Caste is the bones, race is the skin

Isabel Wilkerson has a new book out about the caste system in the US. She talked about it on Fresh Air:

TERRY GROSS: When my guest Isabel Wilkerson was writing her book “The Warmth Of Other Suns” about the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North looking to escape the lynchings, the cross burnings, the terrorism and the lack of opportunity in the South, she says she realized she wasn’t writing about geography and relocation; she was writing about the American caste system.

Now she’s written a new book called “Caste” that explains why she thinks America can be described as having a caste system and how if we use that expression, it deepens our understanding of what Black people have been up against in America. She compares America with the caste system in India and writes about how the Nazi leadership borrowed from American racist laws and the American eugenics movement.

It makes sense. The issue here isn’t just racism; it’s slavery. It’s the way that slavery has gone on keeping a caste as a caste even after slavery formally ended. As a nation we’ve conceptualized the criminals as the superior caste and their victims as the slave caste…which is a very fucked-up way to conceptualize anything.

GROSS: Ten years ago, when you wrote “The Warmth Of Other Suns,” you used the word caste system to refer to the segregated South. And you wrote, (reading) in the decades between Reconstruction and the enforcement of civil rights laws, nearly every Black family in the American South had a decision to make. The decision was to stay in the South’s segregated caste system or make the pilgrimage North or West in the hope of escaping racism and having more access to jobs, housing and other opportunities.

What made you think of using the word caste system to describe America as a whole? In that paragraph, you used it to describe the American South.

ISABEL WILKERSON: Well, I found that the word racism, which is often applied to discussions of interactions among and between African Americans and other groups in this country – I found that term to be insufficient to capture the rigid social hierarchy and the repression that they were born into and that, in fact, everyone in that regime had to live under. And so I turned to the word caste, which is a word that had been used by anthropologists and social scientists who went in to study the Jim Crow era in the 1930s in particular. And they emerged from their ethnography, they emerged from their time there with the term caste as the language to use to describe what they found when they went there.

And so I came to that word as had they. That is the term that is more precise. It is more comprehensive, and it gets at the underlying infrastructure that often we cannot see but that is there undergirding much of the inequality and injustices and disparities that we live with in this country.

I think that’s right. I hope the usage catches on. Gross asked her to explain the difference.

WILKERSON: Well, it’s a difference in some ways between what one would consider caste versus race to begin with. I think of caste as the bones and race as the skin. And that allows us to see that race is a tool of the underlying structure that we live with, that race is merely the signal and cue to where one fits in the caste system. And caste system is actually an artificial hierarchy. It’s a graded ranking of human value in a society that determines the standing and respect, the benefit of the doubt and access to resources, assumptions of competence and even of beauty through no fault or action of one’s own. You’re just born to it. And so caste focuses in on the infrastructure of our divisions and the rankings, whereas race is the metric that’s used to determine one’s place in that or one’s assignment in that caste system.

It’s the older term, that long predates “race,” which is only a few hundred years old.

It was waiting for them when they moved north.

WILKERSON: Oh, exactly. In fact, they left one hierarchy – rigid formal hierarchy known as Jim Crow, in which it was against the law for a Black person and a white person to merely play checkers together, with all of the restrictions that attended that and also the enforcement that was often brutal, but then they migrated away from that and found and discovered that, actually, caste shadowed them wherever they went and that the response to their arrival was, in fact, the methods that became known, as Northern people at the time called it, James Crow, in which there were restrictive covenants that meant that white homeowners, even if they wanted to sell to Black people, Black potential buyers, were prevented by the restrictions that were embedded in their deeds and, also, of course, redlining, which meant that the government would not back mortgages in neighborhoods where there were – where African Americans lived, which meant that it was exceedingly difficult for African Americans, until the 1960s, to merely get a mortgage to buy a home, which is, of course, one of the most prominent and relied-upon methods of building wealth in America, which means that there have been continuing generations-long disparity in access to the most basic American dream.

All that was racist but it was even more fundamentally a caste system. I think that’s one big reason the “But I’m not racist” interjection is generally so beside the point. It’s not about personal attitudes or whether one is nice or not, it’s about systems with roots that go down to the center of the earth. We can’t fix them just by being Not Racist.

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