Authors: Isabel Wilkerson
The film footage, black and white, rough against the wall onto which it is projected, unfolds in a continuing loop in a cave of a viewing room at a Berlin museum. It shoves/heaves/spits you back in time to Saturday, July 6, 1940, at precisely three
. There is no commentary explaining the footage. You are forced to absorb the horror of it, in all of its banal pageantry, on your own.
Hitler is returning to Berlin after the Germans have seized Paris in the Battle of France. The camera captures his arrival at Anhalter Station and follows the flower-strewn
es along the parade route to the Reich Chancellery. Hitler’s motorcade winds past people who are not just hurling confetti but are so tightly packed together that they themselves look like mounds of confetti thrown by the wind. Soldiers have to hold back the smiling, crying women, as would happen at Beatles concerts a generation from this moment. The roar of the crowd is not recognizably human but the rolling crash of ocean waves that recede and then batter the shore again. Church bells ring in the distance. The children and the men and the women flutter their own Nazi flags like bird wings.
The camera closes in, and you can begin to make out the individual Heils—the male Heils from the high-pitched female Heils. A boy is hoisted on a street sign waving and heiling. A little girl is on a parent’s shoulder heiling. Soldiers’ heels press against the soil to keep their footing against the crowd, their jackboots braced against women’s pumps, the women swooning and pushing, the soldiers grinning at the futility of holding back Hitler’s screaming fans in a lighthearted tussle between pant cuffs and stockinged calves.
The camera cuts to the balcony and to the object of the throng’s uncontained rapture. You see him first from behind, the silhouette of Hitler set against a million dots that are his jubilant fans. He stands like a statue, arms rigidly forward. He leans over the balcony and lets escape a smile of satisfaction. You recall that you have never seen an image of evil smiling, a quarter second of human emotion. He surveys the waving, cheering base of his power, and nods.
“This is good,”
the look on his face is saying.
People laugh in reverie, jubilation all around, from the balcony and along the parade route and on the packed
where it appears that every German alive has managed to squeeze themselves in. So many that they are fairly holding one another up and jumping and waving their Nazi flags, a million Nazi flags. The motorcade had only minutes ago wound beneath Nazi banners a story high, blowing from above on both sides of the street, every few feet a Nazi banner, rows and rows for miles. This is the worship service of the true believers, looking now like mounds of pebbles on a beach, a million indistinguishable bees in a hive.
The film played in a loop on the wall without comment. None was necessary. I sat mesmerized and repulsed, sickened but unable to get up. Perhaps if I stayed long enough, I might begin to comprehend it. In that moment, you are face-to-face with the force of willing susceptibility to evil. The Nazis could not have risen to power and done what they did without the support of the masses of people who were open to his spell. I could not stop watching it. The smiling, shining faces in this carpet of exuberant humanity—this massive number of people could not all be what we would consider evil. They are husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, children, uncles, nephews, all gathered at a ticker-tape parade on a brilliant, sunny day celebrating what we know to be a horror.
I thought to myself,
Did the German people know the carnage they were celebrating?
Yes, it turns out, clips of bombing raids were shown during news reels before the feature film at the cinema. They knew that the French had been violently defeated. It was two years past
They knew that Jewish friends and neighbors had been rounded up, publicly humiliated, taken away, never seen again. And the people in the crowd were smiling and happy. Everything that happened to the Jews of Europe, to African-Americans during the lynching terrors of Jim Crow, to Native Americans as their land was plundered and their numbers decimated, to Dalits considered so low that their very shadow polluted those deemed above them—happened because a big enough majority had been persuaded and had been open to being persuaded, centuries ago or in the recent past, that these groups were ordained by God as beneath them, subhuman, deserving of their fate. Those gathered on that day in Berlin were neither good nor bad. They were human, insecure and susceptible to the propaganda that gave them an identity to believe in, to feel chosen and important.
What would any of us have done had we been in their places? How many people actually go up against so great a tide of seeming inevitability? How many can see the evil for what it is,
as it is occurring
? Who has the courage to stand up to the multitudes in the face of a charismatic demigod who makes you feel better about yourself, part of something bigger than yourself, that you have been primed to believe?
