Read Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents Online
Authors: Isabel Wilkerson
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.
In some parts of India, the lowest-caste people were to remain a certain number of paces from any dominant-caste person while walking out in public—
somewhere between twelve and ninety-six steps away, depending on the castes in question. They had to wear bells to alert those deemed above them so as not to pollute them with their presence. A person in the lowest subcastes in the Maratha region had to “
drag a thorny branch with him to wipe out his footprints” and prostrate himself on the ground if a Brahmin passed, so that his “foul shadow might not defile the holy Brahmin.”
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 Florida, the books for black children and white children could not even be stored together. African-Americans were prohibited from using white water fountains and
had to drink from horse troughs in the southern swelter before the era of separate fountains.
In southern jails, the bedsheets for the black prisoners were kept separate from the bedsheets for the white prisoners. All private and public human activities were segregated from birth to death, from hospital wards to railroad platforms to ambulances, hearses, and cemeteries. In stores, black people were prohibited from trying on clothing, shoes, hats, or gloves, assuming they were permitted in the store at all. If a black person happened to die in a public hospital, “
the body will be placed in a corner of the ‘dead house’ away from the white corpses,” wrote the historian Bertram Doyle in 1937.
This pillar of caste was enshrined into law in the United States in 1896, after a New Orleans man challenged an 1890 Louisiana law that separated “the white and colored races” in railroad cars. Louisiana had passed the law after the collapse of Reconstruction and the return to power of the former Confederates. A committee of concerned citizens of color came together and raised money to fight the law in court. On the appointed day, June 7, 1892, Homer A. Plessy, a shoemaker who looked white but was categorized as black under the American definition of race, bought a first-class ticket from New Orleans to Covington on the East Louisiana Railroad and took his seat in the whites-only car. In that era, a person of ambiguous racial origin was presumed not to be white, so the conductor ordered him to the colored car. Plessy refused and was arrested, as the committee had anticipated. His case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled seven to one in favor of Louisiana’s “separate but equal” law. It set in motion nearly seven decades of formal, state-sanctioned isolation and exclusion of one caste from the other in the United States.
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.
This pillar of purity, as with the others, endangered the lives of the people in the subordinate caste. One day in the 1930s, a black railroad switchman was working in Memphis and slipped and fell beneath a switch engine. He lay bleeding to death, his right arm and leg severed. “
Ambulances rushed to the man’s aid,” according to reports of the incident. “They took one look, saw that he was a Negro, and backed away.”
The waters and shorelines of nature were forbidden to the subordinate castes if the dominant caste so desired. Well into the twentieth century, African-Americans were banned from white beaches and lakes and pools, both north and south, lest they pollute them, just as Dalits were forbidden from the waters of the Brahmins, and Jews from Aryan waters in the Third Reich.
This was a sacred principle in the United States well into the second half of the twentieth century, and the dominant caste went to great lengths to enforce it. In the early 1950s, when Cincinnati agreed under pressure to allow black swimmers into some of its public pools,
whites threw nails and broken glass into the water to keep them out. In the 1960s, a black civil rights activist tried to integrate a public pool by swimming a lap and then emerging to towel off. “
The response was to drain the pool entirely,” wrote the legal historian Mark S. Weiner, “and refill it with fresh water.”
Decades before, in 1919, a black boy paid with his life and set off a riot in Chicago for inadvertently breaching this pillar of caste. Seventeen-year-old Eugene Williams was swimming in Lake Michigan, at a public beach on the city’s South Side, and happened to wade past the imaginary line that separated the races. He unknowingly passed into the white water, which flowed into and looked no different from the black water. He was stoned and drowned to death for doing so. The tensions over the breaching of boundaries that summer incited the dominant caste and set off one of the worst race riots in U.S. history.
In the decades after, in middle American places like Newton, Kansas, and Marion, Indiana, in Pittsburgh and St. Louis, people in the upper caste rose up in hysterics at the sight of a subordinate-caste person approaching their water. In August 1931, a new public park opened in Pittsburgh, with pools the size of a football field and big enough for ten thousand swimmers. But soon afterward, as the
each Negro who entered the pool yesterday was immediately surrounded by whites and slugged or held beneath the water until he gave up his attempts to swim and left.”
In the summer of 1949,
the city of St. Louis had what was considered the largest city pool in the country, at its Fairground Park. When the city, under pressure from black citizens, took up the issue of allowing black people into the pool, the backlash was immediate. A man who happened to have the same name as the official in charge of integrating the pool required police protection due to the mistaken threats against him. Lifeguards considered quitting in protest.
The day the first African-Americans arrived to swim, a crowd gathered with knives, bricks, and bats. They set upon the black children who had come to swim, forcing them to walk a gauntlet, striking and taunting them. The mob grew to five thousand people, who chased after any black person they saw approaching the park—children on bicycles, a man stepping off a streetcar, a truck stalled in traffic, a black man on a porch at a house next to the park. They kicked him as he lay on the ground, limp and bleeding.
