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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 10/28/20

America's Caste System and Trump's Aggrieved White Working Class Supporters

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Isabel wilkerson 2010.
Isabel wilkerson 2010.
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At the very beginning of her overwhelmingly detailed and extremely thoughtful book, Caste:The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson compares the toxins recently released from the Siberian permafrost -- due to Arctic Circle temperatures reaching 95 degrees -- to the toxins recently released by "a psychic break in American history" (p. 4). That "psychic break" established the preconditions for reinvigorated racial hatred and white supremacy. And it was seized upon and exploited by an evil carnival-barking con man who is a "sexual predator, cowardly draft-dodging bully, failed businessman, and reality TV phony with a decades-long rap sheet for being a boorish, self-aggrandizing, ignorant, insecure, unfaithful, narcissistic, vulgar, racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, short-tempered, undisciplined, mendacious, corrupt, insulting, and media-exploiting crybaby" (Walter C. Uhler, "Bob Woodward's Book Explodes Trump's 'I alone can fix it' Hoax," OpEd News, 9/24/2020).

That such an odious man could attract the votes and continued support of some 40 percent of Americans is stark testimony to depths of that psychic break.

Ms. Wilkerson is troubled by hypocritical Americans who are "proud to be an American," but who reject any responsibility for the country's original sins of racial discrimination and ruthless exploitation of indigenous Americans and African-Americans. Thus, she excoriates Americans who claim, "I had nothing to do with how all of this started. I have nothing to do with the sins of the past. My ancestors never attacked indigenous people, never owned slaves" (p. 16).

Instead, she confronts such boasting, but irresponsible, escapists with a metaphor of "an old house;" arguing that we all live in an old American house and "as current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation"[we] are the heirs of whatever is right or wrong with it" (p. 16).

"The owner of an old house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away" (p. 15). Thus, it is our responsibility to make the necessary repairs or accept the consequences of further deterioration. Simple pride in being a thoughtless occupant of the American house doesn't cut it.

She adds, "Like other old houses, America has an unseen skeleton, a caste that is central to its operation as are the studs and joists that we cannot see in the physical buildings we call home" (p. 17).

Further, 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, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it" (Ibid.).

Caste "embeds into our bones an unconscious ranking of human characteristics and sets forth the rules, expectations, and stereotypes that have been used to justify brutalities against entire groups within our species. In the American caste system, the signal of rank is what we call race, the division of humans on the basis of their appearance. In America, race is the primary tool and the visible decoy, the front man for caste" (p.18).

Ms. Wilkerson's book examines the world's three notable caste systems -- those established in India, Colonial America, and Nazi Germany -- and finds that they are built upon eight distinct pillars.

The first pillar is "divine will and the laws of nature." Divine will sanctified the caste systems in both India and the United States. In India, it was ordained that the One "who is beyond the range of senses" and took birth as Brahma, would become the highest of the four divisions of man, the varnas. Below the feet of the lowest of the varnas were the untouchables, subsequently called Dalits.

In America, it was the Hebrew Bible's story of a Great Flood and the subsequent division of all mankind descending from Noah's three sons. More specifically, it was Noah's curse on Ham that supposedly brought black skin and the inherent inferiority, befitting a slave, to his descendants.

The second pillar, "heritability," locked individuals into their high or low caste. In colonial America, it was first accomplished in 1662, when the Virginia General Assembly declared that "all children born in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother" (p. 105).

What a bonanza for white slave owners! Because the law "allowed enslavers to claim the children of black women" (Ibid), it had the effect of converting "the black womb into a profit center" (p. 106) with each newly born slave (probably possessing light brown skin). It, thus, provided further incentive, beyond mere lust, for repeated rapes. Thus, these tinpot masters of the South's universe exercised sexual dominion over both white and black women.

The third pillar, "endogamy and the control of marriage and mating," restricts marriage to members of the same caste. "In 1691, Virginia became the first colony to outlaw marriage between blacks and whites" (p.110). Eventually, forty-one of the fifty states passed laws making intermarriage a crime""(Ibid.). They were not overturned by the Supreme Court until 1967.

Practiced for centuries, endogamy proved to be an efficient way to deny resources, empathy, and affection to the lower caste. According to Ms. Wilkerson, "it created and reinforced [the bogus construct of] 'races,' by permitting only those with similar physical traits to legally mate" (p. 111).

The fourth pillar, "purity versus pollution," insures that the lower castes always know and publicly acknowledge their inferior position. In India, for example, Dalits were required to wear bells in order to alert those in the higher castes of their presence, so as to avoid any pollution.

In 1896 the U. S. Supreme Court struck a blow for white purity when it upheld Louisiana's "separate but equal" segregation policies in Plessy v. Ferguson. When such de jure segregation was overturned, it was followed by de facto segregation. Thus, even today, Sunday morning church services have "been called the most segregated hour in America" (p. 128).

