Read Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents Online
Authors: Isabel Wilkerson
As I approached the door, he looked up at me, sheepish and shamefaced.
“I’m really sorry,” he said.
“Thanks, I know,” I said, shaking my head.
He hadn’t intervened. He, too, seemed powerless. He couldn’t likely have taken the risk. This was an upper-caste man assaulting a lower-caste woman, and the lead attendant was lower caste himself. The lead attendant very likely had no idea what the man’s position might be, what power and influence he might have had. Why should he stick his neck out for me and get on the bad side of heaven knows who? The man had bullied me, out in the open, with witnesses all around who pretended not to see. The lead attendant likely felt it would do him no good to get involved. In a caste system, things work more smoothly when everyone stays in their place, and that is what he did.
I was shaking and livid. Once off the plane and out in the terminal, the man who had forced me into a vertical spoon with him, in front of an audience, was walking with a brisk swagger several paces ahead of me. He knew full well what he had done. Cocking his head back at me, he spat out a curt “Sorry,” and kept walking with the entitlement that comes from knowing he could get away with it. There would be no consequences; not one person had stepped to my defense or shown a blink of compassion.
A host of factors might have made things different. Perhaps it was the lateness of the hour that inured some people. Maybe it was just the singular combination of personalities that left me without anyone to stand up to it. Change one or two seats with different people, and there might have been a different outcome.
One thing seems certain: had an African-American man pressed his body against a white woman the way this man had, it is hard to imagine that no one on board would have intervened, if only to say to him, “I’ll get your bag for you so you can get off of her.” Over the course of American history, black men have died for doing far less to white women than what he did to me that night.
You might say,
Why didn’t you complain to the airline? Why didn’t you tell him off?
Those questions belie the situation. This was not the fault of the airline. As for the man who did this, he ignored my protests of his behavior. This happened because good people were silent and let it happen. I was too disgusted to reply as the man swaggered ahead of me. I made my way to the other side of the passenger walkway and continued until he was out of my sight.
Incursions such as these are more than personal insults and unfortunate misunderstandings. Fighting convention, fighting to be seen and treated for who you truly are, diminishes the human contract, demeans everyone, and worsens the well-being of people on all sides of these caste skirmishes. The most brazen cases lead to violence, a hallmark of a caste system at the breaking point. In 2013, on a flight into Atlanta, a white passenger actually slapped a black baby in the face because the baby was crying due to the change in altitude upon descent. Such an assault would be virtually inconceivable had a baby from the dominant caste been crying, no matter his decibel level.
In 2017, a Vietnamese-American passenger was dragged off a United Airlines plane in Chicago, suffering injuries to his head and knocking out some of his teeth. The airline had discovered that it had overbooked the flight, and no passenger took the airline up on offers of compensation in exchange for giving up their seats. The airline chose four passengers, at random by computer, to be ejected.
The first three passengers left the plane without incident, but the Vietnamese-American man, a physician named David Dao, said he had an urgent need to get back to his patients. He said he had paid his fare and should not have to give up his seat. The airline called security to remove him, and he was dragged by his legs in front of stunned passengers. Captured on a video that quickly went viral, the incident drew outrage across the country and in Asia.
Dao said he was convinced that his ethnicity was a factor in his treatment, that this would not have happened to a white man of his or most any other stature. The ordeal, he said, was more horrifying than when he fled Vietnam. Even three years later, watching the video of his violent removal again, he told ABC News, “
I just cried.”
A young man emigrated from Nigeria at the age of seventeen to attend college in the United States. His father paid the tuition, and at the end of the first semester, the young man went to pick up the refund at the bursar’s office.
“You speak very good English,” the clerk told him.
The Nigerian man excoriated the clerk.
“Of course I speak good English,” he said. “I speak English better than many Americans. I speak other languages as well. Don’t ever say that again.”
He discovered that in America he was not seen for his skills or his education. He was seen as black before anything else. It was an identity he was unaccustomed to, that had no meaning back home where everyone had similar coloring. Now it seemed to mean everything. The African-Americans were always talking about being profiled and mistreated, and he hadn’t paid it much attention at first. But the longer he was in the United States, the more he shed his accent, as immigrants often do, and the more Americanized he became, the more he began to experience life not as an immigrant, not solely as a Nigerian, but as a black man in a hierarchy that disfavored people who looked like him.
