Read Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents Online
Authors: Isabel Wilkerson
In response to his election, Republicans began changing election laws, making it harder to vote. They did so even more vigorously after the Supreme Court overturned a section of the Voting Rights Act, removing federal election oversight that the states, each with a history of obstructing the minority vote, said was no longer needed.
Between 2014 and 2016, states deleted almost 16 million people from voter registration lists,
purges that accelerated in the last years of the Obama administration, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. States enacted new voter ID laws even as they created more barriers to obtaining this newly required ID. Together, these actions had the cumulative effect of reducing voter participation of marginalized people and immigrants, both of whom were seen as more likely to vote Democrat. “
A paper found that states were far more likely to enact restrictive voting laws,” wrote the commentator Jonathan Chait, “if minority turnout in their state had recently increased.”
Contrary to the wistful predictions of post-racial harmony,
the number of hate groups in the United States surged from 602 to more than 1,000 between 2000 and 2010, the middle of Obama’s first term in office, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. A 2012 study found that anti-black attitudes and racial stereotyping rose, rather than fell, as some might have hoped, in Obama’s first term. The percentage of Americans who expressed
explicit anti-black attitudes ticked upward from 48 percent in 2008 to 51 percent in 2012, but the percentage expressing implicit bias rose from 49 percent to 56 percent. The study found that higher percentages of white respondents now saw African-Americans as violent, irresponsible, and, most especially, lazy, after his victory, despite, or perhaps because of, the studiously wholesome black family in the White House headed by two Ivy League–educated parents.
With rising resentments, it would not be surprising that attacks on African-Americans might not only not have abated but would worsen under the unprecedented reversal of the social hierarchy. By the second term of the administration, in 2015,
police were killing unarmed African-Americans at five times the rate of white Americans. It was a trend that would make police killings a leading cause of death for young African-American men and boys, these deaths occurring
at a rate of 1 in 1,000 young black men and boys.
Early on, Obama had taken symbolic steps to bridge the racial divide. He held a “beer summit” with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and the officer who had arrested Gates as he tried to enter his home near Harvard, having called the summit after the uproar over his comments that the police had “acted stupidly” in arresting the Harvard professor. When Trayvon Martin was killed, Obama observed that if he had had a son, the son would have looked like Trayvon. But the caste system rose up and his approval ratings fell after even these benign gestures. The opposition party stood firm against many of his ambitions and nominees, shutting down the government time and again, refusing to confirm or even consider his Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.
The caste system had handcuffed the president as it had handcuffed the African-Americans facedown on the pavement in the videos that had become part of the landscape. It was as if the caste system were reminding everyone of their place, and the subordinate caste, in particular, that no matter how the cast of the play was reshuffled, the hierarchy would remain as it always had been.
In a paradox of caste, many whites seemed to have known this, studies show, seemed to have trusted on some unconscious level that the caste system would hold the first black president, and the subordinate caste with which he had come to be associated, in check. As deeply as some people resented a black man presiding in the Oval Office, “
most whites in the United States were not overwhelmingly concerned,” Jardina writes, “that Obama would favor blacks over their own group.”
Thus, within the parameters in which he was forced to maneuver, he made more headway with race-neutral goals. In so doing, he managed to reshape the country’s healthcare system and lead on such issues as climate change, clean energy, gay marriage, sentencing reform, and investigations into police brutality that other administrations might have ignored altogether, while guiding the country out of recession.
But accomplishments from those considered to have stepped out of their place often only breed more resentment, in this case inciting the tremors of discontent among those feeling eclipsed by his very existence.
Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying,” James Baldwin once wrote, “because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality.”
Which is why Obama’s presidency and his high approval ratings “
masked an undercurrent of anxiety about our changing nation,” according to Jardina. “It hid a swell of resistance to multiculturalism, and a growing backlash to immigration.”
