Read Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents Online
Authors: Isabel Wilkerson
These are the historic origins, the pillars upholding a belief system, the piers beneath the surface of a caste hierarchy. As these tenets took root in the firmament, it did not matter so much whether the assumptions were true, as most were not. It mattered little that they were misperceptions or distortions of convenience, as long as people accepted them and gained a sense of order and means of justification for the cruelties to which they had grown accustomed, inequalities that they took to be the laws of nature.
These are the pillars of caste, the ancient principles that I researched and compiled as I examined the parallels, overlap, and commonalities of three major caste hierarchies. These are the principles upon which a caste system is constructed, whether in America, India, or Nazi Germany, beliefs that were at one time or another burrowed deep within the culture and collective subconscious of most every inhabitant, in order for a caste system to function.
Before the age of human awareness, according to the ancient Hindu text of India, Manu, the all-knowing, was seated in contemplation, when the great men approached him and asked him, “Please, Lord, tell us precisely and in the proper order the Laws of all the social classes as well as of those born in between.”
Manu proceeded to tell of a time when the universe as we know it was in a deep sleep, and the One “who is beyond the range of senses,” brought forth the waters and took birth himself as Brahma, the “grandfather of all the worlds.”
And then, to fill the land, he created the Brahmin, the highest caste, from his mouth, the Kshatriya from his arms, the Vaishya from his thighs, and, from his feet, the Shudra, the lowest of the four
or divisions of man, millennia ago and into the fullness of time.
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.
The Brahmin is by Law the lord of this whole creation,” according to the Laws of Manu. “It is by the kindness of the Brahmin that other people eat.”
Unmentioned among the original four
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.
In the words of the sacred text of the Western world, the Old Testament, there had been a Great Flood. The windows of heaven had opened, along with the fountains of the deep, and all of humankind was said to have descended from the three sons of the patriarch Noah. By divine instruction, they survived the floodwaters in an ark, for more than forty days and forty nights, and thereafter, Noah became a man of the soil. His sons were Shem, Ham, and Japheth, who would become the progenitors of all humanity.
One season, Noah planted a vineyard, and he later drank of the wine of the fruit of the vineyard. The wine overtook him, and he lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, who would become the father of a son, Canaan, happened into the tent and saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders. They walked backward into the tent and covered their father’s nakedness. Their faces were turned in the other direction so that they would not see their father unclothed. When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what Ham had done, he cursed Ham’s son, Canaan, and the generations to follow, saying, “
Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.”
The story of Ham’s discovery of Noah’s nakedness would pass down through the millennia. The sons 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.
And thus, a hierarchy evolved in the New World they created, one that set those with the lightest skin above those with the darkest. Those who were darkest, and those who descended from those who were darkest, would be assigned to the subordinate caste of America for centuries.
The curse of Ham is now being executed upon his descendants,” Thomas R. R. Cobb, a leading Confederate and defender of slavery, wrote, 240 years into the era of human bondage in America. “The great Architect had framed them both physically and mentally to fill the sphere in which they were thrown. His wisdom and mercy combined in constituting them thus suited to the degraded position they were destined to occupy.”
Slavery officially ended in 1865, but the structure of caste remained intact, not only surviving but hardening. “
Let the negro have the crumbs that fall from the white man’s table,” Thomas Pearce Bailey, a twentieth-century author, recorded in his list of the caste codes of the American South, echoing the Indian Laws of Manu.
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.
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.
The Virginia General Assembly declared the status of all people born in the colony. “
Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a negro woman should be slave or free,” the Assembly decreed in 1662, “be it therefore enacted and declared by this present Grand Assembly, that all children borne in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.”
With this decree, the colonists were breaking from English legal precedent, the only precepts they had ever known, the ancient order that gave children the status of the father. This new law allowed enslavers to claim the children of black women, the vast majority of whom were enslaved, as their property for life and for ensuing generations. It invited them to impregnate the women themselves if so inclined, the richer it would make them. It converted the black womb into a profit center and drew sharper lines around the subordinate caste, as neither mother nor child could make a claim against an upper-caste man, and no child springing from a black womb could escape condemnation to the lowest rung. It moved the colonies toward a bipolar hierarchy of whites and nonwhites, and specifically a conjoined caste of whites at one end of the ladder and, at the other end, those deemed black, due to any physical manifestation of African ancestry.
Tied conveniently as it was to what one looked like, membership in either the upper or the lowest caste was deemed immutable, primordial, fixed from birth to death, and thus regarded as inescapable. “
He may neither earn nor wed his way out,” wrote the scholars Allison Davis and Burleigh and Mary Gardner in
their seminal 1941 study of caste in America.
It is the fixed nature of
that distinguishes it from
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. Through the years, wealth and class may have insulated some people born to the subordinate caste in America but not protected them from humiliating attempts to put them in their place or to remind them of their caste position.
