January 02, 2021

Addicted to caste

The late great African American author and social critic James Baldwin spoke of those who have "brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white." Today we are witnessing many powerful elected officials who are actively trying to do the same thing to American democracy--or what remains of it--by overturning the results of an election they didn't like: for pretty much the same reason.

I just finished reading Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns. In it, she argues that a racialized caste system, itself a lie with real consequences, is at the root of US society. The illusion of "whiteness" has allowed the meanest person who thinks in those terms to feel superior to those lower down the hierarchy--and to feel outrage at those members of subordinate castes who don't follow the prescribed script. And the feelings of superiority and rage have been backed up by state and non-state violence for centuries.

A cursory look at American history, distant and recent, makes that conclusion hard to argue with. I'm convinced that kind of rage from people who think they are white instead of human explains the appeal to many of the call to "make American great again."

I was especially struck by a recent conversation Wilkerson related in Caste with Taylor Branch, the great historian of the civil rights movement, about what the rage of people who think they are white means for the future of the US. 

Branch pondered this question: "if people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?"

I think we have a pretty good idea of the answer to that now.

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