Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The American Caste System

Caste is not a term often applied to the US. It is considered the language of India.

Martin Luther King Jr and his wife, Coretta, journeyed to the city of Trivandrum in the state of Kerala, and visited with high-school students whose families were untouchables. The principal made the introduction.
“Young people,” he said, “I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.”
“For a moment,” he wrote, “I was a bit shocked and peeved that I would be referred to as an untouchable.”
Then he began to think about the reality of the lives of the people he was fighting for – 20 million people, consigned to the lowest rank in the US for centuries, “still smothering in an airtight cage of poverty,” quarantined in isolated ghettoes, exiled in their own country.
And he said to himself: “Yes, I am an untouchable, and every negro in the United States of America is an untouchable.” 
In that moment, he realised that the land of the free had imposed a caste system not unlike the caste system of India, and that he had lived under that system all of his life. It was what lay beneath the forces he was fighting in the US.  A human hierarchy had evolved in the United States, reinforced by their self-interested interpretation of the Bible, a hierarchy of who could do what, who could own what, who was on top and who was on the bottom and who was in between. 
In 1913, Bhimrao Ambedkar, a man born to the bottom of India’s caste system, born an untouchable in the central provinces, arrived in New York City. He came to the US to study economics as a graduate student at Columbia, focused on the differences between race, caste and class. Living just blocks from Harlem, he would see first-hand the condition of his counterparts in the US. He completed his thesis just as the film The Birth of a Nation – the incendiary homage to the Confederate south – premiered in New York in 1915. He would study further in London and return to India to become the foremost leader of the untouchables, and a pre-eminent intellectual who would help draft a new Indian constitution. He would work to dispense with the demeaning term “untouchable”. He rejected the term Harijans, which had been applied to them by Gandhi, to their minds patronisingly. He renamed his people Dalits, meaning “broken people” – which, due to the caste system, they were. It is hard to know what effect his exposure to the American social order had on him personally. But over the years, he paid close attention, as did many Dalits, to the subordinate caste in the US. Indians had long been aware of the plight of enslaved Africans, and of their descendants in the US. In 946, acting on news that black Americans were petitioning the United Nations for protection as minorities, Ambedkar reached out to the best-known African American intellectual of the day, WEB Du Bois. He told Du Bois that he had been a “student of the Negro problem” from across the oceans, and recognised their common fates.
“There is so much similarity between the position of the Untouchables in India and of the position of the Negroes in America,” Ambedkar wrote to Du Bois, “that the study of the latter is not only natural but necessary.”
Du Bois wrote back to Ambedkar to say that he was, indeed, familiar with him, and that he had “every sympathy with the Untouchables of India”. It had been Du Bois who seemed to have spoken for the marginalised in both countries as he identified the double consciousness of their existence. And it was Du Bois who, decades before, had invoked an Indian concept in channelling the “bitter cry” of his people in the US: “Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?”
There emerged a ladder of humanity, global in nature, as the upper-rung people would descend from Europe, with rungs inside that designation – the English Protestants at the very top, as their guns and resources would ultimately prevail in the bloody fight for North America. Everyone else would rank in descending order, on the basis of their proximity to those deemed most superior. The ranking would continue downward until one arrived at the very bottom: African captives transported in order to build the New World and to serve the victors for all their days, one generation after the next, for 12 generations. There developed a caste system, based upon what people looked like – an internalised ranking, unspoken, unnamed and unacknowledged by everyday citizens even as they go about their lives adhering to it and acting upon it subconsciously, to this day. 
The American caste system began in the years after the arrival of the first Africans to the Colony of Virginia 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 categorised 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”.
Caste is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of others, on the basis of ancestry and often of immutable traits – traits that would be neutral in the abstract, but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favouring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places.  The lingering, millennia-long caste system of India and the shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the US relied on stigmatising those deemed inferior in order to justify the dehumanisation necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom, and to rationalise the protocols of enforcement. A caste system endures because it is often justified as divine will, originating from a sacred text or the presumed laws of nature, reinforced throughout the culture and passed down through the generations.
The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power: which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources: which caste is seen as worthy of them, and which are not; who gets to acquire and control them, and who does not. It is about respect, authority and assumptions of competence: who is accorded these, and who is not. In the American caste system, the signal of rank is what we call race, the division of humans on the basis of their appearance. In the US, race is the primary tool and the visible decoy – the frontman – for caste.
Caste and race are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive. They can and do coexist in the same culture, and serve to reinforce each other. Caste is the bones, race the skin. Race is what we can see, the physical traits that have been given arbitrary meaning and become shorthand for who a person is. Caste is the powerful infrastructure that holds each group in its place. Caste is fixed and rigid. Race is fluid and superficial, subject to periodic redefinition to meet the needs of the dominant caste in what is now the US. While the requirements to qualify as white have changed over the centuries, the fact of a dominant caste has remained constant from its inception – whoever fit the definition of white, at whatever point in history, was granted the legal rights and privileges of the dominant caste. Perhaps more critically and tragically, at the other end of the ladder, the subordinated caste, too, has been fixed from the beginning as the psychological floor beneath which all other castes cannot fall.
One of the earliest Americans to take up the idea of caste was the antebellum abolitionist and US senator Charles Sumner, as he fought against segregation in the north. “The separation of children in the Public Schools of Boston, on account of color or race,” he wrote, “is in the nature of Caste, and on this account is a violation of Equality.” He quoted a fellow humanitarian: “Caste makes distinctions among creatures where God has made none.”
 “A record of the desperate efforts of the conquering upper classes in India to preserve the purity of their blood persists to until this very day in their carefully regulated system of castes,” wrote Madison Grant, a popular eugenicist, in his 1916 bestseller, The Passing of the Great Race. “In our Southern States, Jim Crow cars and social discriminations have exactly the same purpose.”
In 1944, the Swedish social economist Gunnar Myrdal and a team of the most talented researchers in the country produced a 2,800-page, two-volume work that is still considered perhaps the most comprehensive study of race in the US. It was titled An American Dilemma. Myrdal’s investigation into race led him to the realisation that the most accurate term to describe the workings of US society was not race, but caste.
The anthropologist Ashley Montagu was among the first to argue that race is a human invention – a social construct, not a biological one – and that in seeking to understand the divisions and disparities in the US, we have typically fallen into the quicksand and mythology of race. “When we speak of ‘the race problem in America’,” he wrote in 1942, “what we really mean is the caste system and the problems which that caste system creates in America.”

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