Every last one of us would now say to ourselves, I would never have attended such an event, I would never have attended a lynching. I would never have stood by, much less cheered, as a fellow human was dismembered and then set on fire here in America. And yet tens of thousands of everyday humans did just that in the lifetime of the oldest among us in Germany, in India, in the American South. This level of cold-hearted disconnection did not happen overnight. It built up over generations of insecurities and resentments.
Some of the witnesses and participants who heiled Hitler and laughed at humans being tortured in the Jim Crow South are still alive, cradling grandchildren to their bosom. The camera in Berlin panned the crowd and fixed its lens on the children, a little girl with a blond pageboy and a barrette in her hair, heiling Hitler, hoisted on her parent’s shoulders. She would be about eighty now, and this could be one of the earliest memories she carries inside her as a human being.
Germany bears witness to an uncomfortable truth—that evil is not one person but can be easily activated in more people than we would like to believe when the right conditions congeal. It is easy to say, If we could just root out the despots before they take power or intercept their rise. If we could just wait until the bigots die away…It is much harder to look into the darkness in the hearts of ordinary people with unquiet minds, needing someone to feel better than, whose cheers and votes allow despots anywhere in the world to rise to power in the first place. It is harder to focus on the danger of common will, the weaknesses of the human immune system, the ease with which the toxins can infect succeeding generations. Because it means the enemy, the threat, is not one man, it is us, all of us, lurking in humanity itself.
Through no fault of any individual born to it, a caste system centers the dominant caste as the sun around which all other castes revolve and defines it as the default-setting standard of normalcy, of intellect, of beauty, against which all others are measured, ranked in descending order by their physiological proximity to the dominant caste.
They are surrounded by images of themselves, from cereal commercials to sitcoms, as deserving, hardworking, and superior in most aspects of American life, and it would be the rare person who would not absorb the constructed centrality of the dominant group. It would be the rare outliers who would go out of their way to experience the world from the perspective of those considered below them, or even to think about them one way or the other, and the caste system does not require it of them.
Society builds a trapdoor of self-reference that, without any effort on the part of people in the dominant caste, unwittingly forces on them a narcissistic isolation from those assigned to lower categories. It replicates the structure of narcissistic family systems, the interplay of competing supporting roles—the golden-child middle castes of so-called model minorities, the lost-child indigenous peoples, and the scapegoat caste at the bottom.
The centrality of the dominant caste is not lost on those considered beneath them in the hierarchy. The highest and lowest rungs are seen as so far apart as to seem planted in place, immovable. Thus those straddling the middle may succumb to the greatest angst and uncertainty as they aspire to a higher rung.
Everyone in the caste system is trained to covet proximity to the dominant caste: an Iranian immigrant feeling the need to mention that a relative had blond hair as a child; a second-generation child of Caribbean immigrants quick to clarify that they are Jamaican and categorically not African-American; a Mexican immigrant boasting that one of his grandfathers back in Mexico “looked just like an American”—blond hair and blue eyes—at which point he was reminded by an African-American that Americans come in all colors of hair and eyes.
Those accustomed to being the measure of all that is human can come to depend on the reassurance that, while they may have troubles in their lives, at least they are not at the bottom. As long as the designated bottom dwellers remain in their designated place, their own identities and futures are secure.
No matter how degraded their lives, white people are still allowed to believe that they possess the blood, the genes, the patrimony of superiority. No matter what happens, they can never become ‘black,’ ” wrote the sociologist Andrew Hacker. “White Americans of all classes have found it comforting to preserve blacks as a subordinate caste: a presence that despite all its pain and problems still provides whites with some solace in a stressful world.”
We are accustomed to the concept of narcissism—a complex condition of self-aggrandizing entitlement and disregard of others, growing out of a hollow insecurity—as it applies to individuals. But some scholars apply it to the behavior of nations, tribes, and subgroups. Freud was among the earliest psychoanalysts to connect a psychiatric diagnosis to Narcissus of Greek mythology, the son of the river god who fell in love with his own image in a pool of water and, not realizing that it was he who was “spurning” his affection, died in despair. “
Narcissus could not conceive that he was in love with his own reflection,” wrote the psychologist Elsa Ronningstam. “He was caught in an illusion.”
