Caste: An American Nightmare

Image by Devika Gupta

Caste has always been thought of as a strictly Indian construct, not an American one, but indeed it is also an American construct. The book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, speaks to the long and often horrifying 400+-year history of caste in America, birthed through slavery. Caste is a book not only about American slavery but also about the very foundation of a sad history in a great nation.

It’s a great pandemic book too, broken down into many chewable chapters, portioned out so that the reader is never lost on the author’s intent and meaning. It’s not loaded up with esoteric language that only a Ph.D. could handle but is written in such a way that it takes little more than an interest in reading true life stories to develop an attachment to the pages.

Isabel Wilkerson, the author, “combines impressive research … with great narrative and literary power,” says The Wall Street Journal, so much so that reading her book feels more like reading a series of short stories, or a book of flash nonfiction, intertwined with an almost poetic narrative, and all held together with one common denominator: caste. There’s a little something-something for instance about Matrix, the movie, in which Wilkerson compares Matrix to how caste is seen as normal in America, so normal that nary an American recognizes how it imprisons us.

Caste strings recountings of little-known horror stories with narrative so adroitly executed that by the time you finish reading it, you’ll feel like you’ve been exposed to a sliver of the Marquis de Sade when you’ve simply been exposed to the the sickening, stomach-turning history of caste in America. Caste intrigues you with one story after another and with some “examples of inconceivable violence.” It might as well be a book about nightmares, and it is: some of its tragedies and horrors too terrific to cite on this blog, so I’ll start with mentioning some of the more non-horrific stories.

There’s one, for instance, about a black girl named Miss Hale who rebukes the container that was built for her with humility and style. There’s a story of a spectacular baseball pitcher named LeRoy “Satchel” Paige, who got his chance at the big leagues when he was almost 60. There’s a story about how Cubans discovered they were white in 1905 Ybor City, Florida. (Yeah, seriously.) And one on how a slave named Onesimus discovered the cure for small pox. Then there’re the less tragic stories like the one about how a teacher turned a bunch of third-graders against each other over the color of their eyes, and there’s one on how a doctor got dragged off an airline flight.

And, then there are the tragic stories, like the one about how Adolf Hitler looked to America for inspiration. There’s one about how a white man got away with murdering his pregnant wife using the caste system. There’s a story about Tamir Rice. There’s one about the Ocoee, Florida, massacre of 1920, and one about how a south Florida man killed himself over Obama’s election.

Photo by Life Matters on

There are also stories from the author’s own experiences. One of them, entitled the Radicalization of the Dominate Caste, was way too similar an experience to one I had with a friend of mine at a restaurant right here in my neighborhood. While you can read Wilkerson’s experience by buying her book, my experience was as such, in a nutshell: I arrived first for lunch with a friend in a small restaurant, sat down near the kitchen, ordered right away, and got served last. I was having such a good time chatting away with my friend and wouldn’t have noticed if it weren’t for him, who pointed it out. My friend was the only black customer in the restaurant.

As best as I can tell, there’re echoes of caste in America every day. Just look at the number of gated and golf communities sprouting on our once naturally pristine landscapes. When you consider the other side of that story — the extreme state of poverty in America, people barely thriving; children living with the most minimal food security — that’s caste.

In my own middle-class community, we live in a food desert with a significant portion of our population unable to access fresh fruits and vegetables for at least a three miles going in any direction. In a newly developed community — coincidently located just three miles away, where the houses are generally priced in the half-million-dollar range — they have a new and very up-scale Publix supermarket (with a mezzanine) just cattycorner from their entrance. Coincidentally the community is named Providence. That’s caste. (Poor governance in my community too but definitely caste.)

If Wilkerson’s book had been written in 2021 instead of just last year, what happened on January 6th — when right-wing Trump supporters violently entered the US Capitol — would have been a story Wilkerson would’ve included in Caste. The police, accorded with safeguarding the Capitol, were not prepared at all, which begs the question of why law enforcement were so prepared for Black Lives Matter protests over the last few years but not for a whole lotta white folks congregating … as if in protest, breaking into the Capitol … as if in an insurrection. That’s caste in play … as in America today.

The short and sweet version of the book is that “they” are the dominant caste, whoever “they” happen to be to you, relative to your rank; and we are divided because “they” divide us. Caste causes people to in-fight, to fight amongst themselves: Who’s got the palest skin? Who’s got the most Caucasian profile? Who’s got the whitest job? Who’s got the most Nordic stock? Who’s got richest heritage of being the dominate caste? That is caste in play in America today.

What if I told you that caste in the United States is primarily based on little more than money, gender and the melanin in your skin? Below is an example of how the American caste system is viewed from the other side of the world and how it’s viewed by public health officials in California. Both show a hyper-simplistic view of caste, but what is important to know is that both also show the hyper-simplistic basis of caste, because caste for all its complexity is based on the simple.

From Pakistan Defence
From Pakistan Defence

The Triangle Model of Caste

The coin model of privilege and critical allyship: implications for health
From BMC Public Health

The Coin Model of Caste

Look familiar?

A simple triangle doesn’t do justice. Neither does a coin. At least not in America. That’s where a book like Caste comes in to explain the levels of intricacies that one mind not think of otherwise. Caste, for example, affects physical health, psychological well-being, and economic security just as much as it affects each itemized social interaction.

Where there’s poverty, there is caste. Where there is an excessive wealth gap, as exists in the US today, there is caste. Before caste is eradicated in America, it will have to receive a massive social reckoning in the form of talking about it.

The taboo, the “let’s-not-talk-about-it” must be broken … that the exclusion of a large part of the colored population from active civil rights by the common practices [of caste] is a slap in the face of the Constitution of the nation.

Albert Einstein 1946 address to the National Urban League

I agree with Einstein. We must talk about it. We must read about it and we must act lest we lose our democracy over it. Wilkerson calls for “radical empathy” to resolve the problem of caste in America. I say, for starters, read her book.

Or, if you prefer, you may leave a comment below. In either case, it is about time we talk about caste.

Postscript: This post is being published in commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day marking the liberation of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, which World War II story happened in part because of the German caste system at the time.

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