A series of sentinel events, culminating in the death of George Floyd, focused the nation’s attention on the many forms of racism in the U.S.

The attempts to analyze, understand and address racism seem to point in a variety of directions.

On the one hand, racism can be seen as discrete acts done by individuals who divide people into socially constructed categories and treat persons in one category differently from persons in another. People who consistently make such distinctions and act upon them are called racist.

Often these distinctions are made at a subconscious level, and people can vary in the extent to which these racial distinctions are made and acted out. To what extent one must act in racist ways to be labelled a racist person is undetermined.

People who are otherwise very understanding and nonjudgmental can, at times, slip back into learned patterns, and their subconscious racial categorizations can be seen in things they say or do without intentionally adopting a racist attitude.

So, it may be well to distinguish between specific racist actions and describing persons as racist, through and through.

I grew up in the 1950’s in the Jim Crow South. Until I was 16 years old, I lived in a parish which was about 60% African American and 40% white.

On a map drawn in 1861 showing the percentage of the population who were slaves in each county of the Confederacy, my parish had 88.3% slaves, the fifth highest of all the counties on the map.

The residual effects were still in evidence 100 years later. The culture was permeated by paternalistic assumptions about race as a category and as an unannounced means of making distinctions and assigning worth.

My doctor’s office had two storefronts, with a waiting room for white patients and a separate one for Black patients. Similarly, the dime store had two water fountains, every gas station had three restrooms, and the restaurants that were open to serving Black customers did so only at a side window.

I attended segregated schools until the 11th grade. The tracks of the Illinois Central Railroad divided the town into two separate realms. The section to the west was called “Colored Town” by some. Others had a more pejorative name.

While my immediate family did not use hateful language or engage in any overt harassment of any individuals, there was a kind of paternalistic approach to daily life in that environment.

This inevitably had an influence on me in conscious and subconscious ways, even to this day. I was only able to begin to recognize that influence and seek to address it when I moved to another part of the country.

Going to college in the midst of the civil rights movement had an effect on my awareness and desire to change the attitudes and behaviors of my early years. It is a process that will continue for the rest of my life.

With that background in mind, the book about racism which has had the greatest impact on me has been Caste by Isabel Wilkerson.

She describes systemic racism as a caste system. Her choice of language fits well with my experience, though I had not thought of that term until reading her book.

Comparing the systemic racism in the U.S. to the caste systems of India and the Third Reich in Germany, Wilkerson shows how these systems place individuals into categories based on characteristics with which they are born.

In some instances, they are physical characteristics like skin color. In others, they are social or behavioral characteristics like surname or patterns of deference and interaction between classes of people. In still other cases, religion, profession or sexual orientation are the basis for distinctions to be made.

The classification of individuals into castes is based on fixed features, and all persons with those features are presumed by the system to be in the same caste.

Persons in positions of power make decisions about all kinds of matters that put people in the “lower” caste at a disadvantage. These include social benefits, such as health care and education, as well as access to employment opportunities, housing, food, safe environments, transportation and a host of other advantages which people in the “upper” caste take for granted.

It is important to make a distinction between caste and class.

Class distinctions exist and put some people at a disadvantage. Class is determined by things you can work yourself out of. Caste distinctions are lifelong and cannot be overcome by hard work or individual merit.

While there has long been recognition that certain individuals are disadvantaged in the distribution of social benefits, using the metaphor of caste to describe this reality has an impact of raising the level of consciousness of these inequities on the part of all who hear and accept the term.

It is one thing to acknowledge that individuals are treated unequally. It is another to acknowledge that whole castes of people experience unequal treatment based only on permanent characteristics of theirs by which have been arbitrarily assigned to receive fewer or less desirable social goods than others.

The label “caste” has a jarring ring to it, which identifies the systemic realities in a more focused way.

Wilkerson suggests that the foundations of the caste systems she identifies have been a series of “pillars” that were essential to supporting the separation of the upper caste from the lower caste and the unequal treatment that each received.

Without these pillars, the distinctions may not have held, and the upper caste would have seen its privileges threatened.

These pillars included divine will and the laws of nature, heritability, control of marriage and mating, notions of purity and pollution, occupational hierarchy, dehumanization and stigmatization, terror as enforcement, and inherent superiority or inferiority.

Wilkerson makes a compelling argument that these forces were put in play at the outset of these caste systems and that they remain in play in our own day.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two, which explores how Wilkerson’s concept of caste as a description of racial injustice relates to the global pandemic, is available here.

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