So, too, with groups trained to believe in their inherent sovereignty. “
The essence of this overestimation of one’s own position and the hate for all who differ from it is narcissism,” wrote the psychologist and social theorist Erich Fromm. “
He is nothing,” Fromm wrote, “but if he can identify with his nation, or can transfer his personal narcissism to the nation, then he is everything.”
A person deeply invested in his group’s dominance “
has a euphoric ‘on-top-of-the-world’ feeling, while in reality he is in a state of self-inflation,” Fromm wrote. “This leads to severe distortion of his capacity to think and to judge….He and his are over-evaluated. Everything outside is under-evaluated.” And underneath may lie the fear that he cannot live up to the constructed ideal of his own perfection.
History has shown that nations and groups will conquer, colonize, enslave, and kill to maintain the illusion of their primacy. Their investment in this illusion gives them as much of a stake in the inferiority of those deemed beneath them as in their own presumed superiority. “
The survival of the group,” Fromm wrote, “depends to some extent on the fact that its members consider its importance as great or greater than that of their own lives, and furthermore that they believe in the righteousness, or even superiority, of their group as compared to others.”
Thus, when under threat, they are willing to sacrifice themselves and their ideals for the survival of the group from which they draw their self-esteem. The social theorist Takamichi Sakurai wrote bluntly: “
Group narcissism leads people to fascism. An extreme form of group narcissism means malignant narcissism, which gives rise to a fanatical fascist politics, an extreme racialism.”
In modern times, this kind of group narcissism has gripped two nations in particular, according to Fromm: “the racial narcissism which existed in Hitler’s Germany, and which is found in the American South,” he wrote in 1964, at the height of the civil rights movement.
Fromm well knew the perils of group narcissism from both his training in psychoanalysis and his personal experience. He was a German Jew who fled to Switzerland after the Nazis took power in Germany, and then to the United States in 1934. He saw firsthand the Nazi appeals to the fears and insecurities of everyday Germans in the lead-up to the Nazi takeover.
“If one examines the judgment of the poor whites regarding blacks, or of the Nazis in regard to Jews,” Fromm wrote, “one can easily recognize the distorted character of their respective judgments. Little straws of truth are put together, but the whole which is thus formed consists of falsehoods and fabrications. If the political actions are based on narcissistic self-glorifications, the lack of objectivity often leads to disastrous consequences.”
In both instances, Fromm found the working class to be among the most susceptible, harboring an “
inflated image of itself as the most admirable group in the world, and of being superior to another racial group that is singled out as inferior,” he wrote. A person in this group “feels: ‘even though I am poor and uncultured I am somebody important because I belong to the most admirable group in the world—I am white’; or ‘I am Aryan.’ ”
A group whipped into narcissistic fervor “is eager to have a leader with whom it can identify,” Fromm wrote. “The leader is then admired by the group which projects its narcissism onto him.”
The right kind of leader can inspire a symbiotic connection that supplants logic. The susceptible group sees itself in the narcissistic leader, becomes one with the leader, sees his fortunes and his fate as their own. “The greater the leader,” Fromm wrote, “the greater the follower….The narcissism of the leader who is convinced of his greatness, and who has no doubts, is precisely what attracts the narcissism of those who submit to him.”
Caste behavior is essentially a response to one’s assigned place in the hierarchy. According to the script that the culture hands us all, the dominant caste (whether man over woman, rich over poor, white over black, Brahmin over Dalit) is not to take instructions or even suggestions from the lower caste. The script decrees that the dominant caste must be right, more informed, more competent, first in all things. The caste system primes the dominant caste to experience discomfort, unfairness at the sight of a lower-caste person in a position above their perceived station and more particularly above them, and may feel the need to restore equilibrium by putting the lower-caste person in their place.
The dominant caste tends to resist comparison to lower-caste people, even the suggestion that they have anything in common or share basic human experiences, as this diminishes the dominant-caste person and forces the contemplation of equality with someone deemed lower. A comparison forces the contemplation of that person’s humanity, a source of internal conflict when confronted with injustice that society deems appropriate if the target is not seen as fully human as themselves.
