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Book Review: "Caste: The Origins of our Discontents" by Isabel Wilkerson

It seems we live in a caste society. This is the message of "Caste: The Origins of our Discontents" by Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize winning author. She cites a number of sources to support her thesis, the most compelling by historian Nell Irvin Painter, who says simply and succinctly: "Americans cling to race as the unschooled cling to superstition."

The author also makes the point that racial prejudice is not healthy. Indeed, she cites clinical evidence that harboring racial hatred can shorten your life, and ultimately kill you. At 388 pages the book is not overly long, and reads quite easily. However, as well as the author makes her points, she often overstates the case, with repeated stories that after awhile become tiresome. Having said that there is much here to be learned, and I recommend the book heartily.

Our nation has been long divided by race, dating back to 1619, when the first slave ship made port in Point Comfort, Virginia, and unloaded about twenty chained Africans, destined for slavery. Up to this point the concept of "white" and "black" people was unknown. The colonies were comprised of Europeans (mostly Englishmen) who did not think of themselves as white. And the arriving African slaves certainly did not think of themselves as black, but as Igbo, Yoruba, Ewe Akan, and Ndebele. White and black people were concepts that developed over time. Writes the author: "There developed a caste system, based on what people looked like, an internalized ranking, unspoken, unnamed, unacknowledged by everyday citizens even as they go about living their lives adhering to it and acting upon it subconsciously to this day."

She adds, "Caste is a term not often applied to the United States. It is considered the language of India or feudal Europe. But some anthropologists and scholars of race in America have made use of the term for decades." Indeed, the idea of "race", is a recent phenomenon in human history. It dates back to the start of the transatlantic slave trade and thus to the subsequent caste system that arose from slavery.

The word "race" likely derived from the Spanish word "raza" and was originally used to refer to the "caste or quality of authentic horses, which are branded with an iron so as to be recognized," wrote the anthropologists Audrey and Brian Smedley. As Europeans explored the world, they began using the word to refer to the new people they encountered. "Ultimately, the English in North America developed the most rigid and exclusionist form of race ideology," say the Smedleys. "In the American mind (race) was and is a statement about profound and unbridgeable differences (that) conveys the meaning of social distance that cannot be transcended."

Geneticists and anthropologists have long considered race as a manmade invention, with no basis in science or biology. In fact, the term "Caucasian", a label often ascribed to people of European descent, is a word invented by a German professor of medicine named Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who was so taken with the shape of a human skull he found in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia, that he applied it to the people he believed descended from there and settled in Europe.


About two decades ago, an analysis of the human genome established that all human beings are 99.9 percent the same. Concludes the geneticist J. Craig Venter: "We all evolved in the last 100,000 years from the small number of tribes that migrated out of Africa and colonized the world." Which means the entire racial caste system--the catalyst of bitter hatreds and numerous civil wars--was built on what anthropologists now call "an arbitrary and superficial selection of traits," derived from "a few of the thousands of genes that make up a human being."

In other words, racism is based on a very divilish lie.

As slavery took hold in the Southern colonies, slaveholders began looking to the Bible for justification of their "peculiar institution" and, while conveniently ignoring Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, turned their attention to the Old Testament and learned that back in the Middle Ages some interpreters had described Noah's son, Ham, as bearing dark skin, and thus translated Noah's curse against him as a curse against the descendants of Ham--against all humans bearing dark skin.

They took further comfort from Leviticus, which exhorted them, "Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are around you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids." They took as further license to enslave those they considered religious heathens, to build a new country out of the wilderness. Thus, a hierarchy evolved in the New World they created, one that set those with the lightest skin above those with the darkest.

"The curse of Ham is now being executed upon his descendants," wrote Thomas Cobb, a leading Confederate and defender of slavery. "The great Architect had framed them both physically and mentally to fill the sphere in which they were thrown. His wisdom and mercy combined in constituting them thus suited to the degraded position they were destined to occupy."

Writes the author: "The United States and India would become, respectively, the oldest and the largest democracies in human history, both built on caste systems undergirded by their reading of the sacred texts of their respective cultures. In both countries, the subordinate castes were consigned to the bottom, seen as deserving of their debasement, owing to the sins of the past."

It would take a civil war, the deaths of three-quarters of a million soldiers and citizens, the assassination of a president, Abraham Lincoln, and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to bring an end to slavery in the United States. Still slavery would live on in a new form of discrimination--white supremacy.

The southern white supremacists, says the author, "devised a labyrinth of laws to hold the newly freed people on the bottom rung ever more tightly, while a popular new pseudoscience called 'eugenics' emerged to justify the renewed debasement. People on the bottom rung could be beaten or killed with impunity for any breach of the caste system, like not stepping off the sidewalk fast enough--or in trying to vote."

She also points out, that when Hitler and his band of thugs took power in Germany and focused their hatred toward European Jews, who should they turn their attention to for guidance? To the discriminatory race laws of the Jim Crow south. According to Yale legal historian James Whitman, in debating "how to institutionalize racism in the Third Reich, the Nazis began by asking how the Americans did it."


"The caste system in America is four hundred years old and will not be dismantled by a single law or any one person, no matter how powerful," writes the author. "We have seen in the years since the civil rights era that laws, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, can be weakened if there is not the collective will to maintain them . . . Caste is a disease, and none of us is immune. It is as if alcoholism is encoded into the country's DNA, and can never be declared fully cured. It is like a cancer that goes into remission only to return when the immune system of the body politic is weakened . . .

"To imagine an end to caste in America, we need only look at the history of Germany. It is living proof that if a caste system--the twelve-year reign of the Nazis--can be created, it can be dismantled. We make a serious error when we fail to see the overlap between our country and others, the common vulnerability in human programming, what the theorist Hannah Arendt called 'the banality of evil.'"

"What's most disturbing about the Nazi phenomenon," writes philosopher David Livingston Smith, "is not that the Nazis were madmen or monsters. It is that they were ordinary human beings."


While preparing this review, I ran across this quote by Nelson Mandela:

"No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can learn to be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."

Mandela, it will be remembered, spent 27 years in prison. Later, he was elected as South Africa's first black head of state. Under his watch, the government focused on dismantling the legacy of caste (a.k.a. apartheid) by tackling institutionalized racism and fostering racial reconciliation.

- END -

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