Berkeley, CA, August 10, 2020 – Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” is an angry book.
If you’re not angry after reading it, the reason may lie in the subtitle. Are you part of “we” implicit in “our”? Because there are two “we’s” and “ours” in her mind. One is that of the dominant class, so used to power and privilege that they are not just “discontent” but frightened and threatened by any perceived challenge to their status. The other, subservient class, has long internalized their subjugation to those who are dominant.
It’s timely to have this book. It should be required reading in any open-minded educational institution genuinely concerned about what they should be concerned about: the future of the United States.
But there’s also a flip side. The more you become convinced that she’s right, the more you will have to admit to a possibility you almost certainly won’t like: Donald Trump has a good chance of being re-elected in November.
It’s a combination of atavism and nativism that would be responsible. Elements that polls don’t gauge. Attitudes that in most cases Trump voters don’t even know they hold.
But, Wilkerson thinks, all they need to know about it they can learn by looking in the mirror. “White” people very early on in this country’s history were bestowed with a status that relied for its maintenance on the same status not being granted to non-whites. W.J. Cash, one of the great historians of ethnicity and race in this country, wrote in “The Mind of the South” (1941): “Even for those who owned no slaves, European yeomen who emigrated to North America became a new American category known as ‘whites,’ which gave them superiority. This had been conferred on him by slavery, and so he was determined to keep the black man in chains.”
Wilkerson elaborately expands on what “keeping Blacks in chains” involved. Horrific brutality, which began when Africans were captured and transported to the North American colonies in unspeakable conditions. They were subjected to immediately enforced subservience, not just in unbearable labor but in a denial of minimal dignity in personal relations. Like the denial of even the right to look at or speak to non-slaves.
The slaves’ Transatlantic “middle passage” and the death-in-life that awaited them once here were unfortunately not without historical precedent or subsequent adoption. Hitler’s cruelty and genocidal insanity are usually thought to be the low point of human society on our planet, and Wilkerson goes into them thoroughly. Much less well known is the story of the Dalits in India, whose subjection goes back centuries before slavery (A lengthy, personalized history of India’s “untouchable” Dalit caste is Sujatha Gidla’s “Ants Among Elephants” (2017).)
The Dalits, commonly referred to as “Untouchables,” have been kept where they are by Hindu-based beliefs that in this life we are living out a pre-ordained destiny based on our past lives. And that what we do in this life will determine what happens in the next. Resistance to oppression is futile. Acceptance of misery is the only possible mode of behavior.
Jews never had much of a chance to fight back against Hitler, although more tried than are generally acknowledged. Dalits had no chance, despite occasional uprisings that were militarily squelched. Blacks in this country had to be more concerned with survival than with change, although rebellion, as with Jews, was widespread but now little credited.
When on-line communication exploded in the late 1980’s, first via “The Well” (“Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link”) there was a common analysis by media mavens. Any subject being discussed, it seemed, would deteriorate in just a few exchanges to anonymous name-calling and finger-pointing with one person anonymously insulting another, using the terms “Nazi” and “Hitler.” Which soon disgusted others who didn’t see Nazis and Hitler as casual points of reference, without description and analysis.
As Wilkerson points out, however, real Nazis were, and are, dangerous deviants. One of their traditional redoubts has been their thinking of themselves as leaders of a “Herrenvolk” (“Master Race”) destined by biology to rule. Especially over “Untermenschen” (“Underclass”) most readily identifiable by skin color.
Decades before Hitler and the Nazis, geneticists used illegitimate “research” and religious leaders used selective biblical texts, to adopt schemes of dominance which they were unashamed to proclaim. Wilkerson quotes Alexander Stevens, a wealthy Georgia slave owner, in his 1861 inaugural address as Confederate Vice President. The Confederacy, he declaimed, had as its “corner-stone the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; slavery’s subordination of Blacks to the white race is a natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Stevens’ commander-in-chief, Confederacy President Robert E. Lee, put it this way. “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially, and physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race & I hope will prepare and lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise, merciful Providence.”
