Reflecting on caste and hierarchy in America: Anyone else reading Caste by Isabel Wilkerson?
For anyone who's reading the book, what are your thoughts?For anyone who's interested in the book but doesn't have time to read it, including my notes below!********I've tried to spend more time this year reading, diving deeper into history, and listening to the perspectives of others.Many have mentioned that D&I at companies often feels like lip service, that allyship posting on social media isn't necessarily doing the hard work of personal reflection, change and action.The late Congressman John Lewis said that the truth doesn't change, and oftentimes the answer can be found in studying history because it's likely that people, cultures and societies before us have encountered similar challenges and patterns. I recently finished the book "Caste" by Isabel Wilkerson, and found it to be a good book for the collective conversations our culture is having around racial justice and bias.********Notes: Caste by Isabel Wilkerson[These are notes from the book, not necessarily my views]Key Idea:Caste (not race) underpins American society → race is the surface-level construct; caste is the underpinningU.S. caste based systems works to keep “lower” castes at the bottomDefinitions used to construct book:Caste system: structure of human hierarchy created by man-made divisionsDominant caste: ruling majority, favored caste, upper caste; Caucasian, “White”Middle caste: Latino, AsianSubordinate caste: lowest caste, bottom caste, historically stigmatized (African American, Black)Original, conquered, indigenious people: Native AmericanMarginalized people: women of any race, minorities of any kindHistorical ContextPhase 1: Economic exploitation → physical captivityAmerica as a new country needed supply of cheap, controllable labor to extract wealth from the new worldAfrican slaves had knowledge of similar crops (sugar, corn, etc.), were physically strong, and immune to many diseases that wiped out Native AmericansThe last fact led European settlers to begin to wipe out and remove Native Americans from their landsTo have a steady supply of labor, European colonists created two labor funnels: 1) European indentured servants and poor whites 2) African slavesKey difference was African slaves and their descendants would be owned in perpetuityTo justify this treatment and working hours of 14-15 hours a day, African American slaves were dehumanized in every wayPhase 2: Cultural conditioningTherefore, two distinct poles emerged in American society: White and BlackThese are artificial constructs because in African countries, no one identified as “black” but instead as Yoruba, Yulu, Shona, etc.And prior to coming from America, no one from Europe identified as “white” - they were Italian, Polish, German, etc.But in America, since being Black meant you were enslaved, dehumanized, terrorized, Black and White took on life and death meaningEvery new wave of immigrants saw this and moved towards the White side of the spectrumTo get acceptance, to identify as White, they often participated in the violence and prejudice against African AmericansPhase 3: Hardening of caste into institutionsAfter Civil War, African Americans became “free” but had no land, money, or economic empowermentThey were not paid restitutions in the way Holocaust survivors were; instead slave owners were the ones paid restitutions for the “loss” of their propertyAfter the North abandoned reconstruction in an act of political horse trading, terror reigned in the SouthAttack on freedom: Black Americans were systematically imprisoned and forced to work in labor gangs (13th Amendment loophole that prisoners could be forced to be unpaid laborers)Laws: legislation to discriminate against Blacks and keep everything separateDaily attack on life and liberty: Blacks killed trying to vote, for being out of place; any economic progress engendered resentment and often violenceRestrictions on opportunity and wealth building: redlining and denial of opportunities to buy homes, work in many professions, exclusion from public programs like the New DealAs the Civil rights movement and laws began to change, the underworkings of Caste began to morph in new waysPhase 4: Invisible ProgrammingAmerican has been a slave owning land longer than it has been a slave-free RepublicAfter generations of prejudice, discriminition and violence there have been countless cues and norms encoded in every American’s consciousnessIt’s as if we’re all born and given a particular costume based on race, an associated role, and told to act that role our entire lifeEven if that’s that role is not your natural identity, if you play a given role long enough, it becomes part of your identityNotes:The big tragedy in creating these preordained roles, is that millions of people never get to self-realize their potential and society doesn’t maximize its full potentialHistory seems to point to common pattern in cultures and societies to organize people by hierarchiesWhat’s dangerous about caste is the artificial and arbitrary nature of these divisions instead of meritCaste dictates: who gets what privileges and roles, who is accorded power, respect, value and who is notLiberals are perplexed about how poor white voter are “acting against their own self-interests” in how they voteThe author argues that they are in actuality acting in their interests- accepting short-term discomfort (healthcare, clean water etc.) to protect longer-term interests (White status and power)In U.S. Blacks and Whites in the same socioeconomic status have been pitted against each other because of race so they don’t organize in their shared best interestsAuthor argues that caste exists to serve those gripping onto power; the rest of us are like puppets that carry on a given scriptThe invisibility of caste is what gives it its powerCaste is a zero-sum game; when some individuals move up the ladder, others are in a lower relative positionOftentimes those in the lower caste will attack its own for moving upEach level relishes that they are higher than some other group (e.g. one manifestation of this is colorism - hierarchy based on skin tone)One doesn’t need to be in the dominant caste to uphold the caste system There doesn’t need to be some deep evil; oftentimes it is simply “unquiet minds of ordinary people needing to feel better than someone else”