The colour of caste

The colour of caste

Caste: The Lies That Divide Us by Isabel Wilkerson. Allen Lane. Pages 476. Rs 999

Book Title: Caste: The Lies That Divide Us

Author: by Isabel Wilkerson.

Roopinder Singh

President Donald Trump has become an icon for the right-wing White supremacist movement in Germany. Why should we be surprised? The Nazis used the legal precedents set by the US race laws of the Jim Crow era to subjugate the Black community as a template for the restrictive and widely reviled anti-Jewish legal infrastructure. Only, they could not go as far as some American laws did at that time!

Wilkerson, a former ‘New York Times’ reporter and an academic, examines the “millennia-long caste system of India”, and the “officially vanquished caste system of Nazi Germany” to understand and explain the “shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the United States”.

The analogy is not novel. The liberal academic WEB Du Bois (the first Black person to earn a PhD from Harvard) wrote about “colour caste”. In the 1940s, BR Ambedkar, who got his first PhD from Columbia University (second from the University of London), wrote about the similarity between the position of the Untouchables and Negroes. In 1959, Martin Luther King visited India, and received a tumultuous welcome as an American Untouchable leader by the Dalits.

Wilkerson was the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer, and turned from journalism to academics. She is the author of the much-acclaimed ‘The Warmth of Other Suns’ (2010). In this book, she uses stories and anecdotes to bring home the stark horror of racial encounters and to present the human dimension that underlines the data presented in the book. Slavery was abolished in 1865, but discrimination continues in rules, even laws, financial provisions, educational opportunities — practically in all social spheres.

News reports of the Jim Crow era would say: “two men and two women were killed, and four Negros.” Merely being photographed shaking a Black man’s hand cost a White mayoral candidate his election in Birmingham, Alabama. The overarching rule was that the lowest caste was to remain low at every time, at any cost. Pushbacks, like Crow-era parents naming their daughter Miss in the 1970s so that she would have to be called ‘Miss’, a prefix that Black people were not permitted to use, are revealing.

We are told never to judge a book by its cover, not to assume what’s inside without reading it. “Yet humans size up other humans and make assumptions based upon what they look like many times a day. We prejudge complicated breathing beings in ways we are taught never to judge inanimate objects,” she points out.

All systems that seek to suppress the “natural range of intelligence and talent in any subset of human beings” are inherently evil. For four centuries, the US racial laws have done precisely that, long after slavery was abolished. Marriage between Blacks and Whites was first outlawed in Virginia in 1691; it was subsequently a crime in 41 states, punishable by fine and imprisonment. The US supreme court overturned these prohibitions in 1967, yet Alabama held out till 2000.

Systemic marginalisation and denial of opportunity to the Black population is well documented and reiterated in the book. The Blacks face excessive media coverage of poverty and crime out of proportion of the population. The conviction and sentencing rates, as compared with the Whites for similar offences, are sky high.

Police shootings of Blacks have always been there, the issue flares up from time to time, as it has now, but it dies down after much lip service and little reform. The upper castes recognise the “urgent necessity of a bottom-rung” and ensure it. The prejudice is systemic, and there is little will or vision to effect the necessary changes.

The author takes us beyond racism, towards the more insidious casteism — “any action that seeks to limit, hold back, or put something in a defined ranking, seeks to keep someone in their place by elevating or denigrating that person on the basis of their perceived category.” Failing to see oneself and “the lies that divide us” in this brilliant book would take a blinkered vision.

The release of racial pathogens from the permafrost heated by right-wing activism becomes less inexplicable as we read this history of discrimination. The White backlash to President Barack Obama’s election and the rise of Donald Trump now makes some sense.

“The land of the free” is also “home of the brave” Black citizens at the bottom of the caste hierarchy that America still uses to reinforce its racism. In doing so, it loses so much.