Not until 2022 will the United States have been free of slavery as long as that execrable institution existed on our soil – it existed in all thirteen colonies until the Northern states gradually began to abolish the institution after we became a country. By the Civil War, slavery no longer existed in the Northern states, although it continued in the border states – Delaware, Maryland, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, and West Virginia after it was formed in 1863. No matter whether freedman or slave, or living in the North or South, the negro was despised as a lower-class human, and few Americans thought that whites and African Americans could coexist. White supremacy was the norm and negro slavery conveniently provided requisite cheap labor.
The American brand of slavery regarded Africans as a degraded race, fit only to serve their Anglo-Saxon masters. Although there were a few exceptions, even Abraham Lincoln thought they were inferior. Due to decades of persuasion, few actually saw blacks as fellow human beings Here’s a shocker: the Nazis actually got their word for Jews, “Untermensch,” from an American eugenicist who published The Menace of the Under-Man in 1922. Sadly, that’s not all the Nazis borrowed from us.
Africans’ degraded status has continued to mark blacks despite 157 years of emancipation. While initially poor whites felt some sort of kinship with slaves, once freed from their indentures they became competitors in the labor market. “Race” remained a critical difference, although it has no basis in fact; in actuality, race is a mere social construct. DNA has established that all humans are 99.9 percent alike. “Race” is mostly quicksand and mythology.
Yet race and racism demonstrably play an important role in modern social dynamics. Racism involves a combination of racial bias and systemic power. We call those who add hatred or disdain toward those of another race racists, not an especially helpful appellation because few admit that this describes them. The term is generally resented and denied. Of late, social scientists have used the term white privilege, a term also objectionable to many, who cite individuals of color who have risen above their “race” or class, or note that we have thousands of poor whites.
Perhaps a more helpful way of examining the phenomenon is to use caste as a paradigm. Caste and race are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive. But caste is fixed and rigid, while “race” has been subject to redefinition as it suits the dominant caste. Thus, Benjamin Franklin had a problem with the large influx of Germans; an even larger invasion of Irish during the potato famine occasioned the rise of the Know-Nothing party, and Italians, Jews and Eastern Europeans were not initially regarded as “white.”
Caste has strict limits based on what people look like, granting or withholding respect, honor, benefit of the doubt or human kindness to individuals according to their perceived standing. It does not involve hatred and is often not personal. In the United States, racism and casteism can exist at the same time. Good and kind people can subscribe to caste, accepting the conventional hierarchy.
Numerous factors flow from caste. Forty-one out of fifty states banned interracial marriage with fines up to $5,000 and as much as ten years in prison. The US Supreme Court did not strike down these anti-miscegenation laws until 1967, and Alabama didn’t abolish its law until 2000. As late as 1958, a Gallop poll found that ninety-four percent of Americans disapproved of marriage across “racial” lines. Thankfully, that has changed dramatically.
When black boxer Jack Johnson knocked out James Jeffries in 1910, it upset the established social order to such an extent that it triggered riots across the country.
In our zero-sum system of caste driven by perceived scarcity, a white person has to go down a rung if a black manages to advance. A spiritual and existential threat is perceived when a person of inferior caste rises above an upper-caste individual.
Gunnar Myrdal, who published the definitive study of caste in America in 1944, the two-volume American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, noted that our caste system is maintained by its own inertia and the upper caste’s interest in maintaining it. Caste does not explain everything in American life, but no aspect can be fully understood without it. It accounts, for instance, for Mr. Trump’s surprising win in 2016. Many white voters are concerned by what they perceive as a massive influx of uncontrolled immigration, demographic trends, and Census Bureau projections that whites will no longer be the dominant party by 2042. They saw “Make America Great Again” as a promise that the flow would be held back so that they remain the majority indefinitely.
We pay a steep price for our caste system. It builds rivalry, distrust and lack of empathy towards those of the other caste. The result is that the United States, for all our wealth and innovation, lags in major quality of life indicators among other developed countries. As conservative commentator Jonathan Chait noted, “Few industrialized countries provide as stingy aid to the poor as the US. In none of them is the principle of universal health care insurance even contested by a major conservative party.” The list of negative factors where American leads other progressive countries is dismaying and lengthy. In large part, this traces back to the institution of African slavery and the caste system that prevailed even after Emancipation.
When Albert Einstein arrived on our shores in 1932 after fleeing the Nazi’s oppression of Jews, he was quick to note, “The worst disease is the treatment of the Negro.” He was concerned not only with this rank injustice, but its “scorn of the principles of the Fathers who founded the United States that ‘all men are created equal.’” Einstein warned, “The separation of the races is not a disease of the colored people, but a disease of the white people.” Black Lives Matter has drawn attention to this injustice, but it up to the dominant caste to trash this unviable strait jacket and liberate us all. Our future depends on it!