This is how Wilkerson explains the phenomenon of Donald Trump’s cultlike following. And it explains why logic and argument cannot gain ground among his followers. As Hannah Arendt noted in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the only way the followers give up is when the leaders leave them in the lurch. Some of the January 6th insurrectionists were shocked when Trump did not accompany and lead them to victory. The scales on their eyes fell away. But what will it take to make the scales fall from the eyes of a third of Americans?

Wilkerson believes that taking down Confederate statues is a start (Pope Francis has expressed a different view). Electing our first Black president was a positive step, too, but we have to turn back and face the truth of our past. We have to expose and repair the rotten foundation of our country before we can live up to its promise. But we also, and perhaps this is most important, must reach out to other people:

If each of us could truly see and connect with the humanity of the person in front of us, search for that key that opens the door to whatever we may have in common, whether cosplay or Star Trek of the loss of a parent, it could begin to affect how we see the world and other in it, perhaps change the way we hire or even vote. Each time a person reaches across caste and makes a connection, it helps to break the back of caste. Multiplied by millions in a given day, it becomes the flap of a butterfly wing that shifts the air and builds to a hurricane across an ocean.

If you are discerning which book on race to read of the many noteworthy volumes that have come out over the past several years, Caste is the one I would recommend. It is not an easy read; sometimes I had to pause just to process the stories recounted. It shamed and saddened me, but it also gave me hope that if enough of us “only connect,” in E. M. Forster’s words, things can change. ♦

Frank Freeman’s work has been published in America, Commonweal, Dublin Review of Books, and the Weekly Standard, among others. He lives in Maine with his wife and four children, dog, cat, and four chickens. He hopes to have his books published some fine day. 

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