Authors: Isabel Wilkerson
With the resurgence of caste after the 2016 election, people in the dominant caste have been recorded calling the police on ordinary black citizens under a wide range of ordinary circumstances, with videos cropping up almost daily at one point:
In New Haven, Connecticut, a woman called campus police on a graduate student at Yale University who had fallen asleep while studying in the common area of her dormitory. Officers demanded her identification even after she unlocked the door to her dorm room. “
You’re in a Yale building,” an officer said, “and we need to make sure that you belong here.”
In Milwaukee, a woman called the police on a corrections officer whose key fob had malfunctioned as he tried to open his own car door. A man called the police on a software engineer who was waiting for a friend outside a condo building in San Francisco.
As the white man briefed the authorities from his cellphone, the man’s little boy, uncomfortable with his father’s actions, begged him to hang up and let it go.
A woman walking her dog stood and blocked a marketing consultant from getting into his own condo building in St. Louis. She demanded that he show proof that he lived there before she would step aside. When he walked past her, she followed him into the elevator and onto his floor to see if he in fact lived there.
In the video that the man took as a precaution, she can be seen tracking him all the way to his apartment, checking whether he was a resident even after he unlocked his door to go inside.
And a woman began to stalk a black man in Georgia when she saw him out with two white children. From her car, the woman trailed Corey Lewis, their babysitter, as he drove from a Walmart to a gas station and to his home after he did not permit the woman, a complete stranger, to talk with the children alone to see if they were all right. Lewis, a youth pastor who runs an after-school program, started recording the situation on his cellphone. In it, the children can be seen calm and unfazed, buckled in their seatbelts in the back of his car.
His voice is strained and disbelieving. “
This lady is following me,” he says in the video, “all because I got two kids in the back seat that do not look like me.”
The woman called 911 and asked if she should keep following him. She continued to trail him even though she was told not to. By the time Lewis got home, a patrol car had pulled up behind him, an officer heading toward him.
“Jesus have mercy—what is wrong with this country?” a woman outside of the camera frame cried. The officer told the children, a six-year-old boy and a ten-year-old girl, to step out of the car, and Lewis’s voice grew tense. The outcome of this police encounter and his very safety depended on what those children said, and he asked them to please tell the officer who he was.
“Please,” he said to them.
Satisfied that Lewis was, in fact, their babysitter and that the children were okay, the officer, just to be safe, called the parents, who were out at dinner.
“It just knocked us out of our chair,” the children’s father, David Parker, told
The New York Times.
Afterward, a reporter asked one of the children, ten-year-old Addison, what she would tell the woman who followed them that day. Her father told the
her response: “I would just ask her to, next time, try to see us as three people rather than three skin colors, because we might’ve been Mr. Lewis’s adopted children.”
These intrusions of caste would seem to harm the targets more than anyone. Given the widely publicized attacks and shootings of black citizens at the hands of police, most Americans know by now that calling the police on a black person can carry life-and-death consequences. Frivolous calls squander public resources and distract police from actual, serious crime to the detriment of us all.
Beyond that, when any citizen is disrupted in the midst of everyday life and responsibilities, it is, in fact, a societal disruption, a tear in the daily workings of human interaction. These people are part of the American economy, and when they are interrupted, schools and business and institutions suffer an invisible loss in output as their workers get blindsided from their tasks.
These intrusions serve to reinforce caste by derailing lower-caste people, subverting their work lives in an already competitive society, imposing additional burdens not borne by their dominant-caste colleagues as they go about their work, as occurred to me in Michigan some years ago.
I could hear footsteps behind me but paid little attention. This was an airport, and there were footfalls and roller bags all around. I had just landed in Detroit on an early-morning flight from Chicago for interviews I needed to conduct as a national correspondent for
The New York Times
I’d already lost an hour going from Central to Eastern time, and I was thinking of all I’d have to do in the space of the next eight hours. If the first interview was at ten-thirty, and if it took me forty minutes to get downtown, maybe more since this was rush hour, I needed to get straight to the rental car to make this work.
Any delays in the day’s interviews and I might not make the flight back to Chicago that evening. I thought to myself that I’d worry about that later and just get to the Avis bus as soon as I could. I thought about how it always seems that the shuttle you’re looking for is the one that has just pulled off, and no matter what company you’ve booked, the one you need is always the last to show up.
