Isabel Wilkerson describes systemic racism as a caste in her book Caste.
She makes a compelling case for how this system continues to influence the U.S. social order, as I explored in yesterday’s article.
If we accept her argument that our own society retains elements of a caste system that supports overt and tacit racial distinctions, then what has that to do with pandemic?
The impact of caste occurs over a span of decades and centuries. As such, it becomes pervasive in ways that are not recognized.
Pandemics are accidents of nature. As we could expect, the emergency of the pandemic ran full force into realities that have existed for centuries.
One obvious implication is that the caste system created disparities in the health status of the castes.
The differential treatment of individuals based on caste has led to differences in rates of acute and chronic diseases, in longevity, in infant mortality and in all measures of wellness.
When a pandemic arrives, it is only natural that its effects will fall unevenly on the population.
Those less healthy at the outset will fall victim to its impact more easily. Morbidity and mortality rates among the castes will be different. That has been the case in the present pandemic.
Another implication is that resources of various sorts –healthcare, education, nutrition and housing, to name a few – are unequally available to members of the upper and lower castes.
Access to electronic devices and the internet is important resource which members of the upper caste rely on heavily and that is less available to the others.
From gathering information about the pandemic to scheduling appointments for testing, treatment and vaccination, the negative effects of the caste system are compounded by this disparity.
A third implication is that the long-standing caste system has given rise to a distrust of the medical system by members of the lower caste.
There are large issues of specific examples of betrayal which have led to the distrust. Chief among them is the “Tuskegee Experiment.”
On its own, it would be a sufficient basis for distrust. It is surely compounded by many smaller, individual acts by providers who have acted in ways that, intentionally or not, provide a reason not to trust the medical system.
The result is reluctance to accept data about the pandemic and the various interventions proposed to address it. That could include diagnoses, prognoses and treatments, as well as vaccines and other vital information.
Other realities shaped by the caste system are not revealed by simply looking at data about caste disparities.
One is the fact that members of the upper caste are not truly able to understand or speak about the experience of members of the lower caste. Pandemics only heighten this problem.
When all members of society are under the stress of concern for safety, and when all are feeling isolated and removed from the routines of daily life and normal social bonds, the capacity for empathy and understanding of others is reduced.
There are signs of altruism and the influence of the “betters angels of our nature” in spite of the pandemic conditions. While laudable, philanthropy is no substitute for justice. We need less of the former when there is more of the latter.
The graded ranking of human value appears in subtle ways, often at a subconscious level. It is a scheme that has been socially created and is not a function of nature.
Members of the lower caste are deemed to be less worthy of standing, protection, respect, benefit of the doubt and access to resources. One’s standing in the hierarchy plays a role in assessment of competence and worthiness.
At the same time, members of the lower caste have been put at greater risk during the pandemic by having roles as essential workers whose jobs must be done in person rather than remotely.
At the end of her book, Wilkerson talks about the future.
With an example like Germany in the recent past, she does not presume that it is inevitable that we will emerge from a caste system any time soon. However, she does speak about three important factors that could play a role if we will let them.
The first is awakening. The purpose of her book is not to prescribe a way out. It is simply to describe the way we are.
Wilkerson’s hope is that by presenting an accurate picture of the situation, readers will awaken to a reality they had not seen before. Only then will be change be possible.
We see the term “woke” thrown around. Perhaps there is a connection, but the change she speaks of is more than a surface acknowledgement that there is a problem. It is taking the knowledge gained and acting to dismantle the system that is in place.
The second trait she describes is empathy. It is not feeling sorry for someone who has experienced pain or deprivation. It is seeking to understand, to the extent that is possible, the emotional and inner life of another.
Until members of the upper caste can experience empathy for those who, for a reason over which they had no control, experience lack of access to all of life’s rights and benefits, we will not move forward.
The third item she mentions is a sense of wonder. Here we stop to think about and imagine what a world without caste would look like.
We have available a powerful tool to begin the search for a better place to be.
Wonder has been lacking in the pandemic. It is, however, the most basic ingredient in social change.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here.