Wilkerson describes an 1859 incident where three of Lee’s slaves were captured in Pennsylvania. When they were returned to his Virginia plantation he ordered them – two men and one woman – stripped and whipped. His slave overseer, himself Black, refused to do it. So Lee called upon the local sheriff, who had no such qualms. Including applying more torture to the whipping by dousing the victims with brine,. One of them was left disabled for life.
There are, Wilkerson tells us, eight states which now have counties named after Lee, not all of them in the South. 230 Lee memorials continue to exist, some as far away as Idaho. Plaques, busts, schools and roads are named after him. Children in Jacksonville, Florida and Tyler, Texas attend Robert E. Lee high schools. (In Germany there are no plaques, statues, or monuments to Hitler and his evil crew.)
Wilkerson doesn’t dwell on her own relatively minor experiences with prejudice as a Black woman. But they have been real and shocking. (To hear her recount a few, listen to Terry Gross’s conversation with her on “Fresh Air,” (8/4/2020).)
When Hitler’s co-evil countrymen (women never came close to positions of power under Nazism) were discussing how to rid Europe, and ultimately the world, of “untermenschen,” they often cited Confederate words and actions. Although World War II’s fighting ended in 1945 with Hitler’s suicide and his country’s surrender, his savage doctrines lived on. These days, Wilkerson says, these doctrines are still around.
Which brings us to Eugene Scalia, Robert George, Michael Pack, and dozens of members of The Federalist Society. (For an illuminating graze, immerse yourself in the capsule biographies of the Harvard Law School Chapter, (https://orgs.law.harvard.edu/fedsoc/about/officers/. )
You can add to those bios the better known acolytes like Newt Gingrich, Stephen Bannon, Samuel Alito, Stephen Miller, William Barr and Brett Kavanaugh. They may seem to have little in common. Some are Ayn Rand macho individualists. Some are property rights fanatics. Some believe in the absolute rights of elected (or selected) leaders. Some believe a variation of Jesus (or Mary) uber alles. Some are “Israel Right or Wrong” Zionists. But without overtly identifying as Nazis, they are potential precursors of a United States Nazi era.
Let’s briefly take a look at one you’ve no doubt never heard of.
Alexei Woltornist is Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Public Affairs in the Department of Homeland Security. He is also “Acting” Assistant Secretary, in its Office of Public Affairs. This confusing set of titles seems to mean he’s his own assistant. What it really means is that Trump’s inner circle has so constipated and neglected the processes of government that Trump is as close to a “unitary” executive as this country has ever had. He first neglects to utilize established executive structures. When forced by politics (“this can’t get out, that we’re doing this”) he stuffs various rooms with cardboard characters instead of real people; Major League Baseball stadiums are an appropriate metaphor these days for his government.
Bootlickers, ass-kissers, careerists and unqualified opportunists abound in such circumstances. Woltornist looks to be one of them. He was imported into his Homeland Security position from his previous employment, as communications director for the Republican Study Committee. While there, he was listed as a contact to explain “religious liberty,” a catch-all phrase for the right-wing paranoia which claims to suffer under non-existent religious discrimination. However, the reality is that government in this country, far from persecuting religion, suffers from granting it privileges like tax exemptions for property and educational institutions, which cost taxpayers billions each year.
Woltornist is in his early 30’s, one of hundreds of almost entirely white male cadres who attend mostly small religious schools, places that are increasingly shunned by young people and their families. They then find a well-developed network of jobs and consultancies.
