Authors: Isabel Wilkerson
By extending the dream of dominion over the land and all others in it to anyone who could meet the definition of
the American caste system became an all-or-nothing gambit for the top rung. Which is why, when Ybor City, Florida, began segregating its streetcars in 1905, Cubans, who had been uncertain as to how they would be classified, were relieved and overjoyed “
to discover that they were allowed to sit in the white section.”
Those permitted under the white tent could reap the rewards of full citizenship, rise to positions of high status, or as far as their talents could take them, get access to the best the country had to offer, or, at the very least, be accorded respect in everyday interactions from subordinate groups who risked assault for any misstep. A two-tiered caste system raised the stakes for whiteness, leading to court dockets filled with people on the borderline seeking admission to the upper caste.
A Japanese immigrant named Takao Ozawa had lived in the United States for more than twenty years. He tried to make the case that he was worthy of citizenship and should qualify as white because his skin was lighter than that of many “white people.” He argued, what really was the difference? How could he not be white if his skin was white? What did it mean to be white if someone with actual white skin was not white?
His case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1922, the Court held unanimously that
meant not skin color but “Caucasian,” and that Japanese were not Caucasian, notwithstanding the fact that few white Americans had origins in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia either and that those who did were at that very moment being kept out, too.
After the ruling, a newspaper that catered to Japanese immigrants mocked the decision: “
Since this newspaper did not believe whites are the ‘superior race,’ it is ‘delighted’ the high tribunal ‘did not find the Japanese to be free white persons.’ ”
A few months later, an immigrant from the dominant caste of India sought to make common cause with his upper-caste counterparts in America when his application for citizenship made it to the Supreme Court. Bhagat Singh Thind argued that he was Caucasian, Aryan in fact, descended from the same stock as Europeans, given that it was widely held that Aryans migrated south to India and formed that country’s upper caste. It could be said that he had a more rightful claim to being Caucasian than the people judging him. After all, the Caucasus Mountains were next to Iran and closer to neighboring India than to western Europe.
The Court did not agree and rejected Thind’s quest for citizenship in 1923. “
It may be true that the blond Scandinavian and the brown Hindu have a common ancestor in the dim reaches of antiquity,” wrote the Court, “but the average man knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable and profound differences between them today.”
These decisions were a heartbreaking catastrophe for Asians seeking citizenship. With pro–western European sentiment running high, the government began rescinding the naturalized citizenship of people of Asian descent who were already here. This amounted to an abandonment of people who had lived legally in the United States for most of their adult lives, as would echo a century later with immigrants crossing the southern U.S. border with Mexico.
It could lead to tragic consequences. Vaishno Das Bagai, an Indian immigrant, had been in the United States for eight years by the time the Supreme Court ruled that Indians were not white and thus were ineligible for citizenship. He had a wife and three children and his own general store on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. He tended his store in three-piece suits and kept his hair cut short with a part on the side. Bagai lost his citizenship in the crackdown on nonwhite immigrants. He was then stripped of the business he had built, due to a California law restricting the economic rights of people who were not citizens. Shorn of a passport, he was then thwarted in his attempt to get back to India and was now a man without a country.
Far from his original home and rejected by his new one, he rented a room in San Jose, turned on the gas and took his life. He left a suicide note, in which he lamented the futility of all that he had sacrificed to come to America: “
Obstacles this way, blockades that way, and bridges burnt behind.”
No matter which route a borderline applicant took to gain acceptance, the caste system shape-shifted to keep the upper caste pure by its own terms. What a thin, frayed thread held the illusions together.
A Japanese novelist once noted that, on paper anyway, it was a single apostrophe that stood between rejection and citizenship for a Japanese Ohara versus an Irish O’Hara. These cases laid bare not just the absurdity but the inaccuracy of these artificial labels and the perception of purity or pollution implied by them. At the same time, they exposed the unyielding rigidity of a caste system, defiant in the face of evidence contrary to its foundation, how it holds fast against the assault of logic.
As the middle castes pressed for admittance to the rungs above them, what was consistent was the absolute exclusion of the “polluting” lowest caste. African-Americans were not just
citizens, they were, like their Dalit counterparts in India, forced outside the social contract.
