Thursday, June 09, 2022

Reflections on "Caste" in America

by Daniel Cano
The true inheritors of Caste in America

     Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste, The Origens of our Discontent, left me somewhat bewildered. I, like many Americans, believed the U.S. was a socio-political system based on class, upper, middle, and lower class, as determined by one’s career and salary. 
     The idea of “caste” reminded me of India, on which Wilkerson bases much of her theory. Still, Wilkerson’s ideas sent my mind reeling. In Caste, she presents American society in a different light, yet, at the same time, since I taught American, Ethnic and Chicano literature classes for so many years, I found myself flipping through pages, familiar with much of the history, but slowly reviewing other pages, trying to soak up new information. As I read, I kept wondering, where do Latinos fit in this narrative?
     Published in 2020, the Pulitzer Prize winning writer argues that United States is a society based, not on class or race but on “caste,” not unlike that of the Hindu system in India, but instead of a religiously educated Brahmin caste at the top, ours is based on Protestant Caucasians at the top and African Americans slaves at the bottom. For the early English settlers, Native Americans didn’t even merit a place on the scale. 
     As the U.S. moved forward, migrants to the New World found themselves spread out between two castes, those with darker skin or features that diverged from Caucasian features ranking lower in “caste.” At one point, even Germanic people arriving here were considered a lower caste than the colonial Brits, who feared the Germana might taint the bloodlines. We now know race has nothing to do with “blood” and more to do with a skewed white supremacist mythology designed by “quacks,” in the 1700s, who passed for doctors. Science had no bearing on any of it. 
     Caste was important because it determined one’s place in society, and the higher one’s ranking, the more opportunities to succeed in business, which, in 1600 and 1700s meant acquiring land, money, and influence. Slaves and those in the lower ranks of caste were either property or serfs, whose only function was to serve those above them, and caste was permanent. 
     In Europe, people didn’t know a concept of “White” as a race or place in society. They viewed themselves as Estonians, French, Polish, Italian, Irish, Spanish, Russian, German, or the nationality of whatever country they hailed. When they emigrated to the U.S., they would, one day, come to learn they were “White,” and very low in “caste.” Outcasts in Europe, like early Irish immigrants, were servants in the New World, and forced to work until they could pay off their debts, indentured servitude a system unto itself. 
     All this reminded me when my father, a history buff, once, told me, “Why do you think so many cops and firemen on the East Coast are Irish?” I had no idea. “Because when they got here, they already knew English.” The logical conclusion, the Irish had a more direct path integrating than other, non-English speaking immigrant groups. Though, still, the Irish were considered a lower caste. Their superstitious Catholic rituals didn't help. 
     Even Italians were considered non-white, almost black. Wilkerson writes, “There was an attempt to exclude Italian voters from ‘white’ primaries in Louisiana in 1903.” New Orleans held a mass lynching of eleven Italians accused of killing the police chief. A lynch mob organizer, John M. Parker said Italians were “just a little worse than the Negros, being if anything filthy in (their) habits, lawless, and treacherous.” 
     It was the same with many European groups. Upon immigrating, they were rejected by the American “Brahmin” caste, which meant, at one point, “People in the lowest caste were forbidden to sell or trade goods of any kind or be subject to thirty-nine lashes,” that’s right, “lashes” as in a whipping. 
     As for the Africans, who were the lowest ranking caste, one Mississippi governor, in the 1800s, said, “God almighty designed him (the African) for a menial. He is fit for nothing else,” which is to say, the American “Brahmins” used the Bible to justify “caste” and slavery. It was God’s will, even tying blacks to one of the lost tribes of Israel. Religion was a strong tool, like, who was going to fight the will of God? 
     So, with God’s blessing, the American Brahmin caste urged those “whites” of lower castes onwards, to conquer the heathens in the West, their God-given right -- Manifest Destiny. But with time, because their skin was “white,” and the American “Brahmin” caste needed to grow its numbers (numbers equal power) southern and Eastern Europeans (thought to be the scum of the earth by the Brits and northern Europeans), were accepted into the upper realms of the scale. 
     As I read, I couldn’t help thinking these are the ideas and practices imbedded deep in the American psyche for at least two hundred and fifty years, methods for keeping the lower castes “in line.” Step out of line and you get the whip, a noose, or a bullet (today, maybe an assault with an AK-47). It was systematic. In the early days of the “Republic,” a person in the lower caste, usually black, could be punished for even walking in the shadow, or on the same side of the street, as a person in a higher caste.
     Some of the most brutal enforcers of the caste system were, often, poor, lower caste whites, a way of holding on to their lowly positions, punishing those beneath themselves. Some whites were so poor, the only thing they had over those in the lower caste was the color of their skin, and they proudly proclaimed it. 
     I’ve always thought “abolition” and the Civil War weren’t completely altruistic, like their true goal wasn't just the emancipation of human beings from the horrors of slavery. Northerners could be as sadistic with blacks, or those of a lower caste, like Native Americans and new immigrants, as Southerners. It’s just, well, the Southerners institutionalized slavery, made it an industry, convincing blacks, and those of a lower caste, that they were not only “worth less” but “worthless.” (Steve Hochstadt, L.A. Progressive) 
