In Ancient Law (1861), Sir Henry Maine spoke of occasions where ‘that division into classes which at a particular crisis of social history is necessary for the maintenance of the national existence degenerates into the most disastrous and blighting of all human institutions – Caste. The fate of the Hindoo law is, in fact the measure of the value of the Roman code…..Even now, Hindoo jurisprudence has a substratum of forethought and sound judgment, but irrational imitation has engrafted in it an immense apparatus of cruel absurdities.’ The Oxford English Dictionary gives us ‘a race, stock or breed….one of the hereditary classes into which society in India has long been divided.’
Caste therefore has at least these characteristics: a division of people of a community into classes is effected by criteria and means provided within the community so that it is binding by custom or law or both; that classification is hereditary – you are born into a particular caste; and the distinction carries different rights, privileges and obligations depending on where you are in the hierarchy.
In Caste, The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson compares the status of African Americans to those that had caste imposed upon them in India or in Germany under Hitler. I doubt whether the status of those Americans would warrant the application of the term ‘caste’ in the sense referred to above, but the exploration of that standing provides insights that are as luminous as they are unsettling.
Here are some of the anecdotes.
In southern courtrooms, even the word of God was segregated. There were two separate Bibles – one for blacks and one for whites to swear to tell the truth on.
The Führer admired America. He attributed its achievements to its Aryan stock. He praised the country’s near genocide of native Americans and the exiling of those who survived to reservations. ‘The Nazis were impressed by the American custom of lynching its subordinate caste of African-Americans, having become aware of ritual torture and mutilations that typically accompanied them. Hitler especially marvelled at the American ‘knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass deaths.’’
Big crowds would turn up for a lynching. Sometimes the press gave advanced notice of a lynching. ‘Lynchings were part carnival, part torture chamber, and attracted thousands of onlookers who collectively became accomplices to public sadism.’ A roaring trade in postcards helped spread the guilt. ‘This was singularly American. ‘Even the Nazis did not stoop to selling souvenirs at Auschwitz,’ wrote Time magazine many years later.’ Singularly American indeed. When the post refused to carry these post-cards, the sender put them in an envelope.
‘In America, a culture of cruelty crept into the minds, made violence and mockery seem mundane and amusing, built as it was into games of chance at carnivals and public fairs.’ ‘Coon Dip’ involved patrons hurling projectiles at live African Americans. Hurling baseballs at the head of a black man was great sport. Baseball, you will recall, is the national sport.
Now for some of the meat.
Those in the dominant caste who found themselves lagging behind those seen as inherently inferior potentially faced an epic existential crisis. To stand on the same rung as those perceived to be of a lower caste is seen as lowering one’s status….The elevation of others amounts to a demotion of oneself; thus equality feels like a demotion. If the lower-caste person manages actually to rise above an upper-caste person, the natural human response from someone weaned on their caste’s inherent superiority is to perceive a threat to their existence, a heightened sense of unease, of displacement, of fear for their very survival….Who are you if there is no one to be better than?
In explosions in France in 1789, and Russia in 1917, the infighting was about those wanting to be at least close to the top – and certainly not close to the bottom. This attitude underlay the Nazis’ demonization of the Jews. It is a sentiment in the air at a MAGA rally. The torch-bearers at Charlottesville Virginia in August 2017 chanted ‘Jews will not replace us’ and ‘White lives matter.’ The reaction of the President showed the depth of the problem. When Trump referred to ‘fine people’ at Charlottesville, the world knew that the problem it had with the White House was worse than we had thought.
As soon as you create a hierarchy that rewards people by their standing in that hierarchy, you give fuel to resentment and jealousy – and the conviction that the unjust treatment you have received is an offence that cries out for revenge. The question to the aristocrat The Marriage of Figaro was ‘And what did you do except take the trouble to be born?’ But people rising above their levels create their own problems.
It turns out that the greatest threat to a caste system is not lower-caste failure…but lower-caste success… Achievement by those in the lowest caste goes gainst the script handed down to us all….Achievement by marginalised people who step outside the roles expected of them puts things out of order and triggers primeval and often violent backlash.
This looks like the kind of force behind the election of Trump and his irrational drive to reverse anything Obama had achieved: anything – the achievements of Obama were outside the normal script. They were unnatural, and Trump was put there by God to set things right.
The author looks at film of the crowd’s adoration of Hitler. ‘In that moment, you are face-to-face with the force of willing susceptibility to evil. The Nazis could not have risen to power and done what they did without the support of the masses of people who were open to his spell. And the author has the same view as Hanna Arendt. She quotes a philosopher: ‘It’s tempting to imagine that the Germans were (or are) a uniquely cruel and bloodthirsty people. But these diagnoses are dangerously wrong. What’s most disturbing about the Nazi phenomenon is not that the Nazis were madmen or monsters. It’s that they were ordinary human beings.’ This is crucial. There is a bit of Hitler in all of us.
The author refers to ‘tremors within the dominant caste. Insecure white people were concerned that minorities were taking jobs from whites. This was one lever pulled by Trump. This point is pivotal. In a chapter on the price we pay for a caste system, the author looks at the failure to adopt the welfare state enjoyed by the rest of the Western world – and to the indifference to mass shootings. Most Australians think that the U S is decently run except for two things – a failure to provide universal health care, and the embrace of mass murders involving guns that comes from a hopelessly twisted theory of rights according to unelected judges. This leads the author to say:
A caste system builds rivalry and distrust and lack of empathy toward one’s fellows. The result is that the United States, for all its wealth and innovation, lags in major indicators of quality of life among the leading countries of the world.
You cannot prove or even measure these propositions, but they do appear to be fundamental. The nation has never rid itself of the stain of slavery. It is not going too far to suggest that the nation has not attained the maturity claimed by the pronouncements of its founders (who, it may be said, were anything but democrats according to our understanding of that term.) Robert E Lee was a southern gentleman and a great general. He told those of his slaves that had escaped that he ‘would teach us a lesson we would never forget. He personally supervised the whipping of men and women. He told the county constable to ‘lay it on well.’ Then, not satisfied ‘with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.’ The General believed that ‘how long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise merciful Providence.’ God save us from that wisdom and mercy. Lee is one of trump’s favourite generals.
The institution of slavery was, for a quarter of a millennium, the conversion of human beings into currency, into machines who existed solely for the profit of their owners, to be worked as long as the owners desired, who had no rights over their bodies or loved ones, who could be mortgaged, bred, won in a bet, given as wedding presents, bequeathed to heirs, sold away from spouses or children to cover an owner’s death or to spite a rival or to settle an estate. They were regularly whipped, raped, and branded, subjected to any whim or distemper of the people who owned them. Some were castrated or endured other tortures too grisly for these pages, tortures that the Geneva Conventions would have banned as war crimes had the conventions applied to people of African descent on this soil.
Before there was a United States of America, there was enslavement. Theirs was a living death passed down for twelve generations.
It may well take a lot longer to settle the treatment of that cancer than we had thought. This book by a coloured American journalist states a case to be answered.