While one of 2,500 students at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio (“Home of a Living Catholic Culture”) Woltornist was a student government officer and president of the Young Republicans. He interned in Washington for anti-choice Congressman Chris Smith and at the Heritage Foundation, which issues “studies” like “Why Corporate Taxes Hurt Workers.” Now he fronts for another “acting” Trump official, Homeland Security Administrator Chad Wolf, who previously was in the news as enforcer for the Trump policy of separating suspected illegal immigrants from their children. And who most recently has been seen defending DHS from accusations that it illegally and unconstitutionally invaded Portland, Oregon with uniformed, unidentifiable heavily armed troops to suppress an alleged uprising.
Woltornist says his view of life came from his parents, who fled the Soviet Union in the 1940’s and wound up in the U.S. because of its “freedom.” To believe that a country where people are free to be discriminated against in housing and employment, and are often homeless and starving, is “free” is to believe in fact-free belief. Which is what the privileged cast (Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is their exemplar) would like us all to do.
These seemingly “unchristian” attitudes and practices are directly traceable to what Wilkerson analyzes extensively in “Caste.” And, and as she points out, Hitler had many similar folks supporting him in his time. It wasn’t then about a supernatural “God,” it was about a “Master Race.” As with the German elite in the 1930’s Woltornist and Wolf have plenty of folks who can get – indeed are getting practice – in brutal enforcement of ideology. Special units were formed in Germany to stigmatize, isolate, and ultimately kill and torture — as they are now being developed here through Wolf and DHS “Fusion Centers” (see #14 in this series).
Wolf, Woltornist et al never had to endure even the relatively minor humiliations that Wilkerson has, you can be certain. Because of their internalized, inherited privilege. And Trump, himself from a privileged background, never had to, either. He is their avatar. (For an explication Trump’s shady background see #19 in this series, based on his niece Mary Trump’s book, “Too Much and Never Enough.” )
Unfortunately, why Trump may still be re-elected can be seen, of all places, through Wilkerson’s former employer. In last Sunday’s New York Times, a long front page article, “Christianity Will Have Power: How A Promise by Trump bonded Him to White Evangelicals” takes until paragraph 111 of 123 to even mention Blacks and Black Lives Matter.
The reporter, Elizabeth Dias, spent time in Sioux Center, Iowa (population 7,500) parsing religious attitudes. The Main Stream Media is desperate not to be caught in 2020 missing the voter motivations they missed in 2016. While not mentioning her directly, Dias’ article reinforces Wilkerson’s points. People in Sioux Center seem economically comfortable. There is almost no crime. Municipal services seem to function. And yet, the residents are presented as living with anxiety that “they” are going to come and take what “we” have.
There is no recognition that the all-white “we” has what it has because the Black “we” never had a chance to get it. And so their white working class got hardened into their white caste. In which whites had the opportunity to build about ten times the wealth that the lower castes now have. And now they’re proud of it. Notable individuals seem to have transcended the caste lines (as in Obama, Barack) without bringing about systemic change. Wilkerson believes the now entrenched upper caste senses this, and many may vote for Trump solely on that basis.
Such voters make few demands on the political system, other than allowing their churches to do whatever they want. They’re ready to accept whatever mindlessness and bigotry Trump and his crew bring. “The result,” says Wilkerson, “is that the United States, for all its wealth and innovation, lags in major indicators of quality of life among the leading countries of the world. There are more mass shootings…gun deaths…people in jail and prison…deaths during pregnancy and childbirth…infant mortality…mathematics and reading test scores are lower…” And when the coronavirus hit, “it forced the nation to open its eyes to what it might not have wanted to see but needed to see.”
In places, like what the New York Times presents Sioux Center to be, belief is based on a “caste system. “It persists because of the meaning we attribute to people’s physical traits,” Wilkerson concludes. “If enough people buy into the lie of natural hierarchy then it becomes the truth, or is assumed to be.”
Trump will be counting on this race-based buy-in and its discontents on November 3. How much of it there is, and what role it will play, there are still many weeks to determine. Vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris is going to be a big part of those weeks. If she and Biden should lose, look to Wilkerson’s narrative for a big reason why.