A caste system endures because it is often justified as divine will, originating from sacred text or the presumed laws of nature, reinforced throughout the culture and passed down through the generations.
In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, American journalist Isabel Wilkerson, describes racism in the United States as an aspect of a caste system – a society-wide system of social stratification characterized by hierarchy, inclusion and exclusion, and purity. Wilkerson delves into the origins and evolution of classifying and elevating one group of people over another and the consequences of doing so to the presumed beneficiaries and to those targeted as beneath them.
She compares the experience of African-Americans and other people of color in the United States to the caste system in India and the experience of the Jews in Nazi Germany. Wilkerson explores man’s inhumanity to fellow humans based on religious dogma, eugenics, Endogamy, politics, unconscious bias, etc. She defines eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations including divine will, heredity, and dehumanization.
Everything that happened to the Jews of Europe, to African-Americans during the lynching terrors of Jim Crow, to Native Americans as their land was plundered and their numbers decimated, to Dalits considered so low that their very shadow polluted those deemed above them—happened because a big enough majority had been persuaded and had been open to being persuaded, centuries ago or in the recent past, that these groups were ordained by God as beneath them, subhuman, deserving of their fate.
The Vitals of History
Looking beneath the history of one’s country is like learning that alcoholism or depression runs in one’s family or that suicide has occurred more often than might be usual or, with the advances in medical genetics, discovering that one has inherited the markers of a BRCA mutation for breast cancer. You don’t ball up in a corner with guilt or shame at these discoveries.
“In the summer of 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau announced its projection that, by 2042, for the first time in American history, whites would no longer be the majority in a country that had known of no other configuration, no other way to be.“
You don’t, if you are wise, forbid any mention of them. In fact, you do the opposite. You educate yourself. You talk to people who have been through it and to specialists who have researched it. You learn the consequences and obstacles, the options and treatment. You may pray over it and meditate over it. Then you take precautions to protect yourself and succeeding generations and work to ensure that these things, whatever they are, don’t happen again.
Eugenics is the practice or advocacy of improving the human species by selectively mating people with specific desirable hereditary traits. It aims to reduce human suffering by “breeding out” disease, disabilities and so-called undesirable characteristics from the human population.
Like other old houses, America has an unseen skeleton, a caste system that is as central to its operation as are the studs and joists that we cannot see in the physical buildings we call home. Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions. It is the architecture of human hierarchy, the subconscious code of instructions for maintaining, in our case, a four-hundred-year-old social order. Looking at caste is like holding the country’s X-ray up to the light.
A Caste System
A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places. Throughout human history, three caste systems have stood out.
The tragically accelerated, chilling, and officially vanquished caste system of Nazi Germany. The lingering, millennia-long caste system of India. And the shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the United States. Each version relied on stigmatizing those deemed inferior to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement. A caste system endures because it is often justified as divine will, originating from sacred text or the presumed laws of nature, reinforced throughout the culture and passed down through the generations.
The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources—which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence—who is accorded these and who is not.”
Any action or structure that seeks to limit, hold back, or put someone in a defined ranking, seeks to keep someone in their place by elevating or denigrating that person on the basis of their perceived category, can be seen as casteism.
Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you. For those in the marginalized castes, casteism can mean seeking to keep those on your disfavored rung from gaining on you, to curry the favor and remain in the good graces of the dominant caste, all of which serve to keep the structure intact.
Race vs Caste
Caste and race are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive. They can and do coexist in the same culture and serve to reinforce each other. Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin. Race is what we can see, the physical traits that have been given arbitrary meaning and become shorthand for who a person is. Caste is the powerful infrastructure that holds each group in its place.
“Color is a fact. Race is a social construct.”
Caste is fixed and rigid. Race is fluid and superficial, subject to periodic redefinition to meet the needs of the dominant caste in what is now the United States. While the requirements to qualify as white have changed over the centuries, the fact of a dominant caste has remained constant from its inception—whoever fit the definition of white, at whatever point in history, was granted the legal rights and privileges of the dominant caste.
“The use of inherited physical characteristics to differentiate inner abilities and group value may be the cleverest way that a culture has ever devised to manage and maintain a caste system.”