"Well into the twentieth century African-Americans were banned from white beaches and lakes and pools, both north and south, lest they pollute them, just as Dalits were forbidden from the waters of the Brahmins, and Jews from the Aryan waters in the Third Reich" (p. 117).

Ms. Wilkerson considers "occupational hierarchy" to be ther fifth pillar of the caste system. She cites slave owner Senator James Henry Hammond, who said in 1858, "In all social systems, there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life"That is a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have" (p. 131).

Searching to establish a new caste system in the wake of its humiliating Civil War defeat, which abolished the caste based on slavery, the legislature of South Carolina passed laws that "prohibited black people from performing any labor other than farm or domestic work" (p. 133). Other Civil War losers in the South would follow South Carolina's example.

(As Ira Katznelson notes in his book, When Affirmative Action was White, these two groups "constituted more than 60 percent of the black labor force in the 1930s and nearly 75 percent in the South." Southern Congressional Democrats -- virtually every one an ardent racist -- insisted that these two groups be "excluded from the [New Deal] legislation that created modern unions, [and] from laws that set minimum wages and regulated hours of work, and from Social Security until the 1950s" (p. 22).

Further, these evil "Crackers" "prevented Congress from attaching any sort of anti-discrimination provisions to a wide array of social welfare programs such as community health services, school lunches, and hospital construction grants" (p. 23) -- thus allowing racist regional administrators in the South to deny such benefits to blacks. Thus, with few exceptions, only white people and white communities were qualified to receive the extremely generous welfare benefits doled out under the New Deal.)

The sixth pillar of the caste system identified by Ms. Wilkerson is "dehumanization and stigma." "Upon their arrival at the auction blocks and labor camps of the American South, Africans were stripped of their given names and forced to respond to new ones as would a dog to new owners" (p. 143). At auctions, "women were forced to disrobe before the crowd, to submit to hours of physical probing" by potential bidders (p. 145). Slaves were forbidden to cry as their children were carried off, forced to sing as a wife or husband was sold away" (p. 144).

Having learned much from their mentors in the American South, the Nazis set up concentration camps where Jews were stripped of their clothing and possessions, and had their heads shaved. "[A]t labor camps in central and eastern Europe and in the American South, well fed captors forced their hostages to do the heaviest work of inhuman exertion, while withholding food from those whose labor enriched the captors" (p. 143).

Doctors in the American South subjected African-Americans to gruesome medical experiments, without their consent. One plantation doctor, James Marion Sims, "made incisions into a black baby's head to test a theory for curing seizures" (p. 147). Doctor Sims would later gain fame as the founding father of gynecology through discoveries gained by subjecting slave women to "savage surgeries [without anesthesia] that often led to disfigurement or death" (pp. 147-48). Sims was not alone. A Louisiana surgeon "perfected the cesarian section by experimenting on the enslaved women he had access to"" (p.148).

According to Ms. Wilkerson, the seventh pillar of America's caste system is the use of terror for enforcement and cruelty as a means of control. She notes that the American South and Nazi Germany, "devised shockingly similar means of punishment to instill terror in the subordinate caste" (p. 154). In the Jim Crow South, lynchings -- often preceded by mutilations -- were the terror tactic of choice. Some 4,400 of them. Public hangings in Nazi labor camps served a similar purpose.

For "cruelty as a means of control,' consider the "fourteen pound chains with metal horns radiating two or three feet from the skull were locked onto the heads of people who tried to escape" (pp. 154-155). Better yet, consider the Trump administration's "Zero tolerance" policy that required the inhumane forcible separation of 2,654 children from their arrested parents as a means of discouraging border crossings by immigrants seeking asylum in the United States. As of mid-October 2020, more than 500 of these abused and traumatized children had been separated from their deported parents for two or three years.

(Simply recall the terror and panic you and your child have felt upon accidentally losing contact with each other for just a brief few minutes -- let alone three years -- in a shopping mall, at a theme park, or some other place .)

One wonders, however, what control was achieved by the cruelty of skinning Native Americans in order to turn that skin into bridle reins. Nevertheless, Ms. Wilkerson tells us that "Andrew Jackson, the U.S. president who oversaw the forced removal of indigenous people from ancestral homelands during that Trail of Tears used bridle reins of indigenous flesh when he went horseback riding" (p. 153).

Pillar number eight is the insistence of inherent superiority and inherent inferiority. "At every turn, the caste system drilled into the people under its spell the deference due those born to the upper caste and the degradation befitting the subordinate caste. This required signs and symbols and customs to elevate the upper caste and to demean those assigned to the bottom, in small and large ways and in everyday encounters" (p. 160).

Under slavery and Jim Crow, virtually any act might be construed to constitute insolence. Thus, most members of the lower cast had to go about their lives as if walking on eggs.

With such a high premium placed upon the inherent superiority of whites, even white trash could abuse African-Americans with impunity. Historian Kenneth Stampp cites a case of slaves who were owned by a woman unable to read or write, scarcely able to count to ten and legally incompetent to marry. Yet, they were dependent upon her, her!, for their next breath (p. 162).

