Sunday, February 13, 2022

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Caste was thought to be another form of racism, however the author points out that caste is more basic.  Caste is society's way of classifying and ranking humans and it can be done in many forms.  Racism is a common factor in caste,   Racism is a tool that fits with caste, but other tools are available. Human psychology is more basic.

Wilkerson focuses on three examples of a caste system, the United States, India and Nazi Germany.  Martin Luther King Jr. had formed the idea that the caste system  of India had similar characteristics to Jim Crow America.  On a visit to that country he was surprised to learn that he was considered an "untouchable."  At first he thought it strange, but later agreed.  To the Indian  that term, "untouchable" was the lowest of the low.  

Bhimrao Ambedkar was born an untouchable, but as an educated and politically active man he was able to change the official designation  to "Dalit" which translates to "broken."

Europeans in North America at first tried to use indigenous people as slaves, but found they were too subject to European diseases, but learned that Africans were not.  Many Americans think slavery is old history, but in fact it formed a key factor in the American economy that has impacts today.

Wilkerson notes 8 pillars of a caste system.  It has a divine justification.  Your rank is inheredited.  Endogamy meaning marriage and sex only within the caste.  Purity must be maintained with very restricted contact.  A division of labor which dictates your occupation is dictated by one's position in the hierarchy meaning the most distasteful jobs are done by the lowest.  The lowest are dehumanized in a variety of ways.  Rules are enforced by terrorizing.  Superiority of the dominant caste is demanded on every occasion.

It is common for the dominant caste to use the the subservient caste as scapegoats.  The Nazis famously blamed Jews for their loss in the Great War.  Confederates blamed their former slaves for their loss.  Today blacks are blamed for high crime rates and drugs.  Whites with money commercialized  marijuana and CBD.  Blaming blacks for economic problems overlooked that they had very little influence on the economy and were more often the victims.  

The 2008 financial crisis had its roots in abuse of blacks.  They had been targeted for subprime loans that were misleading, leading to ever greater debt.  Proving successful, the financiers moved to whites.  The end result was houses were abandoned and investors found themselves with declining assets.  

Black American men have relatively high blood pressure compared to white men.  Sub Saharan men actually have lower blood pressure.  Prejudice does have an impact.  Black women die at higher rates when giving birth.  Life expectancy is less for blacks than whites.  However it should be noted that the overall expectancy for Americans is the lowest of all the major industrial countries.  Education results are also poorer for relative lack of financial support/  

Albert Einstein, the great physicist had fled Germany just before the Nazis had taken over.  He identified blacks as oppressed and spoke up.  He had provided housing for famous singer Marian Anderson when she had been refused hotel accommodation in Princeton, New Jersey.  Einstein joined the NAACP and spoke out against lynching.  He felt "I can escape the feeling of complicity in it <lynching> only by speaking out."

By 2042 non whites are predicted to be in the majority of Americans, creating fear and repulsion among whites.  Wilkerson points out that whites are not likely to lose their dominant financial powers.  In South Africa whites have maintained a strong economic position.  It may also turn out the definition of "white" might loosen a bit.  

Wilkerson points out that Germany has no monuments to Nazism, but did for the victims.  Displaying a swastika was a punishable crime.  The government pays restitution to the Nazi victims, including to the state of Israel.  By contrast the American government paid restitution to the former slave holders rather than to the former enslaved. 

Black movie stars and athletes have moved up in class, but not caste .  They could still be humiliated and reminded that they are part of subordinate caste.  Slave owners often listened to their slaves singing and liked to see their smiling faces and as a demonstration of thier power, encouraging their underlings to entertain as a show Hattie McDonald won the first Oscar for a black, but had to play a very subordinate role to Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara.

Barrack Obama was supposed to herald the post racial era.  Isabel offers contrary evidence.  Both Barrack and his wife were both Harvard grads and good speakers.  They were up against John McCain who made a few mistakes, including picking Sarah Palin as a running mate.  To tip the scales further towards Obama there was a financial disaster just before the election.  Despite these advantages Obama lost the white vote, with only 43% of the white vote in 2008 which fell to 39% in 2016.  Not only that but hate groups increased membership.  

In 2016, white women preferred Donald Trump, a fraudster and womanizer to Hilary Clinton, a champion of women"s rights.  Wilkerson maintains that unlike the Republicans the Democrats didn't support their base enough.  Evangelicals, the base for the Republicans wanted a ban on abortions, restrict immigration, protect gun rights, a denial of climate change and these desires were reflected in the Republican platform.  Wilkerson feels the Democrats don't support their base which is blacks and other non whites to the same degree, taking their votes too much for granted.

About the same time while reading this book I also watched a satirical film "Watermelon Man" (1970) written and directed by Melvin Van Peebles.  A bigoted man is transposed to be a black man and we see a lot of payback, but some insight. Apparently as a white man the Godfrey Cambridge character had sold one sided insurance policies to black families, but as a black man he advised them to change their policies to something fairer.  Neighbors wanted him to move to protect their house values--but "it's not personal."  His wife was upset and said he was taking advantage of their "friends" by being a negro.  At least one woman finds him sexier, but in the end he feels she doesn't appreciate him as a person.

Isabel Wilkerson's last words sum up what could be our future, "A world without caste would set everyone free."  

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