Years ago, a colleague fretted to me about his and his wife’s worries about his father-in-law, who had recently had a health setback. The father-in-law lived in another state and was not as sharp as he once had been, might have fallen recently or suffered some other worrisome though not life-threatening development. My colleague lamented to me that his wife was going to have to make a trip many miles away to check on him, and she would perhaps have to look into assisted living. It was weighing on her, and him.
He was speaking directly to me, but his words seemed a general lament to the universe. He was facing an existential disruption that I could identify with. In the past, I had mentioned to him the challenges I had had managing the care of my mother, who had been disabled years before. He had listened at the time with the detachment of those who have not yet faced the inevitable, who tell themselves, as we all do, that somehow we will escape what we know is coming.
I told him I was sorry to hear that his family was going through this. I can understand, I told him. As you know, I said, I have been having to take care of my mother while being on the road, and I, too, had to look into assisted living for her. He seemed taken aback at the very suggestion that the situations might have anything whatsoever in common, as if this were tantamount to equating a giraffe with a kangaroo. The statement was seen as an insult to him and activated a deep-seated programming. “Why, you can’t compare my father-in-law,” he said of the preposterousness of the idea, “to
In the unspoken rules of caste, the people in the dominant caste are expected to be first or in the superior station. Historically, their job is to correct, direct, discipline, and police the people in the lowest caste. They are to be ever vigilant to any rise or breach on the part of those beneath them.
I had borne witness to this in the American caste system, but the more time I spent among Indians, the more these caste rules became apparent to me, predictive even, in my interactions with people from the world’s original caste system. I learned to recognize almost immediately the differences between dominant-caste Indians and Dalits, even without the starker physical cues of dominant and subordinated castes in America.
Indians wondered how I, as an outsider from a completely different culture, was able to distinguish them so quickly. I spoke none of the Indian languages, knew nothing of the
and was in no position to query anyone as to the section of village from which they came or recognize early the surnames that conveyed one’s place in the caste system.
I noticed, first, upper-caste people tended to be lighter in complexion and sharper in features, though that is not an ironclad indicator. Secondly, I noticed that they were more likely to speak English with British diction, although that could be a sign of education and class as much as caste hierarchy. More revealingly and more consistently, I began to be able to distinguish people from their bearing and demeanor, in accord with the universal script of caste. It was no accident that my caste radar worked more efficiently when there was a group of people interacting among themselves. Caste is, in a way, a performance, and I could detect the caste positions of people in a group but not necessarily a single Indian by himself or herself. “
There is never caste,” the Dalit leader Ambedkar once said. “Only castes.”
And so, at gatherings of Indians of different castes, I could see that the upper-caste people took positions of authority, were forthright, at ease with being in charge, correcting and talking over the lower-caste people. It echoed a similar dynamic in the United States, an expectation that an upper-caste person must assert superiority of knowledge and intellect in all things, having been socialized to be first and to be central, a pressure to be right and the need to remind the lower-caste person, subtly or not, of their historic, cultural, spatial, and familial inferiority.
At a panel or seminar, they were often the ones leading the discussion or doing most of the talking. They tended to speak more formally, giving direction, heads held high. On the other hand, the Dalits, as if trained not to bring attention to themselves, sat in the shadows, on the periphery at a conference seminar, asking few questions, daring not, it seemed, to intrude upon an upper-caste domain or conversation even if the discussion was about them, which in fact it was.
Even in the rarefied space of a scholarly presentation, when an upper-caste person was correcting a lower-caste person, the Dalit listened and took their admonishment without questioning, head often down or nodding that,
yes, you are correct, I will go back now and do what you have said.
I winced as I watched people talk down to scholars from the subordinate caste in an open forum.
In India, it was Dalits who gravitated toward me like long-lost relatives, surrounding me and propping themselves on a sofa near me for an impromptu subordinate-caste tête-à-tête. I discovered that they wanted to hear from me, or, I should say, commune with someone they recognized as a kindred spirit who shared a common condition. “We read James Baldwin and Toni Morrison because they speak to our experiences,” a Dalit scholar said to me. “They help us in our plight.”
I was standing during a lunch break at a conference in Delhi. A Dalit scholar and I were communing about our kindred perspectives when an upper-caste woman walked up and broke into the conversation to tell the Dalit woman what she should have included in her presentation, a point that she missed and which she would do well to include the next time.