America’s ‘Untouchables’: Our Caste System

“Part II continues the discussion of a system of hierarchy embedded in our economy, education and political system that has progressed since the revolutionary days. Our proposed freedom came over 155 years ago but this freedom is fleeting and obscured with daily reminders from a controlled audience who prey upon still left in poverty the new meaning of caste system.”

Across time and culture, the caste systems of three very different countries have stood out, each in their own way. The tragically accelerated, chilling and officially vanquished caste system of Nazi Germany. The lingering, millennia-long caste system of India. And the shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the US. Each version 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.

As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theatre, the flashlight cast down the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. 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.

As a means of assigning value to entire swaths of humankind, caste guides each of us, often beyond the reaches of our awareness. It embeds into our bones an unconscious ranking of human characteristics, and sets forth the rules, expectations and stereotypes that have been used to justify brutalities against entire groups within our species. 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.

Racial segregation at a bus station in North Carolina in 1940.

Race does the heavy lifting for a caste system that demands a means of human division. If we have been trained to see humans in the language of race, then caste is the underlying grammar that we encode as children, as when learning our mother tongue. Caste, like grammar, becomes an invisible guide not only to how we speak, but to how we process information – the autonomic calculations that figure into a sentence without our having to think about it. Many of us have never taken a class in grammar, yet we know in our bones that a transitive verb takes an object, that a subject needs a predicate, and we know without thinking the difference between third-person singular and third-person plural. We might mention “race”, referring to people as black or white or Latino or Asian or indigenous, when what lies beneath each label is centuries of history, and the assigning of assumptions and values to physical features in a structure of human hierarchy.

What people look like – or rather, the race they have been assigned, or are perceived to belong to – is the visible cue to their caste. It is the historic flashcard to the public, showing how people are to be treated, where they are expected to live, what kinds of positions they are expected to hold, whether they belong in this section of town or that seat in a boardroom, whether they should be expected to speak with authority on this or that subject, whether they will be administered pain relief in a hospital, whether their neighbourhood is likely to adjoin a toxic waste site or to have contaminated water flowing from their taps, whether they are more or less likely to survive childbirth in the most advanced nation in the world, whether they may be shot by authorities with impunity.

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.

Caste is not a term often applied to the US. It is considered the language of India or feudal Europe. But some anthropologists and scholars of race in the US have made use of the term for decades. Before the modern era, 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.”

We cannot fully understand the current upheavals, or almost any turning point in American history, without accounting for the human pyramid that is encrypted into us all. The caste system, and the attempts to defend, uphold or abolish the hierarchy, underlay the American civil war and the civil rights movement a century later, and pervade the politics of the 21st-century US. Just as DNA is the code of instructions for cell development, caste has been the operating system for economic, political and social interaction in the US since the time of its gestation.

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 – and that perhaps it was the only term that really addressed what seemed a stubbornly fixed ranking of human value.

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.”

There was little confusion among some of the leading white supremacists of the previous century as to the connections between India’s caste system and that of the American south, where the purest legal caste system in the US existed. “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 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 from Bombay. 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 embraced the term Dalits, meaning “broken people” – which, due to the caste system, they were.

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