I was walking fast, because I always walk fast, and I was heading to the sliding-glass doors in the direction of the shuttle stop when I heard them. The footsteps were closer and faster and heading toward me. Why would anybody be heading toward me? It was a man and a woman. It happened to be a white man and a white woman, the woman’s light brown hair swinging just above her shoulders as she ran. They had a parka-and-corduroy look about them, and both were out of breath as they reached me.
“We need to talk to you,” they said, walking alongside me.
I could see the shuttle bus lane through the sliding-glass doors, and buses pulling up, and was not fully registering whatever it was they were saying.
“Why are you in Detroit? What are you here for?”
“I’m on business. I’m here for work.”
I was thinking that I did not have time for whatever travel survey they were conducting. And now I could see that Avis was on schedule. The shuttle bus was pulling to the curb. People were queuing up to board.
“I have to catch my shuttle bus,” I told them as I walked out of the terminal doors.
“Where are you coming from?” they asked, one on each side of me now.
“I just flew in from Chicago,” I said, nearing the clot of people in suits and overcoats boarding the shuttle bus.
“Is that where you live?”
“Why are you asking me this? I need to get on the bus.”
“We need to know if you live in Chicago, and what you’re doing in Detroit.”
The last of the passengers were climbing on board. The doors of the bus were wide open. The driver was looking down at me and at them. The man and the woman stood there holding up the bus, holding up the passengers, holding up me.
“What is this for?”
“We’re DEA. We need to know where you live, how long you will be in Detroit, and exactly what you’re doing here.”
This was too preposterous to comprehend. The Drug Enforcement Administration? Why in the world were they stopping me, out of all the travelers at the airport? This was a day trip, so I didn’t have luggage, like a lot of business travelers between cities close to each other. I was in a suit like everyone else, Coach bag slung over my shoulder. Covering the Midwest as I was at the time, I used to tell people that I catch planes like other people catch the subway. Airports were a second home to me. How could they not see that I was like every other business traveler boarding the shuttle?
The people on the bus were checking their watches and glaring down at me through the windows as I stood at the steps. The driver shifted in his seat, and I could hear the shake of the engine, the snort of the brakes, transmission about to shift, the driver’s impatient hand on the door pull.
I blurted out what they wanted to know so that they would leave me alone.
“I live in Chicago. I’m here for the day. I’m a reporter for
The New York Times
. I need to get on this bus.”
“We will allow you to board. We will have to ride with you.”
I was shaking now as I climbed onto the shuttle, its air thick with the scorn of fellow travelers. I looked for an empty seat, people pulling away as I sat down. This whole exchange had delayed everyone on the bus, and for all that anyone could see, it was because of a woman, a black woman who probably didn’t even belong with real business travelers and might be a criminal to boot.
The two agents took seats directly in front of me, staring and assessing, their eyes never leaving me. Twitter did not exist, and there were no cameras on cellphones to go into video mode. The bus was filled with business people, white people, or, I should say, white business people. I was the only African-American on the bus and one of the few women, and there were two agents surveilling me and my every move.
The other passengers glared at me and at the two agents and back again at me. I was in utter disbelief, too shocked even to register fear. It was a psychic assault to sit there, accused and condemned, not just by the agents but by everyone on the bus who looked with contempt and disdain, seeing me as not like them, when I was exactly like them—a frequent flyer on business like anyone else on the bus, early on a weekday morning, having just flown into a major American city and needing to focus on the work that I, like them, was there to do. I wanted to proclaim my innocence of whatever it was that all of them were thinking.
When you are raised middle class and born to a subordinated caste in general, and African-American in particular, you are keenly aware of the burden you carry and you know that working twice as hard is a given. But more important, you know there will be no latitude for a misstep, so you must try to be virtually perfect at all times merely to tread water. You live with the double standard even though you do not like it. You know growing up that you cannot get away with the things that your white friends might skate by with—adolescent pranks or shoplifting on a dare or cursing out a teacher. You knew better, even if you were so inclined, which I wasn’t and never have been.
I needed to regain my composure and clear myself of the accusation of their presence. They hadn’t believed I was a reporter, so I decided to be conspicuously what I was. I fished my pen and notebook out of my bag. I figured nobody could stop me from taking notes. It was a natural and protective reflex for me, like breathing. I had a captive audience bearing witness to my performance of emergency journalism.
In silence, I looked across at the agents and, with my quaking right hand, made notes of what they were wearing, what they looked like, how they were looking at me. They hadn’t expected this, and they turned to look out of a window and down at the floor.
