Strains on America's Caste System
Isabel Wilkerson won a Pulitzer Prize when she worked for The New York Times.
Later, she wrote a best-selling book about the great northward migration of Black Americans.
In the process, Wilkerson earned a ton of airline miles, allowing her to fly first class much of the time.
In addition to the few extra inches of space, Wilkerson was able to do research for her new book -- on the caste system in the United States.
Even when she presented her boarding pass for Seat 3A, she was still treated as a stranger, a lower caste, as a female and as an African-American.
Confused flight attendants stared at her and suggested she just keep walking to the back of the bus.
Wilkerson also had to endure jostling for overhead-rack space from white male passengers.
Anybody who is Black, or has friends and relatives of color, knows the drill.
A few days after the 2016 election, Wilkerson settled into her first-class seat and noticed “two middle-aged white men with receding hairlines and reading glasses” who quickly bonded, with one stranger telling the other: “Last eight years! Worst thing that ever happened! I’m so glad it’s over!”
The two instant buddies then celebrated from Atlanta to Chicago, assuming that the new President would be "good for businss." I am 100 percent positive that Trump's appeal to money guys helped advance the racism loose in the country. .
Wilkerson’s book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” came out in mid-2020, before the little lovefest of assorted cut-throats and sociopaths and bigots and other Trumpites at the Capitol.
I just caught up with “Caste” and found it compelling, as Wilkerson compares America’s enduring racial prejudice with the age-old caste system in India as well as the caste system that killed at least 6 million Jews and others regarded as untermenschen in Nazi Germany.
Wilkerson points out how Hitler studied how whites in America marginalized and terrorized Blacks long after the so-called Civil War. Wilkerson also points out that contemporary Germany does not display statues and markers of the Hitler days, whereas the U.S. is only now coming to grips with Black youngsters having to attend schools named after Robert E. Lee, that old secessionist-slavemaster.
It never went away.
Wilkerson also presents dozens of examples of lynching and mutilation of Blacks, under slavery and long into the 20th Century, and still going strong in spirit.
Trying to understand the American system in terms of the Indian caste system, Wilkerson flew overnight from the U.S. to London to attend an academic conference on caste, attended mostly by people of Indian ancestry, whether English or Indian or other nationalities.
She immediately realized that the elite castes – even among academics -- were identifiable by lighter (Aryan) skin as well as a deep aura of entitlement, whereas members of the Dalit (Untouchable) caste – even with doctorates and other professional titles - - were of darker skin and reserved demeanor.
She became friendly with a highly educated Dalit at the conference who described how his sister had cried about her dark skin when it was time to seek a husband. From her new friend, Wilkerson learned about Bhimrao Ambedkar, who renounced his Hindu standing and became a leader of the Dalits in the time of Gandhi. Her education about India will surely be the reader's education.
As I read Wilkerson’s book, I thought about the new demographics in the U.S., as it heads toward a “minority” majority in the next decade or two.
The white terrorists who stormed the Capitol in January are quite likely feeling marginalized by the talented and poised people of color who have become more evident in recent years.
Some kind of change was gonna come -- or so some of us thought. It's been in the public consciousness for decades -- with the great Sidney Poitier embodying a possible new era in the 1967 movie ”In the Heat of the Night."
For other examples, Wilkerson mentions the intelligent and handsome and poised couple that lived in the White House from 2009 to 2017, plus examples of changing America all over public life.
As the pandemic endures, I gain information on the evening news from professionals like Dr. Kavita Patel of Washington, D.C., Dr. Vin Gupta of Seattle, Dr. Lipi Roy of New York and Dr. Nahid Bhadalia, with their kind and patient faces, with their knowledge and passion.
The international look of today’s medical experts reminds me of that very good movie, “Gran Torino,” when Clint Eastwood, an auto worker with dark secrets from his military service in Korea, meets his new physician. (I'll never forgive Eastwood for his ugly televised rejection of Barack Obama, but his movie shows the growth of an aging bigot in a changing Detroit.)
Last week, on MSNBC, Lawrence O’Donnell presented the viral immunologist who helped develop the Moderna vaccine -- -- Kizzmekia Shanta Corbett, Ph. D., who turns 36 on Jan. 26. Dr. Corbett saw the code for this new virus as it popped in from China, early in 2020, and linked it, in her mind, with anti-virus codes available here -- “over a weekend,” apparently.
The rapport was clear between Dr. Corbett and O’Donnell, who is proud of being of Irish descent in Boston, and is one of the most open champions of African-Americans in public life.