     My take on “abolition” and the Civil War was that the North needed workers as it industrialized, and the South had an abundance of “no-wage” workers. Why not free them, encourage them north, and get them serving Northerners and free-up new, poor, hungry immigrants to work in the factories and stockyards of the major northern cities? After all, the Civil War didn’t take a toll on the American “Brahmin” caste but on the lower caste, poor whites and immigrants who did the actual fighting and dying -- by the hundreds of thousands. 
     After “Emancipation,” the South wasn’t about to abandon an institution that had served it so well. It had to endure, somehow, to serve and protect the Southern upper caste. That’s how we got segregation, Reconstruction, the KKK, lynching, Jim Crow, Sundown towns, the Green Book, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and so many more “unwritten” laws that reminded those in the lower caste, “You’d better not “step out of line, or else," two constant reminders: the Confederate flag and the statues of Confererate heroes in town centers across the South. 
     It began making sense to me, our own caste system in the Southwest. I remember my father telling me when he was a kid, Mexicans in Los Angeles could go swimming in public pools only on certain days because the day after was the day they’d clean the pools. He said he met Chicanos from Texas and New Mexico in the Army who said the "racism" was worst out there. 
     So, how does Wilkerson’s thesis on “caste” apply to California or Los Angeles, my own town? Her fifteen years of research considered, mostly, the idea of “caste” on the East Coast and Deep South, yet she argues it’s institutionalized throughout the country. 
     If the U.S. is built on “caste” and not on “class,” as many believed, what did that say about us, Caucasians, Mexicans, mestizos, Indios, Californios, Asians, and Africans in the Southwest? In Mexico, and Latin America, the idea of caste was ingrained in us by the Spanish colonialists? The Spanish separated everybody in their Latin American territories into a caste, something like eight groups, depending on one’s birthplace and parents. 
     The top caste was the Spanish, peninsulares, born in Spain, the smallest but richest and most influential caste; next the Creoles, those of Spanish parentage but born in the Americas, also “well-to-do" and influential but subservient to the peninsulares; then mestizos, born of Spanish-Indian parentage, a caste somewhere in the middle, with almost no chance of moving into higher strata of society, often entertainers, artisans and craftsmen; and at the bottom, Negroes, Indians, and their offspring, essentially slaves and servants. Yes, the Spanish had "essential workers," too.
     Even today, I bristle when I hear one person greet another, in Spanish, and use the term, “Para servirle.” It was a term I never heard used in Spain or South America. When I was in Spain, I noticed Spaniards used the less formal pronoun “Tu” when talking to friends, colleagues, and strangers. In the U.S., I hear Mexicans using the formal “usted”, more often than not, when talking to friends. Sometimes, I think these are “holdovers” terms from the Mexican caste system. 
    The Spanish created a brutal system of peonage, but it didn’t appear to have the same institutionalized structure as U.S. chattel slavey, a clearly delineated system of commerce in human trafficking, beginning with the capture of African villagers to the Middle Passage across the Atlantic to slave markets along the Mississippi River and enslavement on Southern work camps (what some call plantations), and adherence to every manner of rule and regulation foisted upon humans to manage and control them. It was said that Hitler studied the methods the American slavery, and he instituted many of these practices to control large numbers of people in his death camps. 
     So, is Wilkerson correct, are we, Americans, born into a caste system? I remember, when I was about twelve, I’d work with my relatives, in summers, picking up a few extra bucks, gardening. It was okay when I was working, incognito, in some rich person’s backyard, but I hated standing out on Sunset boulevard, cutting a lawn, weeding, or watering, in plain sight. I was embarrassed someone I knew might see me. I played Little League baseball with kids, you might call, of the upper caste. So, did that mean, as a twelve-year-old, I already knew my place, my caste, and it embarrassed me? 
     Perhaps, Luis Valdez understood this idea of caste, early on, even before Wilkerson's book. In his play Zoot Suit, if memory serves, when his protagonist Hank Reyna is in San Quintin and realizes he missed his chance to serve in the Navy, his alter ego, El Pachuco, reminds him, to Americans, he's just another "fucking Mexican," anyway.
     Did it mean that no matter how much we, Chicanos-Latinos, achieved, whether in school or our careers, we'd still be viewed as members of a lower caste, just another Mexican? Did it mean, in the eyes of the American upper caste, all Latin America and its descendants, are lower caste, including our children and grandchildren?
     Is that what the former president meant when he called them, “Shit hole countries?” Is it the reason an 18-year-old kid, who considers himself of a higher caste, can walk into a store and kill those of a lower caste, and feel he is doing God’s work?

Daniel Cano is author of the award-winning novel, "Death and the American Dream," Bilingual Review Books


Anonymous said...

Can you Please tell me if your blogspot is associated with Floricanto Press?
Can you please tell me if FLORICANTO PRESS is still in business?
Although I've used the Internet daily, I can't find the answer to whether or
not Floricanto Press still exists.

Daniel Cano said...

Sorry, I'm a contributor to La Bloga. I don't know of Floricanto's current situation. Good luck