America’s Caste System

America’s Caste System


Leonard Zwelling

         I told you I am struggling with this one.

         Never in the past fifty years has America inched up to coming to grips with the legacy of slavery and what it means to African-Americans as it has in the last few months.

         When I wrote in support of having a discussion about the issue of reparations, I got a lot of push back from readers. Everyone who wrote me objected and did so for the usual reasons.

         This has nothing to do with me. My family wasn’t even here in the 1860s. (Hell, mine wasn’t here until the 20th century.)

         This is America. Everyone has equal opportunity. It’s guaranteed by law.

         Sure there are instances of police brutality, but most cops are good people and the criminal behavior of the few can be attributed to bad apples.

         And, my favorite of all is that Black Americans are not like Black people in the rest of the world. Here they have their own culture and even a language that keeps them apart from the rest of society.

         I’ve been chewing on all of these arguments. I hadn’t found a logical way to dismiss them. Until today.

         In the above article on The New York Times Magazine on July 5 by Isabel Wilkerson, a Black correspondent for the Times, she upends the issue of race completely. It’s not about race which is largely an artificial construct given that more than 99% of the DNA of all humans is identical. No, it’s the caste system that separates Blacks from the rest of us and it has been imposed for 400 years, less than it has in India. And worse, everyone largely accepts it—Black and white. It is indeed remarkable that the most powerful democracy in Earth (the US) and the largest (India) are both plagued by antiquated caste systems that not only prevent certain minorities from making progress, they actually get these minorities to accept it. Again, until now.

         This is the reason that the discussion about reparations is so crucial. Having the discussion may be the only way to rip the scab off the primal misdeed of America—not just to African-Americans but to the American Indian as well—and come to full consciousness about what is really happening in the country.

How does Ms. Wilkerson differentiate racism from casteism?

“Any action or institution that mocks, harms, assumes or attaches inferiority or stereotype on the basis of the social construct of race can be considered racism. Any action or structure that seeks to limit, hold back or put someone in a defined ranking, seeks to keep someone in their place by elevating or denigrating that person on the basis of their perceived category, can be seen as casteism.”

Casteism applies to women and whole swaths of the population who at one time or another were deemed inferior. As Ms. Wilkerson points out, an apostrophe can mean everything. Consider the difference in America between the Oharas with roots in Tokyo and the O’ Haras with roots in Dublin.

Casteism is a kind of narcissism that gives intrinsic worth to the top caste that feels good about itself because of the social positioning of superiority.

And before you reject all of this (and surely read the article) consider what happened in Nazi Germany, a caste system if there ever was one. Then take it the next logical step. What is Mr. Trump trying to do by appealing to the white majority and turning Americans who believe one thing against Americans who believe another? He is hardening the caste system in which he is the alpha male white guy at the top of the food chain. Yes, I know many will object to this, but object objectively.

I don’t expect any of you out there to accept this. It is a rude awakening to most people, especially white people, who deny their racism, but show me a colorblind white person and I will show you a blind one. We cannot escape how we look. We can however have an honest discussion about how a synthetic construct, race, has so imbued our society that America has its own caste system. What else could possibly explain a white police officer kneeling on the neck of a Black man until he’s dead while putting one hand in his pocket?

Despite what many of you out there have said, I am not a bleeding hearted liberal. But this issue of racism tends to become clearer when put in the context of casteism and it may well be that it is casteism that we must tear down so we can rebuild the country along far better lines. And it is the proposal to tear down casteism, that has inflamed President Trump and underpins his remarks on the Fourth of July weekend. He really does not understand what those Confederate statues mean to many Americans. Those statues are of people who committed treason. Why should there be statues to those guys?

America is in the midst of an awful viral pandemic that it has appeared to handle worse than the rest of the world if death numbers, hospitalizations, and exhausted health care systems are accurate measures of governmental competence. Between the interconnected issues of the virus (its greater effect on Black people), the economic downturn (its greater effect on Black people), and the issue of casteism (and its greater effect on Black people), we have a lot of work to do. We will need non-narcissists to lead us. That is not the case now and I fear may not be after November no matter who wins because Mr. Biden is not the sharpest knife in the drawer either and a sharp knife to cut through this baloney is what is needed.

America is at a crossroads and the outcome is still in doubt. The whole world is watching.

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