It was a long ride to the car rental lot. Now they felt the sting of inspection as I jotted down everything I could about them, and, in that moment, I took back some fraction of the power they had taken from me, proved who and what I was to anyone watching, or at least that was how it felt to me at the time.
Soon the bus pulled into the Avis lot, and I took a deep breath. They had ridden all the way from the airport, trailing me, and I had no idea what the next step would be. When the bus came to a stop, I stood up like the other passengers. The agents looked up from their seats.
“Have a nice day,” they said. And it was over just like that.
Except it wasn’t. I somehow made it to the rental counter and somehow got the keys to a car, but I don’t remember any of it. What I recall is getting turned around in a parking lot that I had been to dozens of times, going in circles, not able to get out, not registering the signs to the exit, not seeing how to get to Interstate 94, when I knew full well how to get to I-94 after all the times I’d driven it.
Now, in the car, away from the agents, I was beginning to comprehend the seriousness of that encounter, only now able to admit my terror. The other business travelers were likely well on their way to their appointments, perhaps annoyed at the delay but able to make preparations in their heads for their meetings, maybe get a coffee on the way.
This was the thievery of caste, stealing the time and psychic resources of the marginalized, draining energy in an already uphill competition. They were not, like me, frozen and disoriented, trying to make sense of a public violation that seemed all the more menacing now that I could see it in full. The quiet mundanity of that terror has never left me, the scars outliving the cut.
We are told over and over again in our society not to judge a book by its cover, not to assume what is inside before we have had a chance to read it. Yet humans size up and make assumptions about other humans based upon what they look like many times a day. We prejudge complicated breathing beings in ways we are told never to judge inanimate objects.
It turns out that the greatest threat to a caste system is not lower-caste failure, which, in a caste system, is expected and perhaps even counted upon, but lower-caste success, which is not. Achievement by those in the lowest caste goes against the script handed down to us all. It undermines the core assumptions upon which a caste system is constructed and to which the identities of people on all rungs of the hierarchy are linked. Achievement by marginalized people who step outside the roles expected of them puts things out of order and triggers primeval and often violent backlash.
The scholar W.E.B. Du Bois recognized this phenomenon in his research into what happened after the end of the Civil War: “
The masters feared their former slaves’ success,” he wrote, “far more than their anticipated failure.”
Decades after the Civil War, the entire world was at war and well into a fourth year of trench combat that was tearing Europe apart. The year was 1918, after the Americans had finally sent in their troops. The French welcomed the reinforcement during World War I, had badly needed it. The French began commanding some of the American troops, and it was then that the problems began. The French were treating the soldiers according to their military rank rather than their rank in the American caste system. They were treating black soldiers as they would white soldiers, as they would treat other human beings, having drinks with them, patting their shoulders for a job well done. This rankled the white soldiers in an era of total segregation back home, and this breach had to be put to a stop.
American military command informed the French of how they were to treat the black soldiers, clarified for them that these men were “inferior beings,” no matter how well they performed on the front lines, that it was “of the utmost importance” that they be treated as inferior.
The fact that military command would take the time in the middle of one of the most vicious wars in human history to instruct foreigners on the necessity of demeaning their own countrymen suggests that they considered adherence to caste protocols to be as important as conducting the war itself. As it was, the white soldiers were refusing to fight in the same trenches as black soldiers and refusing to salute black superiors.
The American military communicated its position, and French commanders, in turn, had to convey the rules to their soldiers and officers who had come to admire the black soldiers and had developed a camaraderie with them. “
This indulgence and this familiarity,” read the announcement, “are matters of grievous concern to the Americans. They consider them an affront to their national policy.”
In apprising their officers of the new protocols, French command noted the contradictions given that “the (black American) soldiers sent us have been the choicest with respect to physique and morals.” Still, in trying to translate the rules of the American caste system, the French command gave this directive: “We cannot deal with them on the same plane as with the white American officers without deeply wounding the latter. We must not eat with them, must not shake hands or seek to talk or meet with them outside of the requirements of military service.”
More pointedly, the French officers were told: “We must not commend too highly the black American troops, particularly in the presence of (white) Americans. It is all right to recognize their good qualities and their services, but only in moderate terms.”