Women clenched their purses as he approached, shrank from him on the elevator, crossed the street to avoid passing near him. He was followed in stores as if he were a felon, and the authorities questioned him more intensely than he was accustomed to, more intensely than the white men, he noticed. A white driver locked her door when he merely drove up in traffic one day. He went and locked his door, too, to show that he was as concerned for his safety as she was.
He found himself passed over for promotions as a compliance officer, and despite his seniority and experience, he was laid off, and he wondered, as many people assigned to the subordinate caste cannot help but consider, if race had anything to do with it. Before coming to America, he would have thought it preposterous.
Maybe the African-Americans were not working hard enough, were not educated enough
. Now, having lived longer in the United States than in Nigeria, he knew better than to dismiss what they said out of hand.
Once when he pulled into a parking space, an older white woman, whose car he had parked next to, turned and stared, then recoiled backward in her driver’s seat. “I see her,” he told the passenger in the car with him. “I don’t give a shit.”
Except, actually, he did, or rather his physiology did. Modern medicine has long sought to attribute the higher rates of disease in African-Americans relative to white Americans to genetics. But it turns out that sub-Saharan Africans do not have high rates of high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease, while African-Americans have the highest rates of those conditions of all ethnic groups in the United States.
The Nigerian man now in America was living this, too. “My father lived to ninety years old,” the man said. “He had no high blood pressure until the last day of his life.
“I just went to the doctor, and he tells me I have high blood pressure and early signs of diabetes,” he said. “And I am just fifty-four. The effects of spending my entire adult life as a black man in this country are making me sick forty years ahead of my own father back in Nigeria.”
The friction of caste is killing people. Societal inequity is killing people. The act of moving about and navigating spaces with those whom society has trained us to believe are inherently different from us is killing people, and not just the targets. Studies are showing that prejudice itself can be deadly.
Neuroscientists have found that harboring this kind of animus can raise a person’s blood pressure and cortisol levels, “
even during benign social interactions with people of different races,” wrote the neuropsychologist Elizabeth Page-Gould. Prejudice itself can be deadly. These physical reactions can put the person at greater risk for stroke or diabetes or heart attacks and premature death.
A study of white Americans who scored high on a measure of automatic prejudice, meaning the degree to which they associate certain ethnic groups with negative stereotypes at the level of the unconscious, found that when they were put into situations where they were, for example, to be interviewed for a job by an African-American or to have social interaction with Latinos, they perceived the people of a different ethnicity as a threat, even in a safe laboratory setting.
The threat they perceived as a result of their prejudice set off their body’s alarm system. Their panic produced automatic physiological responses as would occur if they were in combat or confronting an oncoming car—restricted blood flow to the heart, the flooding of the muscles with glucose as the body releases cortisol, the hormone useful in the rare moment when one might need to escape danger, but damaging to the body on a regular basis. The combination of reduced blood flow, constrictions to the circulatory and digestive systems, and the breakdown of muscle by cortisol can lead to life-threatening damage to the heart and the immune system and to death before one’s time.
Even the briefest exposure is all it takes to activate the body’s response. Among whites, the sight of a black person, even in faded yearbook photographs, can trigger the amygdala of the brain to perceive threat and arm itself for vigilance within 30 milliseconds of exposure, the blink of an eye, researchers have found. When whites have a bit more time for the conscious mind to override the automatic feeling of threat, the amygdala activity switches to inhibition mode. When whites are prompted to think of the black person as an individual, imagine their personal characteristics, the threat level falls.
This shows that it is “possible to override our worst impulses and reduce these prejudices,” wrote the psychologist Susan Fiske. But to do so in a meaningful way requires forethought, an awareness of the unconscious biases passed down through the generations, and the chance for people different from one another to work together as equals, on the same team, with shared goals that “
require cooperation to succeed,” Fiske said. Outside of sports and the military, American society provides few such opportunities.
This leaves many Americans at risk without knowing it. As they go about their days interacting with co-workers, neighbors, contractors, or other ordinary people perceived as unlike themselves, they can be in danger of worsened health and premature illness due to the threat signals triggered by the person’s own unaddressed prejudice.
On the other side of the caste system, scientists have connected a key indicator of health and longevity—the length of human telomeres—to one’s exposure to inequality and discrimination, primarily focusing on the telomere lengths of African-Americans.
A telomere is a repeating sequence of double-stranded DNA at the end of a chromosome. The more frequently a cell divides, the shorter the telomeres become, wearing out the cell in a process that public health scientist Arline Geronimus, in her pioneering 1992 work, termed
. It is a measure of
premature aging of the cells, and thus of the person bearing those cells, and of the early onset of disease due to chronic exposure to such stressors as discrimination, job loss, or obesity.