They and the Dalits bore the daily brunt of the taint ascribed to their very beings. The Dalits were not permitted to drink from the same cups as the dominant castes in India, live in the villages of the upper-caste people, walk through the front doors of upper-caste homes, and neither were African-Americans in much of the United States for most of its history. African-Americans in the South were required to walk through the side or back door of any white establishment they approached. Throughout the United States, sundown laws forbade them from being seen in white towns and neighborhoods after sunset, or risk assault or lynching. In bars and restaurants in the North, though they might be permitted to sit and eat, it was common for the bartender to make a show of smashing the glass that a black patron had just sipped from. Heads would turn as restaurant patrons looked to see where the crashing sound had come from and who had offended the sensibilities of caste pollution.
Untouchables were not allowed inside Hindu temples, and
black Mormons in America, by way of example, were not allowed inside the temples of the religion they followed and could not become priests until 1978. Enslaved black people were prohibited from learning to read the Bible or any book for that matter, just as Untouchables were prohibited from learning Sanskrit and sacred texts. In churches in the South, black worshippers sat in the galleries or in the back rows, and, when such arrangements were inconvenient to the dominant caste, “
the negroes must catch the gospel as it escapes through the windows and doors” from outside. To this day, Sunday morning has been called the most segregated hour in America.
Well into the civil rights era, the caste system excluded African-Americans from the daily activities of the general public in the South, the region where most of them lived. They knew to disregard any notice of a circus coming to town or of a political rally; those things were not intended for them. “
They were driven from Independence Day parades,” wrote the historian David Roediger, “as ‘defilers’ of the body politic.”
What a British magistrate observed about the lowest castes in India could as well have been said of African-Americans. “
They were not allowed to be present at the great national sacrifices, or at the feasts which followed them,” wrote the colonial administrator and historian W. W. Hunter. “They could never rise out of their servile condition; and to them was assigned the severest toil in the fields.”
Their exclusion was used to justify their exclusion. Their degraded station justified their degradation. They were consigned to the lowliest, dirtiest jobs and thus were seen as lowly and dirty, and everyone in the caste system absorbed the message of their degradation.
The burden fell on those in the lowest caste to adjust themselves for the convenience of the dominant caste whenever in contact with white people. An African-American man who managed to become an architect during the nineteenth century had to train himself “
to read architectural blueprints upside down,” wrote the scholar Charles W. Mills, “because he knew white clients would be made uncomfortable by having him on the same side of the desk as themselves.”
Well into the twentieth century, a panic could afflict people in the dominant caste if ever a breach occurred. A frantic white mother in civil-rights-era Mississippi yanked her young daughter inside one day, held her over the kitchen sink and scrubbed her little hand with a Brillo pad as if both their lives depended on it. The girl had touched the hand of a little black girl who was working on the family’s land. The mother told her never to touch that girl’s hand again, though that was not the term she used.
They have germs,” the mother said. “They’re nasty.” The mother’s fury frightened the little girl and brought her to tears as they stood there, bent over the sink. And the daughter’s tears brought the mother to tears over the manufactured terror she had allowed to consume her and over the box that she realized in that moment had imprisoned her for all of her life.
This was a sacred prohibition, and it was said that, into the 1970s, the majority of whites in the South had not so much as shaken the hands of a black person.
A young dominant-caste man raised in the Depression-era South had been well taught the rules of the caste system and adhered to them as expected. When he went north in the mid-twentieth century and joined the military, he had to confront the mythologies of his upbringing.
Strange things pop up at us like gargoyles when we are liberated from our delusions,” the white southerner said.
Up north, on occasion, he found himself in situations where black people were permitted in the same work settings as whites. “I thought I was entirely prepared, emotionally and intellectually,” the man, an editor at
magazine, recalled years later.
But he discovered that he was a captive of his own conditioning, which he called a certain madness.
