If you live in the United States, one of the biggest hot-button issues right now is the national conversation about racism and its role in our country’s history (past and present). We all agree that slavery was a horrible, centuries-long chapter, but we want to imagine that those days are behind us. If we listen to our fellow black Americans, however, they are telling us that those days are not long past, that although the goal of America is a meritocratic society, we are not there yet. Wilkerson posits that a fundamental reason why is because of the deeply ingrained societal norms created around our country’s caste system. She defines a caste system as “an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits.” In the United States, our caste system puts any and all white people above any and all black (and brown) people. Although there have undoubtedly been an uncountable number of caste systems that have existed throughout the totality of human history, Wilkerson focuses on three as a means to exemplify her research: The American caste system, the Indian caste system, and the Third Reich of Nazi Germany.
As a white person, the stories and anecdotes in this book were very eye-opening to me. Although I know America was racist, I was very disturbed to find out just how racist America still is. For a poignant example, I learned that “Alabama did not throw out its law against interracial marriage until the year 2000. Even then, 40% of the electorate in that referendum voted in favor of keeping the marriage ban on the books.” Statistics like this really made me realize how little I know about the rest of my country. I have spent my entire life growing up in rural Massachusetts and then living as an adult in Southern California and Los Angeles. There are 48 other states out there and the differences between people and cultures across them are much more vast than I had previously presumed.
Another absolutely harrowing piece of information I gleaned from these pages was the role the American caste system played in the Nazi party’s destruction of the Jewish people of Europe. They actively studied our culture, adopting many laws we had in the United States centered around keeping black people on the bottom rung of society. Then they simply swapped out black for Jew. They were amazed at how we adamantly projected freedom and equality on the world stage while ignoring the egregious inequality in our very own back yard. Hitler especially marveled at the American “knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death.” Wilkerson goes on to write that while “the Nazis praised the American commitment to legislating racial purity, they could not abide by the unforgiving hardness under which an American man or woman who has even a drop of Negro blood in their veins counted as black. The one-drop rule was too harsh for the Nazis.”
This book really revealed the hypocrisy of the United States. We purport to be the freest country in the world while we consciously work to keep freedoms away from our minority factions. E pluribus unum, one of our country’s mottos that appears on the Great Seal in addition to being engraved on all of our monetary coins, is a latin phrase meaning “out of many, one.” This was adopted to exemplify the idea that out of all the many types of people who come to this country, we all unify to become one nation together. Despite this ‘motto,’ if there is anything the United States seems to excel at, its highlighting our differences. In Africa, black people aren’t black, they are Ethiopian or Sudanese. Similarly, Europeans aren’t white, they are German or French. But once people emigrate to the United States they are divided into white and black, upper caste and lower caste, respectively.
If you’re white, the recognition of this caste system in our country makes you want to look the other away and pretend these problems don’t exist. The reality is that there is no escape from caste, regardless of where in the hierarchy you sit, because caste “is a state of mind that holds everyone captive, the dominant imprisoned in an illusion of their own entitlement, the subordinate trapped in the purgatory of someone else’s definition of who they are and who they should be.” Even if you’re at the top, you’re constantly threatened by the success of the those beneath you. This has led the powerful people in our country to do everything they can to dehumanize and suppress those on the lower rungs of society. Things like denying black people loans, barring them from certain institutions, and making them sit at the back of the bus. But think of all the wonderful and brilliant black people who have lived in this country and were unable to reach their full potential and contribute their intelligence and grace to society’s collective intelligence and betterment. And think of the exorbitant energy spent by those in control just trying to keep the reins in their hands. What great things could we have accomplished if those energies were synergized towards solving our collective problems?
The solution, as it always is when it comes to differences, is empathy for the other. That is the true way forward.
The census is projecting white people to be a minority in the United States by 2045. What will this mean for the caste system as we continually (and seemingly exponentially) become more and more racially diverse? Will white people embrace these new changes as we collectively march forward? Or will they continue to grip the reins of the past as tightly as possible and be dragged? I, for one, plan to embrace the future. For me personally, this means embracing Mexican and Latin American cultures as my home city of Los Angeles becomes more and more hispanic. Honestly, I think it’s exciting. Spanish is a beautiful language and hispanic cultures have so much wonderful food, music, customs and more to share.
America is like a gigantic marina and we have been putting holes in the black and brown boats for far too long. What we must collectively realize is that the ocean is infinitely large enough for all of us to float together. It is the space in our hearts that must grow in order to make the room for others.