The U.S. Does Not Have a Caste System, and Other Minor Problems with Caste


The U.S. Does Not Have a Caste System, and Other Minor Problems with Caste

In her 2020 book Caste, just released in paperback, Isabel Wilkerson — of Emory, Princeton, and the New York Times — makes a bold claim: the United States of America has a caste system, and historical and contemporary racial conflict can best be understood in this context.

This argument is consistent and made throughout the book. As early as page 17, for example, the author notes that the good ol’ USA has (not had) “a caste system … central to its operation.” Two pages later, she contends that “this fact of a very set dominant caste has remained constant from our inception.” Further, Wilkerson claims that the dominant feature of this feudal-style caste structure that exists inside the U.S. is not social class (or whatever) but race alone. “The signal of rank is what we call race,” she declaims on page 18.

Alternatively, “race is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste,” which itself is a “fixed and rigid” determinant of where any particular American falls along the social ladder. This innovative-to-say-the-least hypothesis leads to the use of some unique language throughout the book: Latinos and Asian Americans are referred to on several occasions as “the middle castes,” for example — seen as ranking between whites on one extreme and blacks and perhaps natives on the other. The Republican Party is described as “made up overwhelmingly of the dominant caste,” and Wilkerson argues that this dynamic explains the rise of Donald Trump.

Wilkerson’s book has many strengths. It is interesting, fast paced, and well written. It includes some fascinating and even genuinely moving anecdotes. Who knew Martin Luther King Jr. had traveled to south India and met with the head of that nation’s “untouchable” community? And, if we wish to be totally frank even from the Right, it almost certainly is true that American race relations, at least in the South during the Jim Crow era, did carry with them more than a whiff of the Punjab.

At one point, Wilkerson provides what no doubt is a verbatim written example of the Southern Man’s Creed, circa 1913. “Let the lowest white man (always) count for more than the highest Negro,” it reads. Other chapters of the book blandly describe practices that we would refer to using such terms as “debt peonage” or “gradations of noble blood” had they occurred in historical Poland or Rwanda rather than in bucolic Georgia towns. Deplorable stuff, to be sure.

However, Caste also suffers from two vices that I find almost universal within the left-wing academic literature on race: (1) a tendency to intentionally conjoin the distant past with the present and (2) a tendency to present even the real past sins of the U.S. as more unique and evil than they are. To take point (1) first: Even if the United States did have something of a caste system in 1913, 1913 or even 1953 was a very long time ago.

The U.S. has only existed since 1776. Our young nation ended slavery itself in 1865, ended all de jure segregation in 1954 (69 years ago), made racial discrimination formally illegal in 1964 (59 years ago), and has arguably practiced pro-minority affirmative action since the first draft of the Philadelphia Plan in 1967 (56 years ago). Today, many or most of Wilkerson’s “middle castes” seem to be outperforming whites: The best-educated U.S. group is Nigerian Americans, and seven to eight of the top 10 income-earning populations are Asian, Arab, or African in origin.

It is also worth noting — and this is pointed out surprisingly rarely in today’s environment of competitive victimhood, in which historical free states like California are bizarrely agreeing to pay reparations — that “caste-like” American slavery and Jim Crow were almost exclusively regional vices. While restrictive covenants and the like certainly existed, neither of these first two practices did to any significant extent in most of the U.S. North or high West. As early as the mid-1790s, 10 Northern states and territories — which, combined, contained about 55% of the white population of the new U.S. — had voted to ban slavery by law: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, the vast Northwest Territory, and the Indiana lands.

In much of this enormous area, race relations would remain fair to good for a century to come. In his classic Ethnic America, black conservative eminence grise Thomas Sowell notes something uncontested that might sound remarkable today: As late as 1910, there were no segregated ghettos in many Northern cities. In Chicago, “more than two-thirds of the black population lived in neighborhoods where the majority of residents were white.” Nor, let me note to cynical readers, was this number of black residents on the order of “ten.” The Great Migration was fully underway by 1910, and the Harlem Renaissance took place during the 1920s. In this context, it seems more than a bit bizarre to conceive of (say) black New York City congressman Adam Clayton Powell as a Dalit-like “untouchable.”

This brings us to a broader point. To critique America today, or even Mr. Powell in his $1,000 suit, Dr. Wilkerson seems to be employing a … rather unique definition of what a caste system actually is. Per the traditional definition used in my field of academic political science, a caste society is not merely a system in which the members of Group A suffer a bit more racism or harassment at the mean than do the members of Group B but rather a rigid to absolute social hierarchy based on birth — wherein someone’s social rank and even job are a direct reflection of who his parents happened to be.