Social scientists often define racism as the combination of racial bias and systemic power, seeing racism, like sexism, as primarily the action of people or systems with personal or group power over another person or group with less power, as men have power over women, whites over people of color, and the dominant over the subordinate.
Caste is structure. Caste is ranking. Caste is the boundaries that reinforce the fixed assignments based upon what people look like. Caste is a living, breathing entity. It is like a corporation that seeks to sustain itself at all costs. To achieve a truly egalitarian world requires looking deeper than what we think we see. We cannot win against a hologram.
Caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy. Caste pushes back against an African-American woman who, without humor or apology, takes a seat at the head of the table speaking Russian.
United States and India
The United States and India are profoundly different from each other—in culture, technology, economics, ethnic makeup. And yet, many generations ago, these two great lands paralleled each other, both protected by oceans and ruled for a time by the British, fertile and coveted. Both adopted social hierarchies and abide great chasms between the highest and the lowest in their respective lands. Both were conquered by people said to be Aryans arriving, in one case, from across the Atlantic Ocean, in the other, from the north. Those deemed lowest in each country would serve those deemed high. The younger country, the United States, would become the most powerful democracy on earth. The older country, India, the largest.
In both countries and at the same time, the lowest castes toiled for their masters—African-Americans in the tobacco fields along the Chesapeake or in the cotton fields of Mississippi, Dalits plucking tea in Kerala and cotton in Nandurbar. Both worked as enslaved people and later for the right to live on the land that they were farming, African-Americans in the system of sharecropping, Dalits in the Indian equivalent, known as saldari, both still confined to their fixed roles at the bottom of their respective worlds.
“What is called “affirmative action” in the United States is called “reservations” in India, and they are equally unpopular with the upper castes in both countries, language tracking in lockstep, with complaints of reverse discrimination in one and reverse casteism in the other.”
The Nazis and the Acceleration of Caste
Hitler had studied America from afar, both envying and admiring it, and attributed its achievements to its Aryan stock. He praised the country’s near genocide of Native Americans and the exiling to reservations of those who had survived. He was pleased that the United States had “shot down the millions of redskins to a few hundred thousand.
THE EIGHT PILLARS OF CASTE
PILLAR NUMBER ONE: Divine Will and the Laws of Nature
India Caste – Manu
The fragment from which each caste was formed foretold the position that each would fill and their placement, in order, in the caste system. From lowest to highest, bottom to top: The Shudra, the feet, the servant, the bearer of burdens. The Vaishya, the thighs, the engine, the merchant, the trader. The Kshatriya, the arms, the warrior, the protector, the ruler. And above them all, the Brahmin, the head, the mouth, the philosopher, the sage, the priest, the one nearest to the gods.
Un-Touchables – Dalits
Unmentioned among the original four varnas were those deemed so low that they were beneath even the feet of the Shudra. They were living out the afflicted karma of the past, they were not to be touched and some not even to be seen. Their very shadow was a pollutant. They were outside of the caste system and thus outcastes. These were the Untouchables who would later come to be known as Dalits, the subordinate caste of India.
The Curse of Ham
It occurs in the context of Noah’s drunkenness and is provoked by a shameful act perpetrated by Noah’s son Ham, who “saw the nakedness of his father.
The story of Ham’s discovery of Noah’s nakedness would pass down through the millennia. The ons of Shem, Ham, and Japheth spread across the continents, Shem to the east, Ham to the south, Japheth to the west, it was said. Those who decreed themselves the descendants of Japheth would hold fast to that story and translate it to their advantage.
As the riches from the slave trade from Africa to the New World poured forth to the Spaniards, to the Portuguese, to the Dutch, and lastly to the English, the biblical passage would be summoned to condemn the children of Ham and to justify the kidnap and enslavement of millions of human beings, and the violence against them. From the time of the Middle Ages, some interpreters of the Old Testament described Ham as bearing black skin and translated Noah’s curse against him as a curse against the descendants of Ham, against all humans with dark skin, the people who the Europeans told themselves had been condemned to enslavement by God’s emissary, Noah himself.
