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America’s Race Based Caste System Is Not Going Away

By Marvin Zonis

Writing in the New York Times, Dwight Garner had these thoughts about Isabel Wilkerson’s, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, “that strikes me as an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far. It made the back of my neck prickle from its first pages, and that feeling never went away. . . I told more than one person, as I moved through my days this past week, that I was reading one of the most powerful nonfiction books I’d ever encountered.”[1]

Wilkerson makes the case that racism is an inadequate concept to capture the American experience and instead proposes caste. She examines caste in India and the ways in which Jews In Nazi Germany were the victims of caste-like thinking.

As a result of the pervasiveness of caste in American life, African Americans have been consigned to the bottom of the hierarchy since the beginning of slavery. She recounts horrifying incidents in American history of violence used against Blacks to solidify the permanence of the caste structure. Then there were added explicit government policies to preclude Blacks from enjoying the so-called “American dream.”

She writes on page p. 383: “To imagine an end to caste in America, we need only look at the history of Germany. It is living proof that if a caste system  -- the twelve year reign of the Nazis – can be created, it can be dismantled.”

And then, finally, after 388 pages of cringe worthy U.S. caste history, she offers up her solution -- an empathy infused awareness accompanied by a new sense of self-responsibility.

There is nothing in these ideas that ought to make anyone optimistic.

Let’s start with the Nazis. The Nazi system lasted 12 years and the American – since 1619.

The four allied powers which controlled Germany after its defeat—the US, USSR, UK and France – all instituted denazification programs. Under those programs, for example, over 400,000 Germans were held in internment camps and every letter sent by Germans was read by allied censors. By, July 1945, 15,000 people were involved in the censorship of communications. Some 30,000 book titles were identified that might contribute to Nazism or militarism and all books with those titles were confiscated and destroyed.

These programs continued until at least 1950 with the new German government assuming much of the task.

In short, denazification did not just happen and there is no parallel whatsoever with how caste might be brought under control in the U.S.

What about greater self-awareness and self-responsibility? Equally unlikely anytime soon.

Thomas Edsall put it as bluntly as possible:

“The center-right political coalition in America — the Republican Party as it stands today — can be described as holding two overarching goals: First, deregulation and reductions in corporate and other tax liabilities — each clearly stated on the White House website — and second, but packing a bigger punch, the preservation of the status quo by stemming the erosion of the privileged status of white Christian America.”[2]

As long as one of our major political parties seeks political advantage by stoking white anxieties fueled by the demographic reality of their declining percentage in the U.S., there will not be enough “empathy infused self-awareness” to do away with the American caste system.

Instead, we will witness more confrontations, more unrest, more fragmentation and, in all likelihood, more violence.

[1] Dwight Garner, “Isabel Wilkerson’s ‘Caste’ Is an ‘Instant American Classic’ About Our Original Sin,” The New York Times, July 31, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/31/books/review-caste-isabel-wilkerson-origins-of-our-discontents.html?searchResultPosition=4

[2]Thomas B. Edsall, “’I Fear We Are Witnessing The End of American Democracy’,” The New York Times, August 26, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/26/opinion/trump-republican-convention-racism.html.