However, at the same time, a huge swath of white Americans is acting out in public, scorning vaccinations and masks, storming the Capitol a year ago, yelling racial insults at police while trying to brain them with heavy weapons.
Many white Americans grew up thinking they had an edge over anybody with darker skin. Isabel Wilkerson’s powerful book points out the growing strains on the old American caste system.
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Dwight Garner, one of my favorite writers at the NYT, reviewed “Caste" in July of 2020:
Lawrence O'Donnell's interview with Dr. Corbett -- real life, not a movie:
1/24/2022 10:02:55 am
I get my health care here on Long Island through Northwell, a huge conglomerate which seems to do things well so far. When my former primary care doc retired, I was introduced to a new one by virtue of his being available sooner than any of the other three or four candidates in that office. He is a Black man and, as far as I am concerned, a keeper unless and until he leaves the group. However, two observations.
1/24/2022 05:08:55 pm
Dude, we're all just passing through.But I think it depends on self-image. I'm from Queens...many of my friends are from Jamaica High (five of them on the previous Comments)
1/25/2022 11:45:25 am
Thanks, George, good perspective. "Passing through" resonates at a number of levels. I still believe education from the earliest age is essential. 1. There are differences. 2. We have to acknowledge the differences. 3. We have to acknowledge that our perceptions of the differences can affect our attitudes. 4. Only then can we adjust our attitudes.
1/24/2022 10:28:52 am
Dear George: you wrote a great article about a brilliant book. It’s like Brazil. My country is rich because of miscegenation. Unfortunately, Bolsonaro worked out to deny this Brazil. At the moment, we are living a polarization between nasty idiots and people who use a good sense.
1/24/2022 05:11:22 pm
Altenir: I bet we have a higher percentage of nasty idiots.
1/25/2022 11:53:17 am
I am not serious in claiming any stake, here, but my Granny was born in Brazil, which makes me proud and a cheerleader at World Cup time, and I agree with Altenir about the racial mix. It makes Queens the best Borough in the World! However, I bet conservative Republicans feel, with genuine sincerity, they are the ones making good sense and perceive us coastal elitists as the nasty idiots.
1/24/2022 12:52:17 pm
What seems like 100 years ago, Peggy and I were active in Alabama, trying to end segregation, at the University, church, library, and in the first, (to our knowledge) bi-racial Human Resources Council in Tuscaloosa. I had, sitting in University student housing, across a fence and a few yards, from a black neighborhood, said to Peggy, “if only a strong leader would arrive, they could never keep these people down.”
1/24/2022 05:13:49 pm
Ed: My mantra these days, in the wake of Jan. 6 and now the screamers against vaccination: It Never Went Away.
1/24/2022 05:32:16 pm
1/24/2022 09:04:01 pm
1/25/2022 06:03:40 pm
Unfortunately, racism and prejudices will always be with us. Some will be relatively minor such as tall vs short, different degrees of education and finances to name a few.
1/25/2022 10:23:56 pm
Alan: so much prejudice mixed into daily life.
1/26/2022 05:33:15 am
Some years ago, while home for Thanksgiving, my father and I went for a walk around Boathouse Row in Philadelphia. At one point he began to faint. An ambulance was called, he was transported to the emergency room at Hahnemann Hospital. It seems he had had a trans-ischemic attack, a sort of mini-stroke. Anyway, when the doctor came in to care for him it was a handsome and extremely professional young black doctor. He and I looked at each other and without speaking a word it was clear we both understood what was going on. He was great with my Dad. And my Dad later grudgingly allowed as how he thought the doctor was pretty good. The doctor and I later had a brief chat and he told me that he was used to dealing with people like my father but that he often had bigger problems with his black patients, including one who even exclaimed, "where's the Jewish doctor. I want a Jewish doctor." So, damned if you do, damned if you don't, I suppose.
1/26/2022 06:32:20 am
George and friends,
1/26/2022 10:52:55 am
Thanks, Randy. Thank you all for these great and personal responses. I will add this: entering Jamaica High School was a great experience in so many ways – one being in school with Black classmates. But as idealistic/accepting as some students and teachers were, Blacks were still marginalized.
1/26/2022 11:21:14 pm
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“I don’t think people understand how Covid affects older Americans,” Mr. Caretti said with frustration. “In 2020, there was this all-in-this-together vibe, and it’s been annihilated. People just need to care about other people, man. That’s my soapbox.”
---Vic Caretti, 47, whose father recently died of Covid at 85.
---From an article by Paula Span, who covers old age for the NYT, which currently has 2646 comments, the majority criticizing the American public – and public officials – for acting as if the pandemic is “over.”
Classic wishful thinking, at a lethal level.