Centuries after the American caste system took shape along the Chesapeake, the most accomplished of lower-caste people have often found ways to transcend caste, but rarely to fully escape it.
Like the Hindu caste system, the black-white distinction in the United States has supplied a social hierarchy determined at birth, and arguably immutable, even by achievement,” wrote the legal scholars Raymond T. Diamond and Robert J. Cottrol. “Blacks became like a group of American untouchables, ritually separated from the rest of the population.”
In the winter of 2013, the Academy Award–winning actor Forest Whitaker, a distinguished, middle-aged, African-American man, walked into a gourmet delicatessen on the West Side of Manhattan for a bite to eat. Seeing it crowded or not finding what he wanted, he turned to leave without making a purchase, as many customers might. An employee thought it suspicious and blocked him at the door. That level of intervention was uncharacteristic at an establishment frequented by celebrities and college students. The employee frisked him up and down in front of other customers. Finding nothing, he allowed Whitaker, visibly shaken, to leave. The delicatessen owners later apologized for the incident and fired the employee. But the degradation of that moment stayed with the actor. “
It’s a humiliating thing for someone to come and do that,” Whitaker said afterward. “It’s attempted disempowerment.”
Neither wealth nor celebrity has insulated those born to the subordinate caste from the police brutality that seems disproportionately trained on those at the bottom of the hierarchy. In 2015,
New York City police officers broke an NBA player’s leg outside of a nightclub in Manhattan. The injury left the player, a forward for the Atlanta Hawks, disabled for the rest of the season. It resulted in a $4 million settlement, the proceeds of which the player promptly said he would donate to a foundation for public defenders.
In 2018, police officers slammed a former NFL player to the ground after a disagreement he had with another motorist who had thrown coffee at his car, according to news reports.
The video that surfaced that spring shows officers twisting Desmond Marrow’s arms and legs and shoving him facedown onto the pavement. Then they turn him over and hold him down by the throat. He passes out under their weight. After the video went viral, an internal investigation was conducted and an officer was fired.
No matter how great you become in life, no matter how wealthy you become, how people worship you, or what you do,” NBA star LeBron James told reporters just the year before, “if you are an African-American man or African-American woman, you will always be that.”
The framers of the American caste system took steps, early in its founding, to keep the castes separate and to seal off the bloodlines of those assigned to the upper rung. This desire led to the third pillar of caste—endogamy, which means restricting marriage to people within the same caste. This is an ironclad foundation of any caste system, from ancient India, to the early American colonies, to the Nazi regime in Germany. Endogamy was brutally enforced in the United States for the vast majority of its history and did the spade work for current ethnic divisions.
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.
Caste,” wrote Bhimrao Ambedkar, the father of the anti-caste movement in India, “means an artificial chopping off of the population into fixed and definite units, each one prevented from fusing into another through the custom of endogamy.” Thus, “in showing how endogamy is maintained,” he added, “we shall practically have proved the genesis and also the mechanism of Caste.”
Before there was a United States of America, there was endogamy, said to be ordained by God. One of the earliest references to what would come to be known as race in America arose over the matter of sexual relations between a European and an African. In 1630, the Virginia General Assembly sentenced Hugh Davis to a public whipping for having “abused himself to the dishonor of God and the shame of Christians, by defiling his body in lying with a Negro.” The assembly went to the trouble of specifying that Africans, who might not normally be permitted to observe the punishment of a dominant-caste man, had to attend and witness the whipping of Davis. This served a dual function in the emerging caste system. It further humiliated Davis before an audience of people deemed beneath him. And it signaled a warning to those being banished to the lowest caste in a country that did not yet even exist:
If this was the fate of a white man who did not adhere to caste boundaries, so much worse will it be for you.
By the time of Davis’s sentencing, European men had been having sex with African women, often without consent or consequence to themselves, throughout the era of the slave trade, and had grown accustomed to acting upon their presumed sovereignty over Africans. So, for the colonial fathers to condemn Hugh Davis to public humiliation for behavior that many took as a birthright meant that he had crossed a line they found threatening to the hierarchy, something about the way he related to his mate that got their attention and required their intervention. The emerging caste system permitted the exploitation of the lowest caste but not equality, or the appearance of equality, which is why
endogamy, which confers an alliance between equals in the eyes of the law, was strictly policed and rape of lower-caste women ignored.
The case of Hugh Davis was not only the first mention of race and hierarchy in America, but also the first attempt at setting the boundaries of publicly known relationships across caste lines.
Ten years later, another white man, Robert Sweet, was forced to do penance when it came to light that he had gotten an enslaved black woman, owned by another white man, pregnant. By then, the focus of caste enforcement had shifted. In that case, it was the pregnant woman who was whipped, a sign of her degraded caste status despite a medical condition that would have protected her in most civilized nations.
