Authors: Isabel Wilkerson
Cotton Mather was a Puritan minister and lay scientist in Boston and had come into possession of an African man named Onesimus. The enslaved African told of a procedure he had undergone back in his homeland that protected him from this illness. People in West Africa had discovered that they could fend off contagions by inoculating themselves with a specimen of fluid from an infected person. Mather was intrigued by the idea Onesimus described. He researched it, and decided to call it “variolation.” It would become the precursor to immunization and “
the Holy Grail of smallpox prevention for Western doctors and scientists,” wrote the medical ethicist and author Harriet A. Washington.
During the 1721 outbreak, Mather tried to persuade Bostonians to protect themselves with this revolutionary method, but did not anticipate the resistance and rage, the “horrid Clamour,” that arose from Bostonians. The idea sounded outlandish to them. They feared it could spread smallpox all the more, and they also wanted nothing to do with a practice that had come from Africa and had been suggested by an African slave. Physicians dismissed the procedure out of hand and “resented being told by a gaggle of ministers that Africans had devised the panacea they had long sought,” Washington wrote. Rage turned to violence when someone hurled a lighted grenade into Mather’s house. Mather escaped serious injury, but wrote that he could see no difference between adopting the African solution for smallpox and using the Native Americans’ antidote for snake venom, which the colonists had readily taken up.
Only one physician, Zabdiel Boylston, was willing to try the new method. He inoculated his son and the enslaved people he owned. In the end, the epidemic would wipe out more than 14 percent of Boston’s population. But of the 240 people that Boylston had inoculated, only six died—one in forty, as against one in seven people who forwent inoculation.
By 1750, vaccinations, based on the method introduced by Onesimus, would be standard practice in Massachusetts and later in the rest of the country. “What is clear is that the knowledge he passed on saved hundreds of lives—and led to the eventual eradication of smallpox,” wrote the author Erin Blakemore. “It remains the only infectious disease to have been entirely wiped out.”
For his contribution to science, Onesimus does not appear even to have fully won his freedom. What little that is known is that Mather grew sour on him, and Onesimus managed to buy partial freedom by paying Mather money toward the purchase of another slave. He had gone well beyond what would have been expected of a man of the lowest caste, and, as often happens, does not appear to have reaped the rewards for a role that was beyond his station.
Instead, the rewards and privileges flowed from upholding the caste order. Doing so could boost the prospects of those who knew to stay in their place, the more conspicuous, the better. Two centuries after Onesimus’s day, the Jim Crow regime would make a single exception to its iron law of segregation between blacks and whites. It was for black maids who had shown themselves sufficiently faithful to be entrusted with the care of white children. These women alone could ride in the whites-only section of a train or bus if they were out taking care of a white child. This exception served several purposes: It enshrined the white child as the ticket to a first-class seat for a black person. It reinforced the servile role, the natural place, of the subordinate caste. It elevated the black nursemaid by fiat of the dominant caste. It made domestics superior to even the likes of the great orator Frederick Douglass, who was once reduced to sitting on top of cargo on a train journey. It protected the children of the dominant caste from enduring for a single trip the taint and discomforts of the colored car. And it reminded everyone in the subordinated caste that they would only rise with the permission of the dominant caste, and on its terms, and only as long as they kept to the role assigned them.
They were to be given no quarter, no latitude to imagine themselves in any place other than the bottom rung. From Reconstruction to the civil rights era, southern school boards spent as little as one-tenth the money on black schools as for white schools, openly starving them of resources that might afford them a chance to compete on level ground. School terms for black students were made shorter by months, giving them less time in class and more time in the field for the enrichment of the ruling caste.
In hiring black teachers for segregated schools during Jim Crow, a leading southern official, Hoke Smith, made a deliberate decision: “
When two Negro teachers applied to a school, to ‘take the less competent.’ ” It was a nakedly creative way to cripple black prospects for achievement. It put black children under the instruction of the least qualified teachers. It passed over the brightest, most accomplished applicants—in fact, punished excellence—while elevating the mediocre in a purposeful distortion of meritocracy. All of this created dissension in the lowest caste over the patent unfairness and worked to crush the ambitions of those with the most talent. In these and other ways, the caste system trained the people in the lowest caste that the only way to survive was to play the comforting role of servile incompetent. The caste system all but ensured black failure by preempting success.
In a caste system, there can be little allowance for the disfavored caste to appear equal, much less superior at some human endeavor.
