Isabel Wilkerson on a World Without Caste
Isabel Wilkerson's penetrating study of the history and practice of caste systems provides unique insights into this dangerous, insidious process. In the epilogue to her triumphant book Caste: The Lies That Divide Us, Wilkerson imagines a world where unequal social systems were unheard of.
We look to the night sky and see the planets and stars, the distant lights as specks of salt, single grains of sand, and are reminded of how small we are, how insignificant our worries of the moment, how brief our time on this planet, and we wish to be part of something bigger than ourselves, to magnify our significance, to matter somehow as more than the dust that we are.
The species has suffered incomprehensible loss over the false divisions of caste: the 11 million people killed by the Nazis; the three- quarters of a million Americans killed in the Civil War over the right to enslave human beings; the slow, living death and unfulfilled gifts of millions more on the plantations in India and in the American South.
Whatever creativity or brilliance they had has been lost for all time. Where would we be as a species had the millions of targets of these caste systems been permitted to live out their dreams or live at all? Where would the planet be had the putative beneficiaries been freed of the illusions that imprisoned them, too, had they directed their energies toward solutions for all of humanity, cures for cancer and hunger and the existential threat of climate change, rather than division?
In December 1932, one of the smartest men who ever lived landed in America on a steamship with his wife and their thirty pieces of luggage as the Nazis bore down on their homeland of Germany. Albert Einstein, the physicist and Nobel laureate, had managed to escape the Nazis just in time. The month after Einstein left, Hitler was appointed chancellor.
In America, Einstein was astonished to discover that he had landed in yet another caste system, one with a different scapegoat caste and different methods, but with embedded hatreds that were not so unlike the one he had just fled.
“The worst disease is the treatment of the Negro,” he wrote in 1946. “Everyone who freshly learns of this state of affairs at a maturer age feels not only the injustice, but the scorn of the principle of the Fathers who founded the United States that ‘all men are created equal.’ ”
The tyranny of caste is that we are judged on the very things we cannot change: a chemical in the epidermis, the shape of one’s facial features, the signposts on our bodies of gender and ancestry - superficial differences that have nothing to do with who we are inside.
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. 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.
A caste system persists in part because we, each and every one of us, allow it to exist— in large and small ways, in our everyday actions, in how we elevate or demean, embrace or exclude, on the basis of the meaning attached to people’s physical traits. If enough people buy into the lie of natural hierarchy, then it becomes the truth or is assumed to be.
Once awakened, we then have a choice. We can be born to the dominant caste but choose not to dominate. We can be born to a subordinated caste but resist the box others force upon us. And all of us can sharpen our powers of discernment to see past the external and to value the character of a person rather than demean those who are already marginalized or worship those born to false pedestals. We need not bristle when those deemed subordinate break free, but rejoice that here may be one more human being who can add their true strengths to humanity.
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. Thus, regardless of who prevails in any given election, the country still labors under the divisions that a caste system creates,and the fears and resentments of a dominant caste that is too often in opposition to the yearnings of those deemed beneath them. It is a danger to the species and to the planet to have this depth of unexamined grievance and discontent in the most powerful nation in the world. A single election will not solve the problems that we face if we haven’t dealt with the structure that created the imbalance to begin with.
The devastating truth is that, without the intervention of humanitarian impulses, a reconstituted caste system could divide those at the bottom and those in the middle, pick off those closest to white and thus isolate the darkest Americans even further, lock them ever more tightly to the bottom rung. It would be a crisis of spirit, a defeat of the American soul.
The challenge for our era is not merely the social construct of black and white but seeing through the many layers of a caste system that has more power than we as humans should permit it to have. It calls for a radical kind of empathy which means putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel. The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly. And the least that a person in the dominant caste can do is not make the pain any worse.Each time a person reaches across caste and makes a connection, it helps to break the back of caste.
In a world without caste, being male or female, light or dark, immigrant or native- born, would have no bearing on what anyone was perceived as being capable of. In a world without caste, we would all be invested in the well-being of others in our species if only for our own survival, and recognize that we are in need of one another more than we have been led to believe. We would join forces with indigenous people around the world raising the alarm as fires rage and glaciers melt. We would see that, when others suffer, the collective human body is set back from the progression of our species.
A world without caste would set everyone free.
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