We see from Ms. Wilkerson's book that the hold exerted by America's caste system has waxed and waned over time. From the abolition of slavery, through Radical Reconstruction and its demise, through the ratification, evisceration, and subsequent reinforcement of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, and through the Klan, lynchings, massacres, Jim Crow laws, Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act (and its recent evisceration), executive orders mandating Affirmative Action and the election of the country's first black president (among many other notable events); the American caste system has suffered blows that lessened its hold, only to be reestablished, even if in a less violent manner.

The most recent effort to reestablish its hold came with the election of President Donald Trump, who exploited the "psychic break" in America's history that Ms. Wilkerson mentioned at the beginning of her book.

What "psychic break?"

In 2015 two economists from Princeton University published the results of a study demonstrating that "the death rates of middle-aged white Americans, especially less-educated white Americans at mid-life, had risen for the first time since 1950" (p. 178). The rise occurred during the period 1998 to 2013. As Ms. Wilkerson describes it, "just before the turn of the twenty-first century, the death rates among middle-aged white Americans, ages forty-five to fifty-four, began to rise, as the least educated, in particular, succumbed to suicide, drug overdoses, and liver disease from alcohol abuse"' (Ibid.).

The Princeton economists called them "deaths of despair." Manifestations of such despair can be found in a controversial 2012 book written by Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. As a reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, summarized, "Murray reveals alarming levels of social isolation and disengagement among Fishtown's working-class whites. By the early 2000s, only 48% were married, down from 84% in 1960; children living in households with both biological parents fell from 96% to 37%; the number of disabled quintupled from 2% to 10%; arrest rates for violent crime quadrupled from 125 to 592 per 100,000 people; and the percent attending church only once a year nearly doubled from 35% to 59%. In 2008, almost 12% of prime-age males with a high school diploma were "not in the labor force" quadruple the percentage from the all-time low of 3% in 1968" (Frederick Lynch, The Los Angeles Times, February 12, 2012).

Although it seems plausible that such manifestations of despair might deteriorate into deaths of despair, they do not explain the origins of such despair. For that, we must turn to what political scientists call, "dominant group status threat."

Thanks, in part, to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Affirmative Action executive orders signed by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, labor markets were opened "to women of all races, to immigrants from beyond Europe, and to African-Americans" (p. 182). As a consequence, "[s]ome people from groups that were said to be inherently inferior managed to make it into the mainstream, a few rising to the level of people in the dominant caste"" (pp. 182-183).

Thus, "[t]hose in the dominant caste who found themselves lagging behind those seen as inherently inferior potentially faced an epic existential crisis" (p. 183).

But, what transformed a potential existential crisis into a genuine existential crisis was the election of an African-American to the highest office in America. Already suffering from the effects of dominant group status threat, the white working class was now confronted with "a Harvard-trained lawyer, a U.S. senator from the land of Lincoln, whose expertise was the Constitution itself, whose charisma and oratory matched or exceeded that of most any man who had ever risen to the Oval Office, whose unusual upbringing inclined him toward conciliation of the racial divide, who famously saw the country as not blue state or red states but as the United States, whose wife, if it could be imagined, was also a Harvard-trained lawyer with as much star power as her husband, who, together with their two young daughters, made for a telegenic American dream family, and who, beyond all this, ran a scrupulous, near-flawless campaign, a movement really" (p. 311).

Only 43 percent of white Americans voted for Barack Obama in 2008, only 39 percent in 2012. As Ms. Wilkerson observes, "For much of his presidency" [Obama] was trying to win over people who did not want him in the Oval Office and some who resented his very existence" (p. 314). She agrees with the observation of political scientist Ashley Jardina who asserted. "The symbolism of Obama's election was a profound loss to whites' status" (p. 315).

Thus, when an anti-Obama "birther" and white supremacist not only won the Republican Party's nomination for president, but also the 2016 presidential election, it marked a stunning reassertion of the caste hierarchy in America. "White men voted for Trump at 62 percent, White women at 53 percent. Latino men at 32 percent. Latina women at 25 percent. African-American men at 13 percent, and black women at 4 percent" (p. 330).

To many in America's white working class, the slogan "Make America Great Again," actually meant "Make America White Again," and promised to heal their "psychic break" by restoring them to their rightful place within the white hierarchy -- once again above those who are inherently inferior.

That explains why, even afer some 20,000 lies, impeachment, the inhumane separation of children at the border, and a botched response to the coronavirus pandemic (killing more than 225,000 American) and its consequent economic depression, white men still support Trump over Joe Biden by a margin of 57 to 36 percent. As Charles Blow writes in the New York Times, "Trump's base of mostly white men, mostly without a college degree, see him as the ambassador of their anger, one who ministers to their fear, consoles their losses and champions their victimhood. Trump is the angry white man leading the battle charge for angry white men" (New York Times, October 25, 2020).

Are these white men to be pitied or reviled?


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Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San (more...)
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