“They found further comfort in Leviticus, which exhorted them, “Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids.” This they took as further license to enslave those they considered religious heathens to build a new country out of wilderness”
The United States and India would become, respectively, the oldest and the largest democracies in human history, both built on caste systems undergirded by their reading of the sacred texts of their respective cultures. In both countries, the subordinate castes were consigned to the bottom, seen as deserving of their debasement, owing to the sins of the past.
These tenets, as interpreted by those who put themselves on high, would become the divine and spiritual foundation for the belief in a human pyramid willed by God, a Great Chain of Being, that the founders would further sculpt in the centuries to follow, as circumstances required. And so we have what could be called the first pillar of caste, Divine Will and the Laws of Nature, the first of the organizing principles inherent in any caste system.
PILLAR NUMBER TWO: Heritability
To work, each caste society relied on clear lines of demarcation in which everyone was ascribed a rank at birth, and a role to perform, as if each person were a molecule in a self-perpetuating organism. You were born to a certain caste and remained in that caste, subject to the high status or low stigma it conferred, for the rest of your days and into the lives of your descendants. Thus, heritability became the second pillar of caste.
In India, it was generally the father who passed his rank to his children. In America, dating back to colonial Virginia, children inherited the caste of their mother both by law and by custom. And in disputes beyond these parameters, a child was generally to take the status of the lower-ranking parent.
Class vs Caste(Fixed)
It is the fixed nature of caste that distinguishes it from class, a term to which it is often compared. Class is an altogether separate measure of one’s standing in a society, marked by level of education, income, and occupation, as well as the attendant characteristics, such as accent, taste, and manners, that flow from socioeconomic status. These can be acquired through hard work and ingenuity or lost through poor decisions or calamity.
If you can act your way out of it, then it is class, not caste.
PILLAR NUMBER THREE: Endogamy and the Control of Marriage and Mating
Endogamy is the practice of marrying within a specific social group, religious group, caste, or ethnic group, rejecting those from others as unsuitable for marriage or other close personal relationships.
Endogamy enforces caste boundaries by forbidding marriage outside of one’s group and going so far as to prohibit sexual relations, or even the appearance of romantic interest, across caste lines. It builds a firewall between castes and becomes the primary means of keeping resources and affinity within each tier of the caste system. Endogamy, by closing off legal family connection, blocks the chance for empathy or a sense of shared destiny between the castes. It makes it less likely that someone in the dominant caste will have a personal stake in the happiness, fulfillment, or well-being of anyone deemed beneath them or personally identify with them or their plight.
“Endogamy, in fact, makes it more likely that those in the dominant caste will see those deemed beneath them as not only less than human but as an enemy, as not of their kind, and as a threat that must be held in check at all costs.”
- The Supreme Court did not overturn these prohibitions until 1967. Still, some states were slow to officially repeal their endogamy laws.
- Alabama, the last state to do so, did not throw out its law against intermarriage until the year 2000. Even then, 40 percent of the electorate in that referendum voted in favor of keeping the marriage ban on the books.
“It was the caste system, through the practice of endogamy—essentially state regulation of people’s romantic choices over the course of centuries—that created and reinforced “races,” by permitting only those with similar physical traits to legally mate. ”
PILLAR NUMBER FOUR: Purity versus Pollution
The fourth pillar of caste rests upon the fundamental belief in the purity of the dominant caste and the fear of pollution from the castes deemed beneath it. Over the centuries, the dominant caste has taken extreme measures to protect its sanctity from the perceived taint of the lower castes. Both India and the United States at the zenith of their respective caste systems, and the short-lived but heinous regime of the Nazis, raised the obsession with purity to a high, if absurdist, art.
“Touching or drawing near to anything that had been touched by an Untouchable was considered polluting to the upper castes and required rituals of purification for the high-caste person following this misfortune. This they might do by bathing at once in flowing water or performing Pranayama breaths along with meditation to cleanse themselves of the pollutants.”
“In Germany, the Nazis banned Jewish residents from stepping onto the beaches at the Jews’ own summer homes, as at Wannsee, a resort suburb of Berlin, and at public pools in the Reich. “They believed the entire pool would be polluted by immersion in it of a Jewish body,” Jean-Paul Sartre once observed.”
