Read Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents Online
Authors: Isabel Wilkerson
While this book seeks to consider the effects on everyone caught in the hierarchy, it devotes significant attention to the poles of the American caste system, those at the top, European Americans, who have been its primary beneficiaries, and those at the bottom, African-Americans, against whom the caste system has directed its full powers of dehumanization.
The American caste system began in the years after the arrival of the first Africans to Virginia colony in the summer of 1619, as the colony sought to refine the distinctions of who could be enslaved for life and who could not. Over time, colonial laws granted English and Irish indentured servants greater privileges than the Africans who worked alongside them, and the Europeans were fused into a new identity, that of being categorized as white, the polar opposite of black. The historian Kenneth M. Stampp called this assigning of race a “
caste system, which divided those whose appearance enabled them to claim pure Caucasian ancestry from those whose appearance indicated that some or all of their forebears were Negroes.” Members of the Caucasian caste, as he called it, “believed in ‘white supremacy,’ and maintained a high degree of caste solidarity to secure it.”
Thus, throughout this book you will see many references to the American South, the birthplace of this caste system. The South is where the majority of the subordinate caste was consigned to live for most of the country’s history and for that reason is where the caste system was formalized and most brutally enforced. It was there that the tenets of intercaste relations first took hold before spreading to the rest of the country, leading the writer Alexis de Tocqueville to observe in 1831: “
The prejudice of race appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known.”
To recalibrate how we see ourselves, I use language that may be more commonly associated with people in other cultures, to suggest a new way of understanding our hierarchy:
Dominant caste, ruling majority, favored caste,
instead of, or in addition to,
instead of, or in addition to,
Subordinate caste, lowest caste, bottom caste, disfavored caste, historically stigmatized
African-American. Original, conquered,
instead of, or in addition to,
in addition to, or instead of, women of any race, or minorities of any kind.
Some of this may sound like a foreign language. In some ways it is and is meant to be. Because, to truly understand America, we must open our eyes to the hidden work of a caste system that has gone unnamed but prevails among us to our collective detriment, to see that we have more in common with each other and with cultures that we might otherwise dismiss, and to summon the courage to consider that therein may lie the answers.
In embarking upon this work, I devoured books about caste in India and in the United States. Anything with the word
in it lit up my neurons. I discovered kindred spirits from the past—sociologists, anthropologists, ethnographers, writers—whose work carried me through time and across generations. Many had labored against the tide, and I felt that I was carrying on a tradition and was not walking alone.
In the midst of the research, word of my inquiries spread to some Indian scholars of caste, based here in America. They invited me to speak at an inaugural conference on caste and race at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, the town where W.E.B. Du Bois was born and where his papers are kept.
There, I told the audience that I had written a six-hundred-page book about the Jim Crow era in the American South, the time of naked white supremacy, but that the word
did not appear anywhere in the narrative. I told them that, after spending fifteen years studying the topic and hearing the testimony of the survivors of the era, I realized that the term was insufficient.
was the more accurate term, and I set out to them the reasons why. They were both stunned and heartened. The plates of Indian food kindly set before me at the reception thereafter sat cold due to the press of questions and the sharing that went into the night.
At a closing ceremony that I had not been made aware of ahead of time, the hosts presented to me a bronze-colored bust of the patron saint of the low-born of India, Bhimrao Ambedkar, the Dalit leader who had written to Du Bois all those decades before.
It felt like an initiation into a caste to which I had somehow always belonged. Over and over, they shared scenarios of what they had endured, and I responded in personal recognition, as if even to anticipate some particular turn or outcome. To their astonishment, I began to be able to tell who was high-born and who was low-born among the Indian people among us, not from what they looked like, as one might in the United States, but on the basis of the universal human response to hierarchy—in the case of an upper-caste person, an inescapable certitude in bearing, demeanor, behavior, a visible expectation of centrality.
After one session, I went up to a woman presenter whose caste I had ascertained from observing her interactions. I noticed that she had reflexively stood over the Dalit speaker and had taken it upon herself to explain what the Dalit woman had just said or meant, to take a position of authority as if by second nature, perhaps without realizing it.
We chatted a bit, and then I said to her, “I believe you must be upper caste, are you not?” She looked crestfallen. “How did you know?” she said, “I try so hard.” We talked for what seemed an hour more, and I could see the effort it took to manage the unconscious signals of encoded superiority, the presence of mind necessary to counteract the programming of caste. I could see how hard it was even for someone committed to healing the caste divide, who was, as it turned out, married to a man from the subordinate caste and who was deeply invested in egalitarian ideals.
On the way home, I was snapped back to my own world when airport security flagged my suitcase for inspection. The TSA worker happened to be an African-American who looked to be in his early twenties. He strapped on latex gloves to begin his work. He dug through my suitcase and excavated a small box, unwrapped the folds of paper and held in his palm the bust of Ambedkar that I had been given.