In the early years of the Third Reich, the Nazis made a point of excluding Jews from any position or circumstance in which they might outshine Aryans. This extended to classrooms in which the Berlin Gestapo went to the trouble of ordering that “
everything must be done to put an end to the appearance that Aryan students are receiving assistance from Jews in preparing their exams.” These were the ways that, irrespective of the natural range of intelligence and talent arising in any human subset, the people in the dominant caste were artificially propped up as superior in all things, a setup for disillusionment not of their own making.
If one of the requirements of a hierarchy is that the lowest caste must remain the scapegoat, on the bottom, the culture works to keep it that way by playing up the stereotypes that affirm their lowliness and minimizing indications to the contrary. In America, news outlets feed audiences a diet of inner-city crime and poverty so out of proportion to the numbers that they distort perceptions of African-Americans and of societal issues as a whole. Little more than one in five African-Americans, 22 percent, are poor, and they make up just over a quarter of poor people in America, at 27 percent. But a 2017 study by Travis Dixon at the University of Illinois found that
African-Americans account for 59 percent of the poor people depicted in the news. White families make up two-thirds of America’s poor, at 66 percent, but account for only 17 percent of poor people depicted in the news.
These generations-old distortions shape popular sentiment. A political scientist at Yale, Martin Gilens, found in a 1994 study that 55 percent of Americans believed that all poor people in America were black. Thus, a majority have come to see
as a synonym for
a stigmatizing distortion in a country that glorifies affluence. Like poverty, crime, too, receives coverage out of proportion to the numbers.
Crimes involving a black suspect and a white victim make up 42 percent of the crimes reported on television news even though crimes with white victims and black suspects make up a minority of crimes, at 10 percent, according to the Sentencing Project, an advocate for criminal justice reform.
For generations, the culture has decried the alarming rate of births among black teenagers, often accompanied by depictions of welfare dependency, even though the majority of teenage mothers of all races are unmarried and likely to require help. But one might not know from news coverage that the
rate of black teenagers giving birth has plummeted in recent decades, from 118 per 1,000 black teenagers in 1991 to 28 per 1,000 in 2017, according to a 2019 analysis by the nonprofit research institute Child Trends.
This should be considered great news for society. The turnabout in birth rates for black and Latina teenagers has helped bring the overall teenage pregnancy rate to the lowest levels recorded in the modern era. Yet what little media coverage there has been has tended to revert to familiar caste tropes about unemployment and poverty, language of the 1990s, rather than looking into the reasons for the historic decline.
These numbers are clearly telling us something, and they do not fit caste assumptions. “
The long-term downward trends,” the researchers wrote, “may reflect that teenagers are increasingly likely to delay sex, and, if sexually active, to use contraception more carefully.” Meaning that black and Latina teenagers are taking precautions at a rate that is bringing them closer to the mainstream, an outcome contrary to societal expectations and thus largely disregarded.
The investment in the established hierarchy runs sufficiently deep that people in the dominant caste have historically been willing to forgo conveniences to themselves to keep the fruits of citizenship within their own caste.
After the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools in
Brown v. Board of Education
in 1954, the white-run school board in Prince Edward County, Virginia, delayed integrating as long as it could and then shut down the school system entirely rather than allow black students into classrooms with white students. The county had no public schools for five years, from 1959 to 1964, forcing parents of both races to find alternatives for their children. Local whites diverted government funds to private academies for white students, while black parents, whose tax dollars were now going to the white students, had to make do on their own.
Around the same time, civil rights legislation outlawed segregation in public facilities, and, in response, cities in the South
closed, auctioned off, or poured concrete into their whites-only pools so that nobody could swim, rather than sharing the water with black people. But those in the dominant caste had the means and resources, acquired over generations of collective income and wealth disparities, to build private pools behind gated communities for themselves and their children, leaving the lowest caste locked out again.
It is in these ways that a caste system shape-shifts and protects its beneficiaries, a workaround emerges, provisions are made, and the hierarchy remains intact, even in the face of challenges from the highest authority in the land. This is how a caste system, it seems, manages always to prevail.
In-group–out-group tensions remain a feature of American life. When black teenagers attended a pool party in a predominantly white, gated community in McKinney, Texas, in 2015, white residents called the police on them for trespassing.
Afterward, as shown in a video that drew international attention, an officer who responded to the call yanked a fifteen-year-old girl from the sidewalk, slammed her to the ground facedown, and pinned her with his full weight. Here was a grown man with his knees bearing down on her slight, bikini-clad frame, as she sobbed, helpless, beneath him.
When black boys instinctively rushed to help her, the officer pointed his gun at them and they backed away, the full power of the state treating them not as children but as threats to society.
It was a scene that would be hard to imagine occurring with a young girl from the same caste—the dominant caste—as the officer.
