by Glen Wheeler
In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Pulitzer-Prize-winning, best-selling author Isabel Wilkerson examines the unspoken caste system that has shaped America and shows how our lives today are still defined by a hierarchy of human divisions. These are some of my reflections, learnings, and thoughts about this heavy and thought provoking book.
Why is 1619 an important date in American History? In August of 1619, a pirate ship was offering 20 African slaves for sale in the Virginia Colony a year before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.The pirates had robbed a Spanish slave trader of some of his human cargo and were now trying to make a profit with English settlers who had come to the conclusion that Indigenous Indians do not make good slaves.
However, in order for white colonist to become owners of other human beings you have to create a story of white superiority that designates darker skinned human beings as subhuman or inferior by birth or destiny. This narrative about slaves being like domestic animals to be bought and sold and bred by the owner is the beginning of a type of racism that is structural and economic. Caste is something much deeper than the color of one’s skin. It has been practiced in India for centuries with the lowest caste being untouchables by birth; and was also practiced in Nazi Germany against Jews and gypsies and gay people.
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King were introduced by a high school principal in India to young students whose parents were untouchables, he was introduced as a fellow untouchable from America. Dr. King was at first offended, since he had just had dinner with the Prime Minister of India. However, after he thought about it, he realized that the principal’s introduction was exactly right. He as a black man was an untouchable in America.
Caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, or honor …on the basis of a person’s perceived ranking in the hierarchy. Caste requires a hierarchy: rule by those of higher standing that assume privilege or rank is the natural order of things, and nobody should question their own rank or assignment in the hierarchy. Therefore we understand the indicator of light skin or the myth of white superiority in maintaining the inferior caste of slavery. There is no upward mobility in a caste system, because it is considered to be by divine will that you are assigned your particular caste, whether it be untouchable or privileged. So we see the hangover of separate drinking fountains, swimming pools, bathrooms, lunch counters, and schools that were so common coming into the civil rights movement. Untouchable is literal, despite the irony that a white child may have been nursed, bathed and diapered by a black domestic woman employed by their family as a nanny.
Caste is structural or systemic racism that is rooted in economic privilege of 400 years of myth making that says, if you have darker skin you are an inferior or subhuman being who cannot be as intelligent as light skinned people. This created myth of superiority has been coded into our laws, so that policing, education, employment, and residential patterns have often been caste based. Because of unconscious bias, those of us who are light skinned people are so accustomed to or comfortable with this system that we are not even aware that it exists.
Wilkerson concludes by pointing forward to ways the United States can move beyond the artificial and destructive patterns of separation, and toward hope in our common humanity. As Christians, it is our belief that we are ALL created in the image of God, and in this, we have common ground. If you are interested in understanding how deeply rooted our history of white superiority and dominant culture really is, I highly recommend this book.t
Isabel Wilkerson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Journalism for Feature Writing in 1994, and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction for her debut novel The Warmth of Other Suns.
Glen Wheeler is a member of the Racial Justice Task Force and a retired pastor.