In 1691, Virginia became the first colony to outlaw marriage between blacks and whites, a ban that the majority of states would take up for the next three centuries. Some states forbade the marriage of whites to Asians or Native Americans in addition to African-Americans, who were uniformly excluded. While there was never a single nationwide ban on intermarriage, despite several attempts to enact one,
forty-one of the fifty states passed laws making intermarriage a crime punishable by fines of up to $5,000 and up to ten years in prison. Some states went so far as to forbid the passage of any
law permitting intermarriage. Outside of the law, particularly in the South, African-Americans faced penalty of death for even the appearance of breaching this pillar of caste.
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. Combined with bans on immigrants who were not from Europe for much of American history, endogamy laws had the effect of controlled breeding, of curating the population of the United States. This form of social engineering served to maintain the superficial differences upon which the hierarchy was based, “race” ultimately becoming the result of who was officially allowed to procreate with whom. Endogamy ensures the very difference that a caste system relies on to justify inequality.
What we look like,” wrote the legal scholar Ian Haney López, “the literal and ‘racial’ features we in this country exhibit, is to a large extent the product of legal rules and decisions.”
This pillar of caste was well enough understood and accepted that, as late as 1958, a Gallup poll found that
94 percent of white Americans disapproved of marriage across racial lines. “
You know the Negro race is inferior mentally,” a southern physician told researchers back in 1940, expressing a commonly held view. “Everyone knows that, and I don’t think God meant for a superior race like the whites to blend with an inferior race.”
As this was the prevailing sentiment for most of the country’s history, an unknowable number of lives were lost due to this defining pillar of caste, the presumed breach of which triggered the most publicized cases of lynchings in America. The protocol was strictly enforced against lower-caste men and upper-caste women, while upper-caste men, the people who wrote the laws, kept full and flagrant access to lower-caste women, whatever their age or marital status. In this way, the dominant gender of the dominant caste, in addition to controlling the livelihood and life chances of everyone beneath them, eliminated the competition for its own women and in fact for all women. For much of American history, dominant-caste men controlled who had access to whom for romantic liaisons and reproduction.
This inverted the natural expression of manhood—total freedom for one group and life-or-death policing of another—and served further to reinforce caste boundaries and the powerlessness of subordinated men who might dare try to protect their own daughters, wives, sisters, and mothers. At the same time, it reminded everyone in the hierarchy of the absolute power of dominant-caste men. This was a cloud that hung over the lives of everyone consigned to the lowest caste for most of the time that there has been a United States of America.
In the mid-1830s in Grand Gulf, Mississippi, white men burned a black man alive and stuck his head on a pole at the edge of town for all to see, as a lesson to men in the subordinate caste. The black man had been tortured and beheaded after he stood up and killed the dominant-caste man “
who owned his wife and was in the habit of sleeping with her,” according to a contemporaneous account. As he faced death for taking an extreme and assuredly suicidal step to protect his wife in that world, the doomed husband said that “he believed he should be rewarded in heaven for it.”
More than a century later, in December 1943, an earnest fifteen-year-old boy named Willie James Howard was working during the holiday school break at a dime store in Live Oak, Florida. He was an only child and, having made it to the tenth grade, was expected to exceed what anyone else in the family had been able to accomplish. That December, he made a fateful gesture, unknowing or unmindful of a central pillar of caste. He was hopeful and excited about his new job and wanted so badly to do well that he sent Christmas cards to everyone at work. In one Christmas card, the one to a girl his age named Cynthia, who worked there and whom he had a crush on, he signed, “with L” (for love).
It would seem an ordinary gesture for that time of the year, sweet even, but this was the Jim Crow South; the boy was black, and the girl was white. She showed the card to her father. Word got back to Willie James that his card had somehow disturbed her. So, on New Year’s Day 1944, he hand-delivered an apologetic note trying to explain himself: “
I know you don’t think much of our kind of people but we don’t hate you, all we want [is] to be your friends but you [won’t] let us please don’t let anybody else see this I hope I haven’t made you mad….” He added a rhyme: “I love your name, I love your voice, for a S.H. (sweetheart) you are my choice.”
The next day, the girl’s father and two other white men dragged Willie James and his father to the banks of the Suwannee River. They hog-tied Willie James and held a gun to his head. They forced him to jump and forced his father at gunpoint to watch him drown. Held captive and outnumbered as the father was, he was helpless to save his only child.
The men admitted to authorities that they had abducted the boy and bound his hands and feet. They said he just jumped and drowned on his own. Within days, the boy’s parents fled for their lives. A young Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP alerted the Florida governor, to no avail. The NAACP field secretary, Harry T. Moore, managed to convince the boy’s parents to overcome their terror and to sign affidavits about what had happened the day their son was killed. A local grand jury refused to indict the boy’s abductors, and federal prosecutors would not intervene.
No one was ever held to account or spent a day in jail for the death of Willie James. His abduction and death were seen as upholding the caste order. Thus the terrors of the southern caste system continued, carried forth without penalty. Sanctioned as it was by the U.S. government, the caste system had become not simply southern, but American.