"In the United States, race is the visible manifestation of the invisible power exercised through caste. Caste is the skeleton, race is the skin. "
With this, Isabel Wilkerson defines the theme she deals with in the book Caste. The Origins of Our Discontent. She makes a comprehensive study of a phenomenon where the supposed superiority of one group is set against the supposed inferiority of another. This is a powerful infrastructure that keeps both groups in place and that in effect has an impact on life and death.
Wilkerson compares three caste systems that have distinguished themselves throughout history: the millennial caste system in India; the racial caste pyramid in the United States and what developed in a short time in Nazi Germany. All have been justified as "god-given" or "the law of nature" and revolve around power - those who have it, and those who don`t. It's about resources, which caste "deserves" them, and which does not. It is about respect, authority and perceived competence – who is credited, and who is left empty-handed.
A larger context
The author's consistent rewriting of terminology helps us to see phenomena with new eyes and put them into a larger, universal context. In the American caste system, the so-called rank is what we call race, the discrimination of people on the basis of appearance. Anyone who fit the definition of "white", regardless of historical time, was given rights and privileges belonging to the dominant caste. At the bottom of the ladder was the subordinate caste, "the psychological floor no other caste could fall through."
Caste is the skeleton, race is the skin.
Wilkerson states: "The use of inherited physical characteristics to define inner qualities is probably the smartest way a culture has ever devised to systematize and maintain a caste system."
We get the story of Martin Luther King jr.'s visit to India, where he was introduced to a group of students as an "untouchable from America." He was thus compared to Indian Dalits, those who rank at the bottom of the social pyramid. He, a respected professor who had flown in from another continent and sat at the Prime Minister's table?
Dr. King overcame the shock and realized that, yes, he was an "untouchable" "like any Negro in the United States." Through his skin color, he belonged to the same bottom category as the African prisoners who were transported to the New World twelve generations ago to build the country and serve the victors. Caste, Wilkerson notes, has been the operating system for economic, political, and social interaction in America from the very beginning. This meant that any person who was considered "white", even a poor man at the bottom of the social ladder, stood above a person with dark skin color, regardless of social rank.
American vs. Indian caste system
How deep this inoculation lies, even among today's enlightened citizens, Wilkerson illustrates with a self-experienced event. She, an African-American journalist commissioned by The New York Times, has arranged an interview with a store owner in Chicago. She is out early and alone in the room. A breathless (white) man in a suit and coat rushes in, the interviewee. She introduces herself, but is immediately interrupted: “I can not talk to you. I'm late for an appointment. " Wilkerson: "I'm probably the appointment." "No, this is an important meeting with The New York Times." She introduces herself again. He will not believe it and repeats that he does not have time, as the reporter is expected any minute. The reporter goes with an unresolved case, noting that this is the first time she has been accused of imitating herself.
What distinguishes American from Indian caste system? In India, it is not the skin color but the surname that is crucial. Dalit means the oppressed, the casteless, and belongs to a thousand-year-old tradition of humiliation and exclusion. The names are typically "contemptible" and refer to the simple work they were set to do. The Brahmins, on the other hand, belong to the highest caste, named after an Indian deity.
The Indian caste system is embedded in religion and belief in incarnation and is therefore stable, and consequently undisputed. However, the lack of opposition was not a sign of satisfaction. Some Dalits felt so closely associated with the American civil rights movement that in the nineteenseventies they created The Dalit Panthers., inspired by The Black Panther Party. At a recent meeting between groups from both countries, everyone sang together: "We Shall Overcome".
Racism in the Third Reich
One June day in 1934, a group of Nazi bureaucrats sat down in Berlin to discuss how they could institutionalize racism in the Third Reich. They started by looking at how the Americans did it. During World War I, Die Gesellschaft für Rassenhygiene applauded "the commitment shown by Americans when they support research on racial hygiene, and the way they put theoretical knowledge into practice".
It's about respect, authority and perceived competence – who gets credited, and who is left empty-handed.
The term Untermensch (subhuman) comes from New England author Lothrop Stoddard's book The Revolt Against Civilization - The Menace of the Under-man. Hitler praised the American massacre of Native Americans and saw the U.S. Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 as a model for his racial cleansing plan.
The Nazis at the June meeting had good references when they laid the foundation for their version of the caste system and when, among other things, they legislated the ban on marriage between Jews and Aryans.
Isabel Wilkerson sees a big difference between the German and the American caste system in the way the two nations have treated their own history. In Germany, she finds an almost exemplary processing of the past, in everything from honoring Jewish war victims to the youth's acceptance of shared responsibility. In America, she sees a screaming lack of something similar.
India and the United States are the two largest democracies in the world. Both are based on caste systems that are cemented through the interpretation of sacred texts and the "necessity" of society's hierarchy, of "those up there" and "those down there". America is the country that is most strongly characterized by a work in progress. Wilkerson discusses the future with a historian and puts the number 2040 on the table. This is the year when statisticians estimate that the number of people of color in the United States will exceed the number of whites. The historian asks: "If people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?" The question hangs in the air.