Later, in the final months of the war, an African-American soldier, Pvt. Burton Holmes, was grievously wounded in a hail of machine gun fire and heavy German artillery in an ambush of his unit in September 1918. He managed to make his way back to the command post to exchange rifles because the one he had been given was malfunctioning.
Commanders wanted to get him to the hospital for treatment, but he refused and rejoined the fight with a backup rifle. He continued to fire upon the enemy until his last breath. Another African-American in Company C,
Freddie Stowers, crawled into enemy shelling and led the assault on German trenches. He, too, died on the front lines defending France and America.
White officers who had witnessed their bravery broke with caste and nominated both men for the Medal of Honor. But this was the height of the eugenics era, when black inferiority was near universal convention in American culture. The government refused to grant the medal to either soldier. The award intended for Holmes was downgraded to a lesser citation, and the recommendation for Stowers was lost for half a century.
These actions were in keeping with societal norms that people in the lowest caste were not to be commended even in death, lest the living begin to think themselves equal, get uppity, out of their place, and threaten the myths that the upper caste kept telling itself and the world.
Imagine,” Dr. Jeff Gusky, a physician who, decades later, took an interest in the case, told the
in 2018, “how powerful this would have been in the American press…if word got out that there were two black soldiers who died in this ambush and were both nominated for the Medal of Honor.”
A generation later, during the Second World War, there was continued resistance to the lowest caste rising from its assigned place even in the most mundane of endeavors. One day in the spring of 1942, white army officers happened to assign black soldiers to direct traffic in Lincolnton, Georgia, as an Army convoy passed through. It caused an uproar in town. The sight of black men in uniform, standing at an intersection, “
halting white motorists, apparently sent some residents over the edge,” wrote the historian Jason Morgan Ward.
After the war ended, in February 1946, Sgt. Isaac Woodard, Jr., was riding a Greyhound bus home to North Carolina from Augusta, Georgia, where he had been honorably discharged, having served in the Pacific theater. At a stop along the way, Woodard asked the bus driver if he could step off the bus to relieve himself. The driver told him to sit down, that he didn’t have time to wait. Woodard stood up to the driver and told him, “
I am a man just like you.” Woodard had been out of the country and away from Jim Crow for three years, had served his country and taken on “a degree of assertiveness and self-confidence that most southern whites were not accustomed to nor prepared to accept,” in the words of the southern author and judge Richard Gergel.
The driver backed down for the time being, told him to “go ahead then and hurry back.” But at the next stop, outside Aiken, South Carolina, the bus driver notified the police.
There the police chief arrested Woodard on charges of disorderly conduct. At the bus stop and later in jail, the police chief beat him and jabbed his eyes with a billy club, blinding him. The next day a local judge found him guilty as charged, and, though he asked to see a doctor, the authorities did not get him one for several more days. By the time he was finally transferred to an army hospital, it was too late to save his eyesight. He was blind for the rest of his life.
The NAACP brought the case to the attention of President Harry S. Truman, a midwestern moderate who was incensed to learn that authorities in South Carolina had taken no action in the maiming of an American soldier. He ordered the Justice Department to investigate based on the fact that Woodard was in uniform at the time he was beaten and that the initial assault occurred at a bus stop on federal property.
But the federal trial ran into caste obstructions in South Carolina. The local prosecutor relied solely on the testimony of the bus driver who had called the police, the defense attorney hurled racial epithets in open court at the blinded sergeant, and, when the all-white jury returned a not-guilty verdict for the police chief, the courtroom broke out in cheers.
It had been revealed during the trial that Woodard had apparently said “yes” instead of “yes, sir” to the police chief during the arrest. This, combined with the elevated position his uniform conveyed, was seen as reason enough for punishment in the caste system. After the trial, the police chief who had admitted to jabbing Woodard in the eyes went free. Woodard went north to New York as part of the Great Migration. The northern white judge assigned to the case lamented, “
I was shocked by the hypocrisy of my government.”
The message was clear to those whose lives depended on staying in their place, or appearing to. “
If a Negro rises, he will be careful not to become conspicuous, lest he be accused of putting on airs and thus arouse resentment,” wrote the ethnographer Bertram Schrieke. “Experience or example has taught him that competition and jealousy from the lower classes of whites often form an almost unsurpassable obstacle to his progress.”