“In the United States, the subordinate caste was quarantined in every sphere of life, made untouchable on American terms, for most of the country’s history and well into the twentieth century. In the South, where most people in the subordinate caste were long consigned, black children and white children studied from separate sets of textbooks.”
“In southern courtrooms, even the word of God was segregated. There were two separate Bibles—one for blacks and one for whites—to swear to tell the truth on. The same sacred object could not be touched by hands of different races.”
miscegenation – the interbreeding of people considered to be of different racial types.
Louisiana had a law on the books as recently as 1983 setting the boundary at “one-thirty-second Negro blood.” Louisiana culture went to great specificity, not so unlike the Indian Laws of Manu, in delineating the various subcastes, based on the estimated percentage of African “blood.
- griffe (three-fourths black),
- marabon (five-eighths black),
- mulatto (one-half),
- quadroon (one-fourth),
- octaroon (one-eighth),
- sextaroon (one-sixteenth),
- demi-meamelouc (one-thirty-second), and
- sangmelee (one-sixty-fourth).
The latter categories, as twenty-first-century genetic testing has now shown, would encompass millions of Americans now classified as Caucasian. All of these categories bear witness to a historic American, dominant-caste preoccupation with race and caste purity.
PILLAR NUMBER FIVE: Occupational Hierarchy: The Jatis and the Mudsill
When a house is being built, the single most important piece of the framework is the first wood beam hammered into place to anchor the foundation. That piece is called the mudsill, the sill plate that runs along the base of a house and bears the weight of the entire structure above it. The studs and subfloors, the ceilings and windows, the doors and roofing, all the components that make it a house, are built on top of the mudsill. In a caste system, the mudsill is the bottom caste that everything else rests upon.
In the Indian caste system, an infinitely more elaborate hierarchy, the subcaste, or jati, to which a person was born established the occupation their family fulfilled, from cleaners of latrines to priests in the temples. Those born to families who collected refuse or tanned the hides of animals or handled the dead were seen as the most polluted and lowest in the hierarchy, untouchable due to the dreaded and thankless though necessary task they were presumably born to fulfill.
Similarly, African-Americans, throughout most of their time in this land, were relegated to the dirtiest, most demeaning and least desirable jobs by definition. After enslavement and well into the twentieth century, they were primarily restricted to the role of sharecroppers and servants—domestics, lawn boys, chauffeurs, and janitors. The most that those who managed to get an education could hope for was to teach, minister to, attend to the health needs of, or bury other subordinate-caste people.
Slavery and Entertainment
Slavery set the artificial parameters for the roles each caste was to perform, and the only job beyond the plow or the kitchen that the caste system openly encouraged of the lowest caste was that of entertainment, which was its own form of servitude in that world. It was in keeping with caste notions of their performing for the pleasure of the dominant caste. It affirmed the stereotypes of innate black physicality, of an earthiness based on animal instinct rather than human creativity and it presented no threat to dominant-caste supremacy in leadership and intellect.
“Making enslaved people perform on command also reinforced their subjugation. They were made to sing despite their exhaustion or the agonies from a recent flogging or risk further punishment. Forced good cheer became a weapon of submission to assuage the guilt of the dominant caste and further humiliate the enslaved.”
African-Americans would later convert the performance role that they were forced to occupy—and the talent they built from it—into prominence in entertainment and in American culture disproportionate to their numbers. Since the early twentieth century, the wealthiest African-Americans—from Louis Armstrong to Muhammad Ali—have traditionally been entertainers and athletes. Even now, in a 2020 ranking of the richest African-Americans, seventeen of the top twenty—from Oprah Winfrey to Jay-Z to Michael Jordan—made their wealth as innovators, and then moguls, in the entertainment industry or in sports.
The message was that, even in an arena into which the lowest caste had been permitted, they were to know and remain in their place.
PILLAR NUMBER SIX: Dehumanization and Stigma
“Dehumanization is a standard component in the manufacture of an out-group against which to pit an in-group, and it is a monumental task. It is a war against truth, against what the eye can see and what the heart could feel if allowed to do so on its own. To dehumanize another human being is not merely to declare that someone is not human, and it does not happen by accident. It is a process, a programming. It takes energy and reinforcement to deny what is self-evident in another member of one’s own species.