“This is what came up in the X-ray,” he said. It was heavy like a paperweight. He turned it upside down and inspected it from all sides, his gaze lingering at the bottom of it. He seemed concerned that something might be inside.
“I’ll have to swipe it,” he warned me. He came back after some time and declared it okay, and I could continue with it on my journey. He looked at the bespectacled face with the receding hairline and steadfast expression, and seemed to wonder why I would be carrying what looked like a totem from another culture.
“So who is this?” he asked. The name Ambedkar alone would not have registered; I had learned of him myself only the year before, and there was no time to explain the parallel caste system. So I blurted out what seemed to make the most sense.
“Oh,” I said, “this is the Martin Luther King of India.”
“Pretty cool,” he said, satisfied now, and seeming a little proud. He then wrapped Ambedkar back up as if he were King himself and set him back gently into the suitcase.
In the imagination of two late-twentieth-century filmmakers, an unseen force of artificial intelligence has overtaken the human species, has managed to control humans in an alternate reality in which everything one sees, feels, hears, tastes, smells, touches is in actuality a program. There are programs within programs, and humans become not just programmed but are in danger of and, in fact, well on their way to becoming nothing more than programs. What is reality and what is a program morph into one. The interlocking program passes for life itself.
The great quest in the film series
involves those humans who awaken to this realization as they search for a way to escape their entrapment. Those who accept their programming get to lead deadened, surface lives enslaved to a semblance of reality. They are captives, safe on the surface, as long as they are unaware of their captivity. Perhaps it is the unthinking acquiescence, the blindness to one’s imprisonment, that is the most effective way for human beings to remain captive. People who do not know that they are captive will not resist their bondage.
But those who awaken to their captivity threaten the hum of the matrix. Any attempt to escape their imprisonment risks detection, signals a breach in the order, exposes the artifice of unreality that has been imposed upon human beings. The Matrix, the unseen master program fed by the survival instinct of an automated collective, does not react well to threats to its existence.
In a crucial moment, a man who has only recently awakened to the program in which he and his species are ensnared consults a wise woman, the Oracle, who, it appears, could guide him. He is uncertain and wary, as he takes a seat next to her on a park bench that may or may not be real. She speaks in code and metaphor. A flock of birds alights on the pavement beyond them.
“See those birds,” the Oracle says to him. “At some point a program was written to govern them.”
She looks up and scans the horizon. “A program was written to watch over the trees and the wind, the sunrise and sunset. There are programs running all over the place.”
Some of these programs go without notice, so perfectly attuned they are to their task, so deeply embedded in the drone of existence. “The ones doing their job,” she tells him, “doing what they were meant to do are invisible. You’d never even know they were here.”
So, too, with the caste system as it goes about its work in silence, the string of a puppet master unseen by those whose subconscious it directs, its instructions an intravenous drip to the mind, caste in the guise of normalcy, injustice looking just, atrocities looking unavoidable to keep the machinery humming, the matrix of caste as a facsimile for life itself and whose purpose is maintaining the primacy of those hoarding and holding tight to power.
Day after day, the curtain rises on a stage of epic proportions, one that has been running for centuries. The actors wear the costumes of their predecessors and inhabit the roles assigned to them. The people in these roles are not the characters they play, but they have played the roles long enough to incorporate the roles into their very being, to merge the assignment with their inner selves and how they are seen in the world.
The costumes were handed out at birth and can never be removed. The costumes cue everyone in the cast to the roles each character is to play and to each character’s place on the stage.
Over the run of the show, the cast has grown accustomed to who plays which part. For generations, everyone has known who is center stage in the lead. Everyone knows who the hero is, who the supporting characters are, who is the sidekick good for laughs, and who is in shadow, the undifferentiated chorus with no lines to speak, no voice to sing, but necessary for the production to work.
The roles become sufficiently embedded into the identity of the players that the leading man or woman would not be expected so much as to know the names or take notice of the people in the back, and there would be no need for them to do so. Stay in the roles long enough, and everyone begins to believe that the roles are preordained, that each cast member is best suited by talent and temperament for their assigned role, and maybe for only that role, that they belong there and were meant to be cast as they are currently seen.
The cast members become associated with their characters, typecast, locked into either inflated or disfavored assumptions. They become their characters. As an actor, you are to move the way you are directed to move, speak the way your character is expected to speak. You are not yourself. You are not to be yourself. Stick to the script and to the part you are cast to play, and you will be rewarded. Veer from the script, and you will face the consequences. Veer from the script, and other cast members will step in to remind you where you went off-script. Do it often enough or at a critical moment and you may be fired, demoted, cast out, your character conveniently killed off in the plot.
