Wednesday, November 18, 2020

A caste for casts

 A review and reflections on my field: Caste: the origins of our discontents, Isabel Wilkerson. New York: Random House, 2020.

It often happens, that those who live at a later time are unable to grasp the point which the great undertakings or actions of this world had their origin…. all things… are at their beginnings so small and faint in outline that one cannot easily convince oneself that from them will grow matters of great moment. -- Matteo Ricci, Historia in Jonathan D. Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (New York: Penguin, 1985), 267. 

Caste opens with a story that illustrates Ricci’s statement: a 2016 heat wave in Siberia that melted the permafrost and unleashed toxic anthrax in a community. The spores had never died, but laid dormant, awaiting circumstances that would bring them to flourish. Wilkerson likens this to a building with a small defect in a beam that, over the years, imperceptibly weakens the entire structure. In all of these cases, an unnoticed and unintended flaw springs up to cause problems of “great moment.”

That small defect in the beam is caste, a human hierarchy that leaves in its wake social rigidity, power structures, stigma, and dehumanization. Caste facilitates but is not the same as racism, and is also a more inclusive explanation of the phenomena of exclusion, one that reaches beyond race. Often justified through religion and culture, caste becomes an underlying and often unconscious structure in our lives. In this book, Wilkerson examines three caste systems: India, Nazi Germany, and race in the United States.

Race, as I often explored in teaching, is a recent social construct (hey, so is disability—which we’ll come back to). It has no basis in biology, and originated from the transatlantic slave trade. The social construct of racism refers to dislike or disadvantaging a person or group because of the ascribed race. Caste is similar, but creates a hierarchical system of enforcement, one that tends to be impersonal and does not require personal dislike. Caste becomes a routine pattern, with unthinking expectations based on a perception of natural order.

The Indian system is well-known and oldest. The American system developed from the arrival of the first Africans in 1619. With a racial basis, it resulted in laws that defined and enforced distinctions, such as who could be enslaved for life and who could not, who could be Christian or not, or even who was regarded as having a soul or not. In this way, American slavery, which lasted until 1865, was not the same as that of the ancient world. In turn, the justifications behind this led to eugenics, which emerged full-blown in Nazi Germany, with distinctions and definitions derived from American standards.

The eight pillars of caste begin with divine will or order, which leads to inherited status. From this there is a need to control marriage, which guarantees purity within the dominant group. This is enforced through absolute standards, occupational hierarchy, dehumanization, and the use of terror, fear, and psychological degradation to reinforce status. A recent article about a discrimination lawsuit provides a perfect illustration of all of these.

The caste system creates and requires inequality. In turn, that generates dissent, rivalry, distrust and lack of empathy.  An excellent example is the story of Cotton Mather’s slave Onesimus, who in a 1721 epidemic shared an African vaccination against smallpox. Many would not use it, as they assumed nothing from an African slave would work, but it was, after many deaths, proven useful. Sometimes the results are violent, such as the 1921 Tulsa riots where a successful Black area was wiped out (this is one of several incidents graphically described in the book that illustrate the atrocities of the American racial legacy).

There are also sociological implications. Descriptive terms are applied, such as black and white, which are not at all true. I am pink and my neighbor is brown. But gradations are forgotten in caste systems, which pull people apart into categories, label and then reinforce the status consequences of those categories.

cover of Caste

After reading the book, I looked at some reviews. It wasn’t a shock to find a group who thought that it  is nonsense. It was no surprise to find that those reviewers seem to have a place of privilege in the system—and that they don’t seem to have thoroughly read the book. If they had, the story of Albert Einstein fleeing Germany, and his subsequent championing of Marian Anderson, the singer who could not stay in segregated hotels, might have hit home. Einstein stated that as a Jew, he could understand and empathize with how black people feel as the victims of discrimination. Einstein went on to take an active part in NAACP efforts to end lynching and promote civil rights. If you were unaware of that part of Einstein’s life, it’s a good illustration of the need for a full history.

I cannot claim to fully understand what Black people go through, any more than temporarily able-bodied people can claim to fully understand living with a disability. But like Einstein, I do share with other people who live with disabilities an understanding of how discrimination works and how it wastes human potential. We can all empathize and work with others to end that waste. In that regard, this book is not the final word on that needed full history, but it does provide a solid base for further work. 

In my own field, people with disabilities have long felt the described sanctions of caste. Divine authority is shown in claims of a condition being the results of someone’s sin or lack of faith. This leads to calls for submission to healers. There is also control of daily activities, whether from lack of accommodation or inability to pay the high price of suitable transportation. And the phrase “marriage equality” also rings with overtones of control as meager benefits are cut or genetic purity is pursued.

Thinking about those sanctions, Wilkerson brings up two points. First is that we are not personally responsible for what people who look like us did centuries ago—but we are responsible for what good or ill we do to people with us today. Theologically, we are all responsible for treating others as we would like others to treat us. Second, we don’t get to tell a person with a broken leg or a bullet wound that they are or are not in pain. We should listen to the cry of those who are suffering.  

Disabled people are also well aware of those who tell us what we need.  These would be the people who organize telethons portraying us as people to be pitied, adorn us with childish terms such as “special needs,” advocate against insurance coverage reform, call us an “inspiration” and urge “overcoming,” and otherwise put us in a system requiring that we are docile and submit to the system and don’t come up with ideas like “nothing about us without us.” Disabled people are also familiar with stratification structures that leave us behind. This book shows an important need not only in race, but for disabilities, and especially for those caught in the intersection of both.

 Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, with a promise to return it within three weeks. That promise has been kept. 

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