These studies initially focused on the accelerated aging of the telomeres of African-Americans. But expanded research is finding that this kind of cell damage results from one’s exposure to social inequity and difficult life conditions, rather than merely one’s race and ethnicity. Thus, the telomeres of poor whites, for example, are shorter than those of wealthier whites, whose resources might better help them weather life’s challenges.
The opposite is true for people in the lower castes in America. Socioeconomic status and the presumed privilege that comes with it do not protect the health of well-to-do African-Americans. In fact, many suffer a health penalty for their ambitions. “
Middle class African American men and women are
likely to suffer from hypertension and stress than those with lower incomes,” wrote the sociologist George Lipsitz. The stigma and stereotypes they labor under expose them to higher levels of stress-inducing discrimination in spite of, or perhaps because of, their perceived educational or material advantages.
The pattern applies to another marginalized group, Mexicans in America. It turns out that poorer Mexican immigrants have longer telomeres, meaning healthier, younger cells, than better-off Mexican-Americans. Poorer Mexicans are likely to be newer to this country and to cluster together in closer support networks. Their isolation from the mainstream and the language barrier could inadvertently insulate them from the discrimination that more affluent Mexicans may face as they navigate the caste system on a daily basis. Those who were born in the United States or have lived in the country for many years would have greater exposure to the damaging effects of stereotyping and stigma.
All of these groups appear to be paying a price when they step outside of the roles assigned them in the hierarchy. “
High levels of everyday discrimination contribute to narrowing the arteries over time,” said the Harvard social scientist David R. Williams. “High levels of discrimination lead to higher levels of inflammation, a marker of heart disease.”
People who face discrimination, Williams said, often build up a layer of unhealthy fat, known as visceral fat, surrounding vital organs, as opposed to subcutaneous fat, just under the skin. It is this visceral fat that raises the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease and leads to premature death. And it can be found in people of all ethnicities based on their experience of discrimination.
“Black women experience higher levels of discrimination than white women do,” Williams said. “But when white women experience discrimination, the effects are the same. So discrimination leading to higher levels of visceral fat, that is true for African-American women and for white women. When whites report higher levels of discrimination, their health is also hurt. It really says something about the nature of human interaction.”
When it comes to life expectancy, middle-aged and less educated white Americans are experiencing a downward trend, as we have seen. But people of color at the bottom of the caste system, who bear the brunt of societal stigma, still have an overall lower life expectancy than their white counterparts at every level of education, according to Williams.
The average white American at age twenty-five is likely to live five years longer than the average African-American. While white high school dropouts have a lower life expectancy than their more educated white counterparts, they live three years longer than African-American high school dropouts. And white college graduates live four years longer than African-American college graduates.
Thus, people of color with the most education, who compete in fields where they are not expected to be, continually press against the boundaries of caste and experience a lower life expectancy as a result. The more ambitious the marginalized person, the greater the risk of what evolutionary biologist Joseph L. Graves calls “
the out-of-place principle of social dominance.” Graves found that hypertension rates of blacks and whites are roughly the same when affluent African-Americans are deleted from the equation. The caste system takes years off the lives of subordinate-caste people the more they find themselves in contention with it.
“There is a black tax that we pay that hurts our health, and the gap is larger among the college-educated than it is among high school dropouts,” Williams said. “We still carry that burden, to engage in a heightened vigilance, which means you’re careful of how you look, how you appear, how you dress.”
Williams had a friend, a middle-class black businessman, who would never leave the house in the sweats and sneakers that his white neighbors wore without a moment’s thought. He couldn’t afford to. He took great care whenever he left the house, and it took more time and more forethought for even the most casual errand.
“If his wife needed a gallon of milk and he needed to run to the supermarket to get that gallon of milk, he would run into the house to get a jacket and tie,” Williams said. “It was his way of trying to minimize the likelihood that he’s going to be perceived as criminal because he’s a young black male. That is what we live with, and it is taking a toll on our lives.”
It seems that people in the dominant caste know in their bones that the playing field tilts toward the group they happened to have been born to. Years ago, back in the 1990s, the political scientist Andrew Hacker posed a theoretical question to his white undergraduates at Queens College in New York. He asked them how much they would have to be paid to live the next fifty years as a black person. The students thought it over and came back with a figure. Most said they would need $50 million—$1 million for every year that they would have to be black. They felt they would need it, he said, to “
buy protection from the discriminations and dangers white people know they would face once they were perceived to be black.”