Casteism and Racism II: The Racist Caste System of America
To make Black lives better, understanding the historical context for the plight of Black Americans today is a useful first step. Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson’s book — Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents — gives us just that. A few excerpts from the book are here.
Wilkerson’s book is only briefly about the caste system in India, which is a complicated societal construct that spans millenniums and has many interpretations. It is mostly about the enduring racist hierarchy in America in which Black Americans are at the bottom rung like the untouchables in the caste system. It tells of a meticulously designed caste-like system in colonial America that has brutally enslaved, oppressed, and dehumanized Black Americans for about 400 years.
Enslave them. One of early legal changes in colonial America in the 1600’s was to redefine the rules of heritability, so that whether a child was slave or free depended on the mother’s race instead of the father — a change from the English precedent. This change served two purposes. Children of Black mothers remained slaves. Children born of routine abuse of Black women by white men remained slaves. Black men who dared mingle with white women or broke other laws of segregation were lynched lawfully. In one harrowing tale, fifteen-year old Willie James Howard, having just passed the tenth grade, dared to write a Christmas card in December 1943 to a white girl Cynthia, and signed with L (for love). He followed it with an apology cum loving note on New Year’s Day, on learning he could be in trouble. The next day he was tied and forced to jump into the Suwannee River to his death, as his dad was forced to watch at gun point. The offenders were not prosecuted.
Oppress them. The laws kept Black people from advancing by restricting what jobs they could hold. South Carolina, for example, restricted them to farm and domestic (household) work. As recently as 1930’s, only 5% of Black men were in other work, even then work that catered to only other Blacks. Any Black success story was quickly squashed. In one example, in 1890’s, a successful Black grocer Thomas Moss in Memphis, Tennessee and his two employees were lynched at the instigation of his white competitor William Barrett, who took over Moss’ business for pennies.
Dehumanize them. Dehumanization of Black people makes it easier to justify enslaving and oppressing them brutally. Slave actions and lynching were public spectacles designed to humiliate Black people and render every individual of that group inferior and powerless. Imagery in drawings and movies of Black Americans as lazy, unattractive, and unintelligent enabled their dehumanization and made them easy targets of mockery and violence.
The system that has brutalized and stigmatized Black Americans for centuries does not disappear in the face of a few Civil Rights laws. It has tenets and tentacles that permeate the attitudes and actions of all Americans, including newer immigrants. We should unshackle its grip to make Black lives better.
A bit about me.
Educated immigrants like me are busy living the American dream that we have no time to ponder Black American dreams that have been shattered.