In November 2012, on the day after the first black president won reelection to a second term, Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio talk show host, went on the air and lamented to his listeners. “
I went to bed last night thinking we’re outnumbered,” Limbaugh said. “I went to bed last night thinking we’ve lost the country. I don’t know how else you look at this.”
That same day, a troubled sixty-four-year-old man in South Florida took the most extreme action imaginable. In the time leading up to the election, according to police, Henry Hamilton, owner of a tanning salon in Key West, told friends, “
If Barack gets reelected, I’m not going to be around.” He kept his word. His body was found in his condominium a day and a half after the returns came in. Two prescription bottles sat empty in his dining room. Beside him was a handwritten note demanding that he not be revived and cursing the newly reelected president.
In the final breaths of 2015, an influential gathering of political insiders in Washington were seeing in the New Year. It was the eve of an election season that was considered of great significance before it had even begun. I felt out of my orbit whenever I was in official Washington, and so I gravitated toward Gwen Ifill, whom I had known for years and had not seen in some time. Back during our days at
The New York Times,
I had been a narrative writer focused on everyday people rather than the halls of power as she had been, the intuitive empath to her political savant.
I went straight up to her.
“So,” I began, “what are you thinking?”
The first seconds of 2016 were approaching, and she knew exactly what I meant. I hesitated to proffer my own opinion at first. Gwen was the beloved co-host of the
on PBS. She was a long-standing, clear-eyed Washington sage whom I, along with millions of others, admired for her brilliance and sixth sense, for how she had taken to the sharky waters of the capital as if born to it, always rising above it somehow. She was an embed in a political ecosystem that I had little patience for. I didn’t know if what I was feeling compelled to say would sound wildly off base or preposterous to someone as steeped in establishment Washington as she was.
For some reason, I felt the need to whisper. This was supposed to be a party, after all, champagne pouring all around us, a celebration to ring in 2016. There were people from the current administration and perhaps people in the Democratic front-runner’s campaign, for all I knew, or, in any case, certainly people supporting the front-runner and expecting a continuing through line of the forward-thinking perspectives carried forth by what would soon be the outgoing administration. So I leaned in and lowered my voice.
“People are not paying attention,” I said. “I believe he could win.”
I didn’t say his name, and I didn’t have to. It was still early, the primaries had yet to begin. But momentum had been building for the celebrity billionaire from the time he announced his candidacy the previous June from the escalator of his tower in Manhattan, accusing Mexicans of bringing crime, drugs, and rape across the border and vowing to build a wall. Most journalists and media outlets were not taking him seriously, so I wondered what Gwen thought.
“No question,” she said. “Of course. He could absolutely win.”
I was not a political animal by any measure, but what I did know was the caste system, so I went on.
“I think it’s all about 2042,” I said.
“Exactly,” she said, her face firm and resolute.
Her response, forthright and assured, was as unsettling as it was affirming of my own instincts, because if she, with her impeccable radar, was thinking this, then it was very likely to be true. We exchanged knowing glances of acceptance of the otherwise inconceivable, as if it were already settled, whether the rest of the country realized it or not, because it was bigger than him, had always been bigger than him, and now all that was left to do was to watch it play out.
Gwen lived just long enough to see her predictions come true and tragically passed away the week after the election. This was a loss to the country at the precise time that it could have benefited from her even-tempered analysis. That prophetic conversation was the last I would have with her, and it now seems all the more powerful in the years that followed.
Spring 2016, and into the summer, the election was virtually all that anyone could talk about. One banner headline after another, one time-honored norm shattered after another—a presidential candidate who blew off a major debate in the primaries, a presidential candidate caught on tape boasting about grabbing women by the genitals, a presidential candidate mocking a disabled reporter, arms and hands flailing, face jerking as might a middle schooler’s, a presidential candidate deriding the grieving parents of an American war hero who happened to be Muslim. A presidential candidate demeaning an American war hero, John McCain, because he had been captured. The latest breaking news report would be announced before we had even absorbed the last one, a new lexicon forming before our eyes.
