American Caste

When I think of a caste system, I think of India. Though it has been outlawed in India since independence, it is still very much alive.  Much of the time today you know by the surname of the person who is of higher caste and who should be subordinate. “Caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.” A caste system has several principles or characteristics that define it.  There is a belief that the inequality is divinely or naturally ordained.  You inherit your inferior status from your parents. This means that it is wrong for people of two different castes to marry. Your caste status decides what job you can do.  There are fears of an upper caste being polluted by a lower inferior caste.  The upper castes are more superior than the lower castes.  The lower castes are less human than the upper castes. Violations of these principles would result in severe punishment.  The resulting caste system is more than just a rank.  It creates a state of mind that affects all in the culture.

I believe there is an American Caste System that is alive and well in the USA.  While it is no longer codified into law and I believe we have made major improvements toward racial and ethic equality, it is still a part of American culture. Like the air around us, we may not realize it but it is there as an unconscious bias in our culture.  We need to be aware of this unconscious bias and fight against it.  Today being racist is a bad thing, but less than 100 years ago skin color was a defining factor and racism was the norm.  African-Americans were considered to be the lowest caste and their status was cruelly enforced in many ways.  

One extreme way of enforcing compliance through terror was by lynching, which was usually by hanging.  Many times it was not a secretive event.  Many times it would be publicized and there would be crowds and a photographer who sold pictures and postcards of the event.  People would buy souvenirs and mail off the postcards.  Lynchings were events that terrified the African-Americans and comforted the Whites in their superior status in society.  More common was the beatings that were inflicted on the lower caste.

According to a 2017 study, 59% of poor people depicted in the news are African-American when they make up only 27% of the poor people in America.  (Only 22% of African-Americans are poor.)  66% of poor people are White and yet the White poor were depicted in the news only 17% of the time. African-Americans represent 37% of criminals shown in the news, but consist of 26% of those arrested.   The FBI crime reports show Whites make up 77% of crime suspects and yet the news media portray Whites as criminals only 28% of the time. Ask yourself, why the disproportionate coverage of African-Americans in poverty and crime.  Could it be an unconscious bias (or a conscious bias) that is supporting the American Caste System?  I believe this is an effect of the caste system, and it is still alive and well today, even if we do not realize it.

The caste system was not just Whites and African-Americans. There were subcategories or classes.  If you were from Northwestern Europe (English, Dutch, German, Scandinavian, etc.) with the exception of the Irish then you were in a higher class than those Irish and those from Southern Europe or Eastern Europe. If you were from outside of Europe, then you were in a lower class than the Europeans. There were also the economic classes where you were of a higher class if you were richer.  But the big difference is that the discrimination was codified for the African-Americans (and in many cases for other non-whites too).  The African-Americans were the lowest level of the American Caste System with Native Americans possibly there too. These caste distinctions still exist today though sometimes “quotas” reverse the discrimination in hiring.

I have a relative who is African-American.  He dresses up to go shopping.  Why?  He wants to avoid being mistakenly arrested.  He has been followed several times through a store by store employees.  He will lead them to a remote part of the store and then turn and tell them they do not need to be following him. He knows what is happening because he was at one time in charge of an anti-shoplifting effort at a store.  He also does not run at night.  He does things that a White person would not consider necessary to do to make certain those around him are not mistakenly concerned.  I believe this fear is a remnant of caste behavior.  Unfortunately there are still good reasons for his behavior, because Whites have a tendency to judge the actions of African-Americans more harshly.  Many Whites expect the worst from an African-American.  Again this is caste behavior by the Whites.  Would you rather meet a big muscular Black person in an alley or a big muscular White person in the alley? I admit I would be less afraid of the White person.  That is an unconscious bias of this caste system that I need to fight against. 

We need to recognize that there is a caste system in place and it will take a lot of effort and time to remove it from the American consciousness.  But to dig deeper into the problem, we find that we are selfish sinful people.  That is the real problem, and that means hierarchical discrimination is worldwide and not just in America and India.  America and India have in the past been more extreme in their discrimination.  

As a Christian, I need to be aware of the caste system, recognize it, and fight against it by giving everyone the love, respect and dignity they deserve as a human being regardless of their skin color.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  We are not there yet. People are still being judged by their skin color. Unfortunately, it still matters in American society.

I was inspired to write this post by the book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent” by Isabel Wilkerson

PS My thoughts that follow do not apply to caste systems directly but to the poor.  What makes it hard for them to climb the economic ladder? The lack of available cash or inherited wealth can keep a poor person from college or starting their own business.  When you are living from paycheck to paycheck with no funds for anything extra, it becomes hard to improve your life. (Yes, there are some grants and loans available to those who qualify and are able to navigate the requirements.)  My parents paid for my room and board at college.  My grandmother gave me some cash to help me buy a car.  When my parents died, I received some funds that made me feel like I was finally going to have enough money to be able to retire.   Those little gifts helped me.  A poor person does not have access to those funds and opportunities. A rich person has access to a lot more possibilities with all the extra funds that are available to them.  What more can we do for the poor to give them more opportunities?

One thought on “American Caste

  1. yes, this has been a problem in our society…and our history.. this is why we need to show kindness and consideration to all people.. especially those who have been in the lower casts..
    thanks for bringing this to our consciousness…

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