The town of Newton, Kansas, went to the state supreme court to keep black people out of the pool it built in 1935. The city and its contractor argued that black people could never be permitted in the pool, not on alternate days, not at separate hours, not ever, because of the type of pool it was. They told the court that it was “
a circulatory type of pool,” in which “the water is only changed once during the swimming season.” White people, they argued, would not go into water that had touched black skin. “The only way white residents would swim in a pool after blacks,” wrote the historian Jeff Wiltse, “was if the water was drained and the tank scrubbed.” The operators couldn’t do all that every time a black person went into the pool, so they banned black people altogether. The court sided with the city, and, for decades more, the town’s only public pool remained for the exclusive use of the dominant caste.
A public pool outside Pittsburgh solved this problem by keeping black people out until after the season was over in September, which meant it was closed to black swimmers at the precise time that they or anyone else would have wanted to use it. The manager said this was the only way the maintenance crew could get “sufficient time to properly cleanse and disinfect it after the Negroes have used it.”
A white woman in Marion, Indiana, seemed to be speaking for many in the dominant caste across America when she said that white people wouldn’t swim with colored people because they “didn’t want to be polluted by their blackness.” Far from her, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, whites blocked African-Americans at the stairwells and entrances the week the city first allowed black swimmers to its public pool. There, and elsewhere, “every black swimmer that entered the water quite literally risked his or her life,” Wiltse wrote.
It was in this atmosphere, in 1951, that a Little League baseball team in Youngstown, Ohio, won the city championship. The coaches, unthinkingly, decided to celebrate with a team picnic at a municipal pool. When the team arrived at the gate, a lifeguard stopped one of the Little Leaguers from entering. It was Al Bright, the only black player on the team. His parents had not been able to attend the picnic, and the coaches and some of the other parents tried to persuade the pool officials to let the little boy in, to no avail. The only thing the lifeguards were willing to do was to let them set a blanket for him outside the fence and to let people bring him food. He was given little choice and had to watch his teammates splash in the water and chase each other on the pool deck while he sat alone on the outside.
From time to time, one or another of the players or adults came out and sat with him before returning to join the others,” his childhood friend, the author Mel Watkins, would write years later.
It took an hour or so for a team official to finally convince the lifeguards “that they should at least allow the child into the pool for a few minutes.” The supervisor agreed to let the Little Leaguer in, but only if everyone else got out of the water, and only if Al followed the rules they set for him.
First, everyone—meaning his teammates, the parents, all the white people—had to get out of the water. Once everyone cleared out, “Al was led to the pool and placed in a small rubber raft,” Watkins wrote. A lifeguard got into the water and pushed the raft with Al in it for a single turn around the pool, as a hundred or so teammates, coaches, parents, and onlookers watched from the sidelines.
After the “agonizing few minutes” that it took to complete the circle, Al was then “escorted to his assigned spot” on the other side of the fence. During his short time in the raft, as it glided on the surface, the lifeguard warned him over and over again of one important thing. “Just don’t touch the water,” the lifeguard said, as he pushed the rubber float. “Whatever you do, don’t touch the water.”
The lifeguard managed to keep the water pure that day, but a part of that little boy died that afternoon. When one of the coaches offered him a ride home, he declined. “With champion trophy in hand,” Watkins wrote, Al walked the mile or so back home by himself. He was never the same after that.
The American caste system was an accelerated one, compressed into a fraction of the time that India’s caste system has been in existence. Its founders used the story of Noah and his sons to justify the bottom of the hierarchy but, without further biblical instruction, as in the Laws of Manu, they shaped the upper caste as they went along. This policing of purity in the United States began with the task of defining the dominant caste itself.
While all the countries in the New World created hierarchies with Europeans on top, the United States alone created a system based on
racial absolutism, the idea that a single drop of African blood, or varying percentages of Asian or Native American blood, could taint the purity of someone who might otherwise be presumed to be European, a stain that would thus disqualify the person from admittance to the dominant caste. This was a punitive model of racial superiority as opposed to the South African model, which rewarded those with any proximity to whiteness and created an official mid-caste of colored people as a buffer between black and white. South Africa granted privileges on a graded scale based on how much European blood was thought to be coursing through one’s veins, seeing “white” blood as a cleansing antiseptic to that of lowlier groups in the purity-pollution paradigm. Both were forms of white supremacy crafted to fit the demographics of each country. South Africa’s white minority had an incentive to grow its power and numbers by granting honorary whiteness to those deemed close enough. The white majority in the United States had no such incentive and, in fact, benefited by elevating itself and holding those fewer in number apart and beneath them to serve as their subordinates.