Within days, the officer resigned, but the incident demonstrated the depth of assumptions about who belongs where in a caste society, and the instantaneous walls erected and punishments meted out for breaching those boundaries even in our era.
Caste puts the richest and most powerful of the dominant caste at a remove, in the penthouse of a mythical high-rise, and everyone else, in descending order, on the floors beneath them. It consigns people in the subordinate caste to the basement, amid the flaws in the foundation and the cracks in the stonework that it appears others choose not to see.
When those in the basement begin rising to the floors above them, surveillance begins, the whole building is threatened. Thus caste can pit the basement-dwellers against themselves in a flooding basement, creating an illusion, a panic even, that their only competition is one another.
It can lead those down under to absorb into their identities the conditions of their entrapment and to do whatever it takes to distinguish themselves as superior to others in their group, to be first among the lowest.
The stigmatized stratify their own,” wrote the anthropologist J. Lorand Matory, “because no one wants to be in last place.”
Over the generations, they learn to rank themselves by their proximity to the random traits associated with the dominant caste. Historically, the caste system has granted privileges to some in the subordinated group with the use of a toxic tool of caste known as colorism.
Among marginalized Americans, the closer they have been to the dominant caste in skin color and in hair and facial features, the higher on the scale they have generally ranked, the women in particular, and the more value attached to them even by those whose appearance is further from the caste-driven ideal. This distortion in human value is especially insidious in America, owing to the historic means by which most African-Americans acquired their range in color and facial features—the rape and sexual abuse of enslaved African women at the hands of their masters and of other men in the dominant caste over the centuries.
With few other outlets for control and power, people on the bottom rung may put down others of their own caste to lift themselves up in the eyes of the dominant. They may feel more deeply wounded and deprived personally when someone of their shared lower rank rises or pushes past them than when the already chosen move ahead.
When someone from the already favored group moves up, it can seem preordained, in line with expectations, more easily accepted because this is how things have always been. Those in the dominant caste were above ground anyway. The rise of a favored person can seem less a commentary on you or your own deficiencies than a reflection of the way the world is.
Conspicuously outperforming one’s fellows is sometimes resented, as it makes people who are already feeling inferior feel even more inferior,” Matory wrote. “Honor is a zero-sum game, with particularly intense implications for the discredited, because…there is so little honor to go around.”
The caste system thrives on dissension and inequality, envy and false rivalries, that build up in a world of perceived scarcity. As people elbow for position, the greatest tensions arise between those adjacent to one another, up and down the ladder. In India, the uppermost castes have historically at times found themselves rubbing against one another. “
They even quarrelled over such petty questions as to who should salute first,” observed Bhimrao Ambedkar, “as to who should give way first, the Brahmins or the Kshatriyas, when the two met in the street.”
If there are anxieties at the top, so much more so at the bottom. The caste system has historically rewarded snitches and sellouts among the lowest caste, as with the enforcers in the concentration camps of the Third Reich and the slave drivers on southern plantations. This was such a common device that, in America, there are several names for such a person, among them Uncle Tom or HNIC, short for Head Negro in Charge. People in the lowest caste came to resent these stooges of the caste system as much as if not more than they resented the dominant caste itself.
Even as others in the lowest caste try to escape the basement, those left behind can tug at the ones trying to rise. Marginalized people across the world, including African-Americans, call this phenomenon “crabs in a barrel.” Many of the slave rebellions or the later attempts at unionizing African-American laborers in the South were thwarted because of this phenomenon, people subverting those who tried to get out, the spies paid with an extra peck of privilege for forewarning the dominant caste of unrest. These behaviors unwittingly work to maintain the hierarchy that those betraying their brethren are seeking to escape.
But this universal impulse may not always be caused by rank envy. A group already under siege may feel that “
the team just cannot afford losing any member,” wrote Sudipta Sarangi, an Indian specialist in organizational management. “If a certain member of the group starts climbing up—by doing better in life—the sheer fear of that individual’s exit pushes everyone to pull him down.”
Success in the American caste system requires some level of skill at decoding the preexisting order and responding to its dictates. The caste system instructs us all as to whose lives and opinions should bear the most weight and take precedence in most any encounter. One of its teachers is the criminal justice system, which descends from the criminal codes of the slavery era.
There, we learn, for instance, that it is the race of the victim, rather than just the perpetrator, that is “
the greatest predictor of who gets the death penalty in the United States,” the acclaimed legal justice advocate Bryan Stevenson observed, citing a study on death penalty cases. “Offenders in Georgia were eleven times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim was white than if the victim was black. These studies were replicated in every other state where studies about race and the death penalty took place.”