It was largely black efforts to rise beyond their station that set off the backlash of lynchings and massacres after Reconstruction following the Civil War, that sparked the founding of the Ku Klux Klan and the imposition of Jim Crow laws to keep the lowest caste in its place. A white mob massacred some sixty black people in Ocoee, Florida, on Election Day in 1920, burning black homes and businesses to the ground, lynching and castrating black men, and driving the remaining black population out of town, after a black man tried to vote. The historian Paul Ortiz has called the Ocoee riot the “
single bloodiest election day in modern American history.”
It occurred amid a wave of anti-black pogroms in more than a dozen American cities, from East St. Louis to Chicago to Baltimore, as black southerners arrived north during the Great Migration and many tried to make their claims to citizenship after risking their lives in the Great War. One thing these rampages had in common: the mobs tended to go after the most prosperous in the lowest caste, those who might have managed to surpass even some people in the dominant caste. In the 1921 riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a mob leveled the section of town that was called black Wall Street, owing to the black banking, insurance, and other businesses clustered together and surrounded by well-kept brick homes that signaled prosperity. These were burned to the ground and never recovered.
Decades before, in the early 1890s, a black grocery and a white grocery sat across the street from each other at an intersection just outside Memphis, Tennessee. The black store, known as People’s Grocery, was a cooperative that was thriving even as the walls of Jim Crow closed in. Its owner, Thomas H. Moss, was an upright figure in a three-piece suit and bow tie with a side part in his close-cropped hair, who did double duty delivering mail and running the grocery. Both he and his grocery store drew the resentment of his white competitor.
One day, two boys, one black and one white, were playing marbles in front of People’s Grocery and got into an argument. The white boy’s father began to thrash the black boy, at which point two clerks from the black grocery ran out to rescue him. A crowd gathered, and tensions rose.
Seizing on the discord and angered by the competition from the black store to begin with, the white grocer, William Barrett, showed up at People’s Grocery, looking for one of the store clerks who had intervened in the fracas. But the clerk on duty, Calvin McDowell, refused him any information. The white grocer struck McDowell with a pistol for his perceived insolence. McDowell managed to wrestle the gun from the white grocer and fired, barely missing him. Under the protocols of the caste system, it was the black store clerk who was arrested. Though he was released, the caste system had only begun to stir. The black owner, Thomas Moss, tried to prepare for it. He stationed several black men to guard the grocery.
On March 5, 1892, six white men stormed People’s Grocery. The black grocer and his supporters fired upon the intruders, wounding two of them. The white men happened to have been the sheriff and five men he had just deputized. After the shooting, a hundred more whites were deputized to hunt down the black store owner and other black men he knew. The three black storekeepers—the owner, Moss, and the two clerks, McDowell and Will Stewart—were arrested. In the early morning hours of March 9, 1892, a mob stormed the jail and tortured and lynched all three men. The next day, a white mob ransacked People’s Grocery, and, within months, Moss’s white competitor bought the store for pennies on the dollar.
One of Moss’s dear friends was the journalist Ida B. Wells, and this lynching is what set her on her lifelong mission to awaken the country to the terror of lynching. “
A finer, cleaner man than he never walked the streets of Memphis,” Wells wrote. “He was murdered with no more consideration than a dog….The colored people feel that every white man in Memphis who consented in his death is as guilty as those who fired the guns which took his life.”
The irony of the quest of the lowest caste is that it is the very uprightness embodied by Moss, attested to by Wells, and applauded when shown by most every other group, that incites the greatest backlash. The effort to escape stigma is what can trigger the punishment.
Moss was murdered for running a better business than his white competitor,” wrote Nathaniel C. Ball, a historian at the Hooks Institute at the University of Memphis. “McDowell for forgetting his place in the hierarchy in the white world he lived in; and Stewart for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The lowest caste was to remain in its place like an ill-fitting suit that must constantly be altered, seams and darts re-sewn to fit the requirements of the upper caste, going back to the enslavers who resented displays of industriousness and intellect in the people they saw themselves as owning. “
When slaves earned money they became ‘vain and arrogant,’ ” wrote the historian Kenneth Stampp, “and felt ‘more independent.’ ”
They were not to be credited for their ideas or innovations, even at the risk of progress for everyone. Crediting them would undermine the pretext for their enslavement, meaning their presumed inferiority in anything other than servitude. In the summer of 1721, an epidemic of smallpox, one of the deadliest afflictions of the era, besieged the city of Boston. It sent stricken people into quarantine, red flags signaling to all who might pass, “
God have mercy on this house.”