A caste system relies on dehumanization to lock the marginalized outside of the norms of humanity so that any action against them is seen as reasonable.
Dehumanize the group, and you have completed the work of dehumanizing any single person within it. Dehumanize the group, and you have quarantined them from the masses you choose to elevate and have programmed everyone, even some of the targets of dehumanization, to no longer believe what their eyes can see, to no longer trust their own thoughts. Dehumanization distances not only the out-group from the in-group, but those in the in-group from their own humanity. It makes slaves to groupthink of everyone in the hierarchy.
“Dehumanization is a joint creation of biology, culture and the architecture of the human mind,” Smith wrote. “The human story is filled with pain and tragedy, but among the horrors that we have perpetrated on one another, the persecution and attempted extermination of the Jewish people, the brutal enslavement of Africans, and the destruction of Native American civilizations in many respects are unparalleled.”
Nazi and United States
Both Nazi Germany and the United States reduced their out-groups, Jews and African-Americans, respectively, to an undifferentiated mass of nameless, faceless scapegoats, the shock absorbers of the collective fears and setbacks of each nation.
Germany blamed Jews for the loss of World War I, for the shame and economic straits that befell the country after its defeat, and the United States blamed African-Americans for many of its social ills.
In both cases, individuals were lumped together for sharing a single, stigmatizing trait, made indistinct and indistinguishable in preparation for the exploitation and atrocities that would be inflicted upon them. Individuals were no longer individuals. Individuality, after all, is a luxury afforded the dominant caste. Individuality is the first distinction lost to the stigmatized.
PILLAR NUMBER SEVEN: Terror as Enforcement, Cruelty as a Means of Control
The only way to keep an entire group of sentient beings in an artificially fixed place, beneath all others and beneath their own talents, is with violence and terror, psychological and physical, to preempt resistance before it can be imagined. Evil asks little of the dominant caste other than to sit back and do nothing. All that it needs from bystanders is their silent complicity in the evil committed on their behalf, though a caste system will protect, and perhaps even reward, those who deign to join in the terror.
Above all, the people in the subordinate caste were to be reminded of the absolute power the dominant caste held over them. In both America and in Germany, people in the dominant caste whipped and hanged their hostages for random and capricious breaches of caste, punished them for the natural human responses to the injustice they were being subjected to.
Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe, African-Americans in the antebellum and Jim Crow South, and Dalits in India were all at the mercy of people who had been fed a diet of contempt and hate for them, and had incentive to try to prove their superiority by joining in or acquiescing to cruelties against their fellow humans.
PILLAR NUMBER EIGHT : Inherent Superiority versus Inherent Inferiority
Beneath each pillar of caste was the presumption and continual reminder of the inborn superiority of the dominant caste and the inherent inferiority of the subordinate. It was not enough that the designated groups be separated for reasons of “pollution” or that they not intermarry or that the lowest people suffer due to some religious curse, but that it must be understood in every interaction that one group was superior and inherently deserving of the best in a given society and that those who were deemed lowest were deserving of their plight.
At every turn, the caste system drilled into the people under its spell the deference due those born to the upper caste and the degradation befitting the subordinate caste. This required signs and symbols and customs to elevate the upper caste and to demean those assigned to the bottom, in small and large ways and in everyday encounters.
During the height of the caste systems in America, in India, and in the Third Reich, the lowest caste was not permitted to bear the symbols of success and status reserved for the upper caste. They were not to be dressed better than the upper caste, not to drive better cars than the upper caste, not to have homes more extravagant than the upper caste should they manage to secure them.
As scapegoats, they are seen as the reason for societal ills. The scapegoats are blamed for a crime rate that they alone do not cause and for drugs that they are no more likely to use than the dominant caste, but for which they are incarcerated at six times the rate as whites accused of similar offenses. Thousands of African-Americans are behind bars for having been in possession of a substance that businessmen in the dominant caste are now converting to wealth in the marijuana and CBD industry.
All the Best in your quest to get Better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.