The lesson teaches everyone, for instance, whose lives are considered expendable and whose are sacrosanct. It forces everyone to tithe to whatever degree to the supremacy of the ruling caste in order to flourish. Upon entry to the American caste system, immigrants learn to distance themselves from those in the basement, lest they land there themselves.
Though it was the protest movements of the subordinated caste that helped open the door to nonwhite immigrants in 1965, immigrants of color, like immigrants throughout American history, face the dilemma of adhering to the unwritten rules of caste. They face the painful dilemma of either rejecting the lowest caste of indigenous African-Americans or making common cause with those who fought so that they could enter the country to begin with.
But caste inverts the path to acceptance in America for people of African descent. Immigrants from Europe in the previous century were often quick to shed their names and drop the accents and folkways of the old country. They played down their ethnicity to gain admission to the dominant caste. Black immigrants discover that because they look like the people consigned to the lowest caste, the caste system rewards them for doing the opposite of the Europeans. “
While white immigrants stand to gain status by becoming ‘Americans,’ ” wrote the sociologist Philip Kasinitz, “by assimilating into the higher status group—black immigrants may actually lose social status if they lose their cultural distinctiveness.”
Many recent African immigrants are better educated, better traveled than many Americans, may be fluent in multiple languages, and do not wish to be demoted to the lowest caste in their adopted homeland. The caste system encourages black immigrants to do everything they can to build distance between themselves and the subordinated caste they might be taken for. Like everyone else, they are exposed to the corrosive stereotypes of African-Americans and may work to make sure that people know that they are not of that group but are Jamaican or Grenadian or Ghanaian.
A Caribbean immigrant told Kasinitz: “
Since I have been here, I have always recognized that this is a racist country, and I have made every effort not to lose my accent.”
It is a clever, self-perpetuating tool of the caste system to keep those at the bottom divided in a manufactured fight to avoid last place. This has led to occasional friction between people descended from Africans who arrived in America at different points in our history. Some immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa, like their predecessors from other parts of the world, may show a wariness of African-Americans, warn their children not to “
act like African-Americans” or not to bring one home to date or marry. In so doing, they may fall into the trap of trying to prove, not that the stereotype is false, but that they do not fit the lie.
Up and down the hierarchy, Ambedkar noted, “
each caste takes its pride and its consolation in the fact that in the scale of castes it is above some other caste.”
Try as it may to entice newcomers to take sides in upholding the hierarchy, the caste system fails to reach some people. Some children of immigrants from the Caribbean, people like Eric Holder, Colin Powell, Malcolm X, Shirley Chisholm, and Stokely Carmichael, among many others, have shared in the common plight of those in the lowest caste, become advocates for justice, and transcended these divisions for the greater good.
Caste helps explain the otherwise illogical phenomenon of African-Americans or women or other marginalized people who manage to rise to authority only to reject or diminish their own. Caught in a system that grants them little true power or authority, they may bend to the will of caste and put down their own if they wish to rise or to be accepted or merely to survive in the hierarchy. They learn that they may not be held accountable because of the low status of those they betray or neglect.
Many cases of mistreatment of people in the lowest caste occur at the hands of those of their same caste, as in the case of Freddie Gray, who died of spinal injuries at the hands of police officers in Baltimore. Gray was handcuffed in the back of a police van but not secured with safety belts, according to court testimony. The van swerved and curved, knocking Gray around the cargo area, handcuffed and unable to keep himself from crashing into the interior walls of the van. Three of the officers involved were black, including the driver of the van. This combination of factors allowed society to explain away Gray’s death as surely having nothing to do with race, when in fact it was likely caste at work. All of these officers were either acquitted or had their charges dropped.
It is in keeping with caste protocols that, of the few officers who have been prosecuted for police brutality in recent high-profile cases, a notable number of them were men of color—a Japanese-American officer in Oklahoma, a Chinese-American officer in New York City, and a Muslim-American officer in Minneapolis. These are cases in which men of color pay the price for what upper-caste men often have gotten away with.
This phenomenon runs across levels of marginalization. The supervisor of the officers at the chokehold death of Eric Garner was a black woman. The people hardest on women employees can sometimes be women supervisors under pressure from and vying for the approval of male bosses in a male-dominated hierarchy in which fewer women are allowed to rise. Each of these cases presents a complicated story that presumably dismisses race or sex as a factor, but one that makes perfect sense, and maybe only makes sense, when seen through the lens of a caste system.
The enforcers of caste come in every color, creed, and gender. One does not have to be in the dominant caste to do its bidding. In fact, the most potent instrument of the caste system is a sentinel at every rung, whose identity forswears any accusation of discrimination and helps keep the caste system humming.