Degradation, resulting from the taint of blood, adheres to the descendants of Ham in this country, like the poisoned tunic of Nessus,” wrote Joseph Henry Lumpkin, the antebellum chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, managing to combine Greek mythology and two pillars of caste—divine will and pollution —into a single ruling. (The mythical tunic was the blood-soaked garment of the fallen centaur Nessus, which came to represent inescapable misfortune and ruin to those who wore it.)
The founders labored from the start over who should be allowed into the dominant caste. The vast majority of human beings, including many who are now considered white, would not have fit their definition. Twenty-five years before the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin worried that, with its growing German population, Pennsylvania would “
become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us, instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”
Ultimately, the dominant caste used immigration and marriage law to control who could join its ranks and who would be excluded. That took constant redefinition. “
The law could not separate what it failed to categorize,” wrote the legal scholars Raymond T. Diamond and Robert J. Cottrol. “A legally mandated caste system needed at a minimum to define caste membership.”
At first, Congress, in 1790, restricted American citizenship to white immigrants, “free white persons,” according to the statute. But “whiteness” had yet to be settled, and by the mid-nineteenth century, with millions of people immigrating from Germany and fleeing famine in Ireland, supremacists on both sides of the Atlantic fretted over what was to become of a country flooded by “
the most degenerate races of olden day Europe,” in the words of Arthur de Gobineau, a widely read nineteenth-century advocate of Aryan supremacy. “They are the human flotsam of all ages: Irish, cross-bred Germans and French, and Italians of even more doubtful stock.”
For most of American history, anyone not Anglo-Saxon fell somewhere on a descending scale of human “pollution.” Like a field marshal defending his flanks in multiple theaters, the dominant caste fought the “tainted” influx of new immigrants with two of the most stringent immigration bans ever enacted, just before and after the turn of the twentieth century.
The country tried to block the flow of Chinese immigrants into the western states with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Then it turned to the immigrants arriving from southern and eastern Europe, the “
scum and offscouring,” as a former Virginia governor put it, newcomers who purportedly brought crime and disease and polluted the bloodlines of America’s original white stock. Congress commissioned an analysis of the crisis, an influential document known as the Dillingham Report, and the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization called hearings as the United States tried to further curate its population.
The moral fiber of the nation has been weakened and its very life-blood vitiated by the influx of this tide of oriental scum,” Rev. M. D. Lichliter, a minister from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, said in his testimony before the committee in 1910. “Our grand Anglo-Saxon character must be preserved, and the pure unmixed blood flowing down from our Aryan progenitors must not be mixed with the Iberic race,” a term applied to southern Italians in the era of eugenics.
The findings set the stage for the 1924 Immigration Act, which restricted immigration to quotas based on the demographics of 1890—that is, before Poles, Jews, Greeks, Italians, and others outside of western Europe had arrived in great numbers.
Their status contested, these groups were not always extended the protections accorded to unassailably “white” people, not then anyway. There was an attempt to exclude Italian voters from “white” primaries in Louisiana in 1903. The decade before, in 1891, eleven Italian immigrants in New Orleans lost their lives in one of the largest mass lynchings in American history, after the police chief was assassinated and the immigrants were seen as the prime suspects. After the lynching, hundreds more were rounded up and arrested. One of the organizers of the lynch mob, John M. Parker, later described Italians as “
just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in [their] habits, lawless, and treacherous.” He went on to be elected governor of Louisiana.
Later, in 1922, a black man in Alabama named Jim Rollins was convicted of miscegenation for living as the husband of a white woman named Edith Labue. But when the court learned that the woman was Sicilian and saw “
no competent evidence” that she was white, the judge reversed the conviction. The uncertainty surrounding whether she was “conclusively” white led the court to take the extraordinary step of freeing a black man who in other circumstances might have faced a lynching had she been seen as a white woman.
By then, a majority of the states had devised, or were in the process of devising, ever more tortured definitions of
Arkansas first defined
one in whom there is a visible and distinct admixture of African blood.” Then in 1911, the state changed it to anyone “who has…any negro blood whatever,” as it made interracial sex a felony. The state of Alabama defined a black person as anyone with “a drop of negro blood,” in its intermarriage ban. Oregon defined as nonwhite any person “with ¼ Negro, Chinese or any person having ¼ Negro, Chinese or Kanaka blood or more than ½ Indian blood.” North Carolina forbade marriage between whites and any person “of Negro or Indian descent to 3rd generation inclusive.” The state of Georgia defined
to mean “no ascertainable trace of Negro, African, West Indian, Asiatic blood.”
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.” There was 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.
Virginia went all in and passed what it called the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which besides prohibiting interracial marriage, defined a white person as one “
who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian.”
The ‘traceable amount’ was meant to ensure that even blacks who did not look black were kept in their place,” wrote Diamond and Cottrol. “Tracing black ancestry as far back as possible became a prerequisite to the smooth functioning of the caste system.”