The social pyramid known as a caste system is not identical to the cast in a play, though the similarity in the two words hints at a tantalizing intersection. When we are cast into roles, we are not ourselves. We are not supposed to be ourselves. We are performing based on our place in the production, not necessarily on who we are inside. We are all players on a stage that was built long before our ancestors arrived in this land. We are the latest cast in a long-running drama that premiered on this soil in the early seventeenth century.
It was in late August 1619, a year before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, that a Dutch man-of-war set anchor at the mouth of the James River, at Point Comfort, in the wilderness of what is now known as Virginia. We know this only because of a haphazard line in a letter written by the early settler John Rolfe. This is the oldest surviving reference to Africans in the English colonies in America, people who looked different from the colonists and who would ultimately be assigned by law to the bottom of an emerging caste system. Rolfe mentions them as merchandise and not necessarily the merchandise the English settlers had been expecting. The ship “brought not anything but 20 and odd Negroes,” Rolfe wrote, “which the Governor and Cape Marchant bought for victualles.”
These Africans had been captured from a slave ship bound for the Spanish colonies but were sold farther north to the British. Historians do not agree on what their status was, if they were bound in the short term for indentured servitude or relegated immediately to the status of lifetime enslavement, the condition that would befall most every human who looked like them arriving on these shores or born here for the next quarter millennium.
The few surviving records from the time of their arrival show they “
held at the outset a singularly debased status in the eyes of white Virginians,” wrote the historian Alden T. Vaughan. If not yet consigned formally to permanent enslavement, “black Virginians were at least well on their way to such a condition.”
In the decades to follow, colonial laws herded European workers and African workers into separate and unequal queues and set in motion the caste system that would become the cornerstone of the social, political, and economic system in America. This caste system would trigger the deadliest war on U.S. soil, lead to the ritual killings of thousands of subordinate-caste people in lynchings, and become the source of inequalities that becloud and destabilize the country to this day.
With the first rough attempts at a colonial census, conducted in Virginia in 1630, a hierarchy began to form. Few Africans were seen as significant enough to be listed in the census by name, as would be the case for the generations to follow, in contrast to the majority of European inhabitants, indentured or not. The Africans were not cited by age or arrival date as were the Europeans, information vital to setting the terms and time frame of indenture for Europeans, or for Africans, had they been in the same category, been seen as equal, or seen as needing to be accurately accounted for.
Thus, before there was a United States of America, there was the caste system, born in colonial Virginia. At first, religion, not race as we now know it, defined the status of people in the colonies. Christianity, as a proxy for Europeans, generally exempted European workers from lifetime enslavement. This initial distinction is what condemned, first, indigenous people, and, then, Africans, most of whom were not Christian upon arrival, to the lowest rung of an emerging hierarchy before the concept of race had congealed to justify their eventual and total debasement.
The creation of a caste system was a process of testing the bounds of human categories and not the result of a single edict. It was a decades-long sharpening of lines whenever the colonists had a decision to make. When Africans began converting to Christianity, they posed a challenge to a religion-based hierarchy. Their efforts to claim full participation in the colonies was in direct opposition to the European hunger for the cheapest, most pliant labor to extract the most wealth from the New World.
The strengths of African workers became their undoing. British colonists in the West Indies, for example, saw Africans as “
a civilized and relatively docile population,” who were “accustomed to discipline,” and who cooperated well on a given task. Africans demonstrated an immunity to European diseases, making them more viable to the colonists than were the indigenous people the Europeans had originally tried to enslave.
More pressingly, the colonies of the Chesapeake were faltering and needed manpower to cultivate tobacco. The colonies farther south were suited for sugarcane, rice, and cotton—crops with which the English had little experience, but that Africans had either cultivated in their native lands or were quick to master. “
The colonists soon realized that without Africans and the skills that they brought, their enterprises would fail,” wrote the anthropologists Audrey and Brian Smedley.
In the eyes of the European colonists and to the Africans’ tragic disadvantage, they happened to bear an inadvertent birthmark over their entire bodies that should have been nothing more than a neutral variation in human appearance, but which made them stand out from the English and Irish indentured servants. The Europeans could and did escape from their masters and blend into the general white population that was hardening into a single caste. “
The Gaelic insurrections caused the English to seek to replace this source of servile labor entirely with another source, African slaves,” the Smedleys wrote.
The colonists had been unable to enslave the native population on its own turf and believed themselves to have solved the labor problem with the Africans they imported. With little further use for the original inhabitants, the colonists began to exile them from their ancestral lands and from the emerging caste system.
This left Africans firmly at the bottom, and, by the late 1600s, Africans were not merely slaves; they were hostages subjected to unspeakable tortures that their captors documented without remorse. And there was no one on the planet willing to pay a ransom for their rescue.
