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.
by Jerry Winzig,
Jerry serves as LNL treasurer
A few days ago I saw again a commercial that's been around for a while. It features an older gentleman touting the advantages of owning gold. He says he even likes the feel of gold. At the end, he puts his gold coins in a safe hidden behind a picture on the wall.
I've never liked that commercial. But the gospel reading for LNL today (Nov. 15) was Jesus' Parable of the Talents, where a master entrusts his property to his slaves. This commercial reminds me of the slave who buries his talent in the ground until his master's return.
When Judy and I were married in 1974 and merged our finances together, I discovered that Judy, who was a lay associate for the Lutheran Church in America at the time, and was giving $10 a week to Messiah Lutheran Church. Lay associates didn't make much money, and for that matter, neither did I. I was a practicing Catholic when we were married, and thought I was doing pretty good if I put a dollar into the offering plate at St. Francis Cabrini Catholic Church every week. $10 a week seemed like a big commitment.
Judy told me about Alf Teigen, a long-time member of Messiah whom everyone called Grandma. At the time, Grandma Teigen, a delightful woman who was long past retirement age, worked in the child care center at Messiah. Her husband had left her during the Great Depression, and she had had to do whatever she could – sewing, doing laundry, working various jobs – to support herself and her two daughters. But she felt that all she had had come from God, and so, every Sunday, she gave 10% of her income in the weekly offering before managing to pay the other bills. This was one of her guideposts as she successfully raised her daughters to adulthood, and she contributed her talents in other ways, like being "Grandma" to a child-care center.
This was a transforming experience for this young Catholic guy who was in the process of becoming Lutheran as a result of marriage. Judy and I made a commitment to "tithe" – to give 10% of our income to church. It became an ingrained habit. It also became a commitment, a priority that has helped center all of our financial decisions. We kept up the habit through layoffs, job losses, job changes, Judy going to seminary, my becoming self-employed, and our adoption of three wonderful kids decades apart. During all the intervening years, we never lacked for any real necessities, though we didn't have everything we might have "wanted" at the moment. When Judy died, I didn't think twice about continuing the habit.
I have to admit that, while we went through lots of ups and downs and many challenges, we were never destitute or impoverished. And as the years went on, we were blessed with incomes that improved, and were not hit with medical crises that have ruined some families' finances. So the lesson here may not apply to all. But I've found that setting aside part of my income for giving as a matter of course is an ongoing acknowledgement that God is the source of all that I have. And it helps bring clarity and purpose into what I do with what has been given to me.