“Surely you don’t think he has a chance of winning?” a French intellectual asked me when I happened to be in Paris months before the election. “Well, yes, he could,” I told her. “He’s on the ballot. He could very well win.”
“America would never do that,” she said, dismissively.
Caste does not explain everything in American life, but no aspect of American life can be fully understood without considering caste and embedded hierarchy. Many political analysts and left-leaning observers did not believe that a Trump win was possible and were blindsided by the outcome in 2016 in part because they had not figured into their expectations the degree of reliable consistency of caste as an enduring variable in American life and politics.
The liberal take was that working-class whites have been voting against their interests in supporting right-wing oligarchs, but that theory diminishes the agency and caste-oriented principles of the people. Many voters, in fact, made an assessment of their circumstances and looked beyond immediate short-term benefits and toward, from their perspective, the larger goals of maintaining dominant-caste status and their survival in the long term. They were willing to lose health insurance now, risk White House instability and government shutdowns, external threats from faraway lands, in order to preserve what their actions say they value most—the benefits they had grown accustomed to as members of the historically ruling caste in America.
Trump channeled insecurities and disaffection that went deeper than economics, researchers have found. “
White voters’ preference for Donald Trump,” wrote the political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck, “…was weakly related to their own job security but strongly related to concerns that minorities were taking jobs away from whites.”
The tremors within the dominant caste had been building long before Trump announced his candidacy. “Defections accelerated over the course of Obama’s presidency,” Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck wrote. “This is why racial attitudes appear the more likely culprit.”
In fact, “no other factor predicted changes in white partisanship during Obama’s presidency as powerfully and consistently as racial attitudes,” they said.
The researchers consider this kind of group hypervigilance to be what they call “ ‘racialized economics’: the belief that undeserving groups are getting ahead while your group is left behind.”
The precarity of their lives and the changing demographics of the country induced a greater need to maintain whatever advantages they had come to expect and to shore up the one immutable characteristic that has held the most weight in the American caste system.
Whites’ racial attitudes are not merely defined by prejudice,” writes Ashley Jardina of Duke University. “Many whites also possess a sense of racial identity and are motivated to protect their group’s collective interests and to maintain its status….Whiteness is now a salient and central component of American politics. White racial solidarity influences many whites’ worldview and guides their political attitudes and behavior.”
Consciously or not, many white voters “
are seeking to reassert a racial order in which their group is firmly at the top.”
The 2016 election thus became a cracked mirror held up to a country that had not been forced in this way to search its origins in more than a generation and was now seeing itself perhaps for the first time as it truly was. It was the culmination of forces that had been building for decades.
In a caste context, the two main political parties bear the advantages and burdens of the castes they most attract and with which they are associated. At times, the stigma and double standard attached to disfavored minorities have accrued to the Democrats, while the privilege and latitude accorded the dominant caste has accrued to the Republicans, who have come to be seen as proxies for white America. This in part explains the unforgiving scrutiny and obstructions faced by Democrats like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and before them John Kerry and Al Gore, as white support has intensified for Republicans, now seen as the party of an anxious but powerful dominant-caste electorate.
Clinton, the former secretary of state, was widely viewed as having won the presidential debates, despite her opponent’s stalking of her at the podium and calling her a “nasty woman.” She was seen as having carried herself with dignity and exhibiting a polished, if stiff, mastery of domestic and foreign affairs. Yet in polling she rarely managed to pull much beyond the margin of error against a man considered by some to be the least qualified person ever to run for president.
There were many factors at work in the 2016 election, among them foreign interference and barriers to voting that disproportionately affected marginalized voters. Still, Clinton’s loss in the Electoral College seems shocking until one considers caste, and the historic challenges that subordinate-caste candidates, meaning African-American candidates, have often faced on Election Day despite favorable polling. Seen from a caste perspective, Clinton perhaps suffered from a version of the Bradley Effect—inflated polling numbers that do not materialize on Election Day due to people telling pollsters what they believe is the socially acceptable answer about their voting plans but then choosing differently in the voting booth. This is what happened to Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley when he ran for governor of California in 1982. That would have made an inability to rise above the margin of error a harbinger of a tough Election Day.