As Wilkerson notes (and notes), there are even today average differences in income, health outcomes, and other dependent variables across U.S. racial groups. No serious person disputes this. However, even leaving aside the plain fact that minorities often outperform whites, most of these gaps are not the result of contemporary racism. As economists like June O’Neill have gamely noted for decades, the simplest imaginable adjustments for median age, region of residence for each group, test and board scores, etc., close almost all of them.

Further, even if all such disparities were due to bias, this would not constitute a birth-based caste system. The most popular of the last three American presidents, Barack Obama (who served eight years for good or ill), was a black man. A nation in which minorities did actually face a 5% back-draft due to bigotry, but could nevertheless do literally anything to which we aggressively set our minds, would not a feudal despotism make.

Moving forward, a final point about Caste is that Wilkerson reflexively keeps doing something educated leftists seem almost unable to avoid: inaccurately describing the West as not only historically evil, but also uniquely so. She argues at one point that, throughout all of “human history,” “three caste systems have stood out.” These apex sinners, for the cheap seats? The United States of America, deep historical India, and Nazi Germany. At no point is any justification ever given for this Axis of Evil, and it frankly doesn’t make a ton of sense. (Surely if these three world powers were the ones who forwarded the ultimate evil of caste, Britain is the hero of history.)

If we don’t play games with context, we can see from a quick look through human history that hierarchical class- or race/tribally-based systems have been a near universal. Medieval Europe divided the upper classes alone into what seems to break down to 14 distinct ranks, ranging from “emperor (czar)” down to bonnet squire, each of which very specifically determined the landed wealth and military duties of its holder. Far lower down the social register, legally defined oppressed peoples like Catholics in conquered Ireland were subject to restrictions easily as onerous as those holding back free black people in the U.S., such as these from the long-hated Penal Laws: “They are forbidden to travel five miles … to keep arms, to maintain any suits at law, or to be guardians or executors.”

Of course, such restrictions were not unique to societies run by the white folk. In civilized historical Rwanda, both “native” and European rulers amorally maintained a sharp divide of work roles and social ranks between the agrarian Hutu and the pastoral Tutsi. This created a true caste division among powerful black tribes that still endures, one that led to one of modern history’s bloodiest wars during the 1990s. In modern South Africa, the primary ethnic conflict was between black people and Caucasians, and castelike apartheid endured across many decades and again until the 1990s. It is difficult (indeed impossible) to see how American historical race relations stand out from this unfortunate universal pattern.

In this context, another claim almost universally made by Wilkerson and other activist scholars, that American slavery was a completely unique evil and remains a/the primary force shaping race relations today, is revealed to be at minimum very questionable. On page 45 of Caste, Wilkerson makes an eloquent version of the standard-form argument: “For the first time in history, one category of humanity” was “placed into a separate sub-group that was to remain enslaved for generations.” But, much of this is just empirically untrue.

Sumerian, Roman, and Arab slave systems were all mostly generational. So was slavery everywhere in the rest of the New World — which was usually a lot more brutal than the American version, if significantly easier to escape via manumission. If it is the horrible truth that American slaves were sometimes “whipped, raped, (and) branded,” so it is true that slaves were subjected to the same in all of these other brutal places. And, for that matter, so were the hundreds of thousands of white indentured servants unwillingly shipped to the U.S. over the centuries, whose plight even Wilkerson discusses early on in Caste, described in greater detail in Don Jordan’s and Michael Walsh’s book, White Cargo.

The fate of those women and men — the “Duty boys” and “free at 21s” and “lads Spirited away” brings to mind a final, closing point. In the U.S. and most of the other countries mentioned above, historically, there was no single unified ruling class of rich free people lording it over whoever happened to be on the bottom at a given time. Historically, most people existed at various levels of unfreedom: chattel slavery was simply the bottom rung of a tall and unpleasant ladder.

Other steps down that latter would have included the serf (technically free but bound to a specific plot of farmland), the peon (chained to patron/the boss man by an unpayable bag of debts), the indentured servant (a slave for seven to 23 years), and several more. Obviously, the group history of Appalachian “poor whites,” Irishmen, Chinese Americans, Mexican Americans, and many other groups on this American soil has very much included some time on the cross in one or more of these roles. As Wilkerson herself notes, shoeless refugees from the Irish potato famine did not simply saunter off the boat and “become white”: The process took decades or a century — for those who survived Gettysburg.

All of this often-bloody history made the polyglot modern U.S. the world power we are today, and we should never hide any of it. Indeed, we should take care to teach it in its fullness. But, we Yanks also don’t need to spend a ton of time searching around for unreal new things to feel guilty about. I actually recommend that readers of this piece pick up Wilkerson’s book to hear the counters to what I say here (and a few later political arguments I barely touch on).

But, I also recommend you pull up any picture of Obama and recall that, if we ever did, the U.S. does not have a damn “caste system” in 2023.

Wilfred Reilly is a political science professor at Kentucky State University and the author, most recently, of Taboo: 10 Facts You Can’t Talk About.

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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