Americans are loath to talk about enslavement in part because what little we know about it goes against our perception of our country as a just and enlightened nation, a beacon of democracy for the world. Slavery is commonly dismissed as a “sad, dark chapter” in the country’s history. It is as if the greater the distance we can create between slavery and ourselves, the better to stave off the guilt or shame it induces.
But in the same way that individuals cannot move forward, become whole and healthy, unless they examine the domestic violence they witnessed as children or the alcoholism that runs in their family, the country cannot become whole until it confronts what was not a chapter in its history, but the basis of its economic and social order. For a quarter millennium, slavery
Slavery was a part of everyday life, a spectacle that public officials and European visitors to the slaving provinces could not help but comment on with curiosity and revulsion.
In a speech in the House of Representatives, a nineteenth-century congressman from Ohio lamented that on “
the beautiful avenue in front of the Capitol, members of Congress, during this session, have been compelled to turn aside from their path, to permit a coffle of slaves,
males and females chained to each other by their necks
to pass on their way to this
national slave market.
The secretary of the U.S. Navy expressed horror at the sight of barefoot men and women locked together with the weight of an ox-chain in the beating sun, forced to walk the distance to damnation in a state farther south, and riding behind them, “a white man on horse back, carrying pistols in his belt, and who, as we passed him, had the impudence to look us in the face without blushing.”
The Navy official, James K. Paulding, said: “
When they [the slaveholders] permit such flagrant and indecent outrages upon humanity as that I have described; when they sanction a villain, in thus marching half naked women and men, loaded with chains, without being charged with a crime but that of being
from one section of the United States to another, hundreds of miles in the face of day, they disgrace themselves, and the country to which they belong.”
Slavery in this land was not merely an unfortunate thing that happened to black people. It was an American innovation, an American institution created by and for the benefit of the elites of the dominant caste and enforced by poorer members of the dominant caste who tied their lot to the caste system rather than to their consciences. It made lords of everyone in the dominant caste, as law and custom stated that “
submission is required of the Slave, not to the will of the Master only, but to the will of all other White Persons.” It was not merely a torn thread in “
an otherwise perfect cloth,” wrote the sociologist Stephen Steinberg. “It would be closer to say that slavery provided the fabric out of which the cloth was made.”
American slavery, which lasted from 1619 to 1865, was not the slavery of ancient Greece or the illicit sex slavery of today. The abhorrent slavery of today is unreservedly illegal, and any current-day victim who escapes, escapes to a world that recognizes her freedom and will work to punish her enslaver. American slavery, by contrast, was legal and sanctioned by the state and a web of enforcers. Any victim who managed to escape, escaped to a world that not only did not recognize her freedom but would return her to her captors for further unspeakable horrors as retribution. In American slavery, the victims, not the enslavers, were punished, subject to whatever atrocities the enslaver could devise as a lesson to others.
What the colonists created was “
an extreme form of slavery that had existed nowhere in the world,” wrote the legal historian Ariela J. Gross. “For the first time in history, one category of humanity was ruled out of the ‘human race’ and into a separate subgroup that was to remain enslaved for generations in perpetuity.”
The institution of slavery was, for a quarter millennium, the conversion of human beings into currency, into machines who existed solely for the profit of their owners, to be worked as long as the owners desired, who had no rights over their bodies or loved ones, who could be mortgaged, bred, won in a bet, given as wedding presents, bequeathed to heirs, sold away from spouses or children to cover an owner’s debt or to spite a rival or to settle an estate. They were regularly whipped, raped, and branded, subjected to any whim or distemper of the people who owned them. Some were castrated or endured other tortures too grisly for these pages, tortures that the Geneva Conventions would have banned as war crimes had the conventions applied to people of African descent on this soil.
Before there was a United States of America, there was enslavement. Theirs was a living death passed down for twelve generations.
The slave is doomed to toil, that others may reap the fruits” is how a letter writer identifying himself as Judge Ruffin testified to what he saw in the Deep South.
The slave is entirely subject to the will of his master,” wrote William Goodell, a minister who chronicled the institution of slavery in the 1830s. “What he chooses to inflict upon him, he must suffer. He must never lift a hand in self-defense. He must utter no word of remonstrance. He has no protection and no redress,” fewer than the animals of the field. They were seen as “not capable of being injured,“Goodell wrote. “They may be punished at the discretion of their lord, or even put to death by his authority.”
As a window into their exploitation, consider that
in 1740, South Carolina, like other slaveholding states, finally decided to limit the workday of enslaved African-Americans to fifteen hours from March to September and to fourteen hours from September to March, double the normal workday for humans who actually get paid for their labor. In that same era, prisoners found guilty of actual crimes were kept to a maximum of ten hours per workday. Let no one say that African-Americans as a group have not worked for our country.