Caste gives insights, too, into the Democrats’ wistful yearning for white working-class voters that they believe should respond in higher numbers to their kitchen table appeals. Why, some people on the left kept asking, why, oh, why, were these people voting against their own interests? The questioners on the left were unseeing and yet so certain. What they had not considered was that the people voting this way were, in fact, voting their interests. Maintaining the caste system as it had always been was in their interest. And some were willing to accept short-term discomfort, forgo health insurance, risk contamination of the water and air, and even die to protect their long-term interest in the hierarchy as they had known it.
When you are caught in a caste system, you will likely do whatever it takes to survive in it. If you are insecurely situated somewhere in the middle—below the very top but above the very bottom—you may distance yourself from the bottom and hold up barriers against those you see as below you to protect your own position. You will emphasize the inherited characteristics that rank higher on the caste scale.
In the voting booth, many people make an autonomic, subconscious assessment of their station, their needs and wishes, and the multiple identities they carry (working class, middle class, rich, poor, white, black, male, female, Asian, Latino). They often align themselves not with those whose plight they may share, but with those whose power and privilege intersect with a trait of their own. People with overlapping self-interests will often gravitate toward the personal characteristic that accords them the most status. Many make an existential, aspirational choice. They vote up, rather than across, and usually not down. They believe they know who will protect the interests of the trait that gives them the most status and that matters most to them.
In the pivotal election of 2016, whether consciously or not, the majority of whites voted for the candidate who made the most direct appeals to the characteristic most rewarded in the caste system. They went with the aspect of themselves that grants them the most power and status in the hierarchy. According to
New York Times
exit polling of 24,537 respondents, 58 percent of white voters chose the Republican Donald Trump and only 37 percent went for the Democrat Hillary Clinton. While she won nearly 3 million more votes than Trump by the popular count, she attracted a smaller share of the white vote than any Democratic candidate other than Jimmy Carter in his failed bid for reelection against Ronald Reagan in 1980.
“The parties have grown so divided by race,” writes the political scientist Lilliana Mason, “that simple racial identity, without policy content, is enough to predict party identity.”
There was perhaps no clearer measure of white solidarity than the actions of white women in 2016. The majority of them—
53 percent—disregarded the common needs of women and went against a fellow white woman to vote with their power trait, the white side of their identities to which Trump appealed, rather than help an experienced woman, and themselves, make history.
Trump was ushered into office by whites concerned about their status,” Jardina writes, “and his political priorities are plainly aimed at both protecting the racial hierarchy and at strengthening its boundaries.” These are people who feel “that the rug is being pulled out from under them—that the benefits they have enjoyed because of their race, their group’s advantages, and their status atop the racial hierarchy are all in jeopardy.”
A subliminal awareness of the power of caste (though the word would rarely, if ever, be used) appears also to be at work, to whatever degree, in how the parties respond to their respective bases. The Republican reverence for its base of white evangelicals stands in stark contrast to the indifference often shown the Democratic base of African-Americans, who are devalued for a host of reasons, among them their suppressed status at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
For the Republicans, the singularity of focus, the sense of rallying around an existential threat, combined with the inherent caste advantages of the collective wealth and influence of its voters overall, gives the GOP a seeming advantage in firing up its supporters against Democratic opposition. For their part, Democrats constitute a diffuse majority of the electorate, but seem at times lukewarm toward a base that the party has often lectured to or taken for granted, chided, if ever there is lower-than-expected turnout, despite voter suppression, sadly buying into caste assumptions rather than bolstering their most loyal voters as do the Republicans with theirs. Democrats expend energy and weaken their power pining for the die-hard voters of their opponents, the homecoming queens of the electorate, while taking for granted the majority that they already have.