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February 1, 2021 in Library Corner
By Robin Jacobson.
As a child, learning in school about the American Civil War, I felt relieved that my family bore no guilt for American slavery. During the sad centuries when Americans brutally enslaved other human beings, my ancestors, thankfully (it seemed to me) were far away in some Eastern European shtetl. Hearing about the toxic remnants of slavery, such as racial discrimination, upset me and made me to want to help, but not because I felt responsible. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, a powerful social history by Pulitzer Prize-winner Isabel Wilkerson, shatters that narrow perspective with one compelling metaphor.
Americans of today, says Wilkerson, are like homeowners who inherit an old house, built generations ago, with patched cracks and papered-over structural flaws:
Not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now.
To Wilkerson, the United States is a grand old house which, despite multiple renovations, still creaks and wobbles due to an uncorrected foundational flaw – the elevation of some groups over others, based on ancestry and skin color. And although today’s Americans did not lay that foundation, we bear the responsibility, Wilkerson contends, for repairing the house we inherited.
Caste, as the title suggests, explores the problem of racial discrimination in the United States through the lens of “caste” rather than “race.” Although the two terms are not synonymous, Wilkerson finds it more constructive to discuss American societal divisions in terms of caste. The word “racism,” she believes, has become “radioactive,” resented and resisted because it is seen as a judgment on whether one is a good person.
A “caste system,” in Wilkerson’s definition, “ranks the human value of one group over another on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits.” Within the United States, she says, the system’s two poles are European Americans at the top and African Americans at the bottom.
To illuminate the American situation, Wilkerson examines caste systems in India and Nazi Germany. In India, Wilkerson reports, the ancient Hindu caste system, officially abolished yet still lingering, ranks the “Brahmins” highest and the so-called “Untouchables,” now called “Dalits” (“broken people”), lowest.
In 1959, Martin Luther King, Jr. visited India, eager to see the homeland of his hero, Mohandas Gandhi, who inspired King’s philosophy of non-violent protest. Introduced as a “fellow Untouchable” at a school for Dalit students, King initially recoiled, but then recognized and agreed that this label aptly described him and other black Americans.
In Nazi Germany, Hitler’s functionaries modeled the infamous Nuremberg Laws after American race laws banning interracial marriage and establishing segregated facilities. But in the Nazi legal system, Jews replaced African Americans as the despised race. Jews were untermenschen, subhumans targeted first for persecution and later for elimination. Chillingly, the Nazis even used methods of torture and terror long rooted in the American South.
Caste deftly blends perspectives from multiple disciplines – history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science, and philosophy – with Wilkerson’s personal experience as an African American. Throughout, Wilkerson acts as a “house inspector,” aiming her infrared lens at the hidden fissures and flaws in America’s old house. Her fervent hope is that Americans, made more aware, will finally undertake meaningful, long-overdue repairs to our home.