Every time he reached the point where he had to shake hands with a black person, he felt an automatic revulsion that had been trained into him. He recoiled even though it had been black women who had bathed him as a child, had mixed the dough for his biscuits, and whose touch had not repulsed him when extended in servitude. But with presumed equals, “each time I shook hands with a Negro,” he said, “I felt an urge to wash my hands. Every rational impulse, all that I considered best in myself struggled against this urge. But the hand that had touched the dark skin had a will of its own and would not be dissuaded from signaling it was unclean. That is what I mean by madness.”
When a house is being built, the single most important piece of the framework is the first wood beam hammered into place to anchor the foundation. That piece is called the mudsill, the sill plate that runs along the base of a house and bears the weight of the entire structure above it. The studs and subfloors, the ceilings and windows, the doors and roofing, all the components that make it a house, are built on top of the mudsill. In a caste system, the mudsill is the bottom caste that everything else rests upon.
A southern politician declared this central doctrine from the floor of the U.S. Senate in March 1858. “
In all social systems, there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life,” Sen. James Henry Hammond of South Carolina told his fellow senators. “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….It constitutes the very mud-sill of society.”
He exulted in the cunning of the South, which, he said, had “found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand….Our slaves are black, of another and inferior race. The status in which we have placed them is an elevation. They are elevated from the condition in which God first created them, by being made our slaves.”
Hammond owned several plantations and more than three hundred souls, having acquired this fortune by marrying the plain and callow young daughter of a wealthy landowner in South Carolina. He rose to become governor of the state and a leading figure in the antebellum South. Well before making this speech, he had established himself as one of the more repugnant of men ever to rise to the Senate, one scholar calling him “
nothing less than a monster.” He is known to have repeatedly raped at least two of the women he enslaved, one of them believed to have been his daughter by another enslaved woman.
His political career was nearly derailed when it became public that he had sexually abused his four young nieces, their lives so ruined that none of them ever married after reaching adulthood. In his diary, he spoke blithely of the nieces, blaming them for the “
intimacies.” For these and other things, his wife left him, taking their children with her, only to later return. He rebounded from these malefactions to be elected to the U.S. Senate.
But he is best known for the speech that distilled the hierarchy of the South, which spread in spirit to the rest of the country, into a structure built on a mudsill. In so doing, he defined the fifth pillar of caste, the division of labor based on one’s place in the hierarchy. Therein, he identified the economic purpose of a hierarchy to begin with, that is, to ensure that the tasks necessary for a society to function get handled whether or not people wish to do them, in this case, by being born to the disfavored sill plate.
In the Indian caste system, an infinitely more elaborate hierarchy, the subcaste, or
to which a person was born established the occupation their family fulfilled, from cleaners of latrines to priests in the temples. Those born to families who collected refuse or tanned the hides of animals or handled the dead were seen as the most polluted and lowest in the hierarchy, untouchable due to the dreaded and thankless though necessary task they were presumably born to fulfill.
Similarly, African-Americans, throughout most of their time in this land, were relegated to the dirtiest, most demeaning and least desirable jobs by definition. After enslavement and well into the twentieth century, they were primarily restricted to the role of sharecroppers and servants—domestics, lawn boys, chauffeurs, and janitors. The most that those who managed to get an education could hope for was to teach, minister to, attend to the health needs of, or bury other subordinate-caste people.
There is severe occupational deprivation in each country,” wrote the scholars Sidney Verba, Bashiruddin Ahmed, and Anil Bhatt in a 1971 comparative study of India and the United States. “A deprivation—at least in terms of level—of roughly similar magnitude.”
The state of South Carolina, right after the Civil War, explicitly prohibited black people from performing any labor other than farm or domestic work, setting their place in the caste system. The legislature decreed that “
no person of color shall pursue or practice the art, trade or business of an artisan, mechanic or shop-keeper, or any other trade, employment or business (besides that of husbandry, or that of a servant under contract for labor) on his own account and for his own benefit until he shall have obtained a license from the judge of the district court, which license shall be good for one year only.” The license was set at an intentionally prohibitive cost of $100 a year, the equivalent of $1,500 in 2018. This was a fee not required of the dominant caste, whose members, having not been enslaved for a quarter millennium, would have been in better position to afford.
The law went nominally out of effect during the decade known as Reconstruction, when the North took control of the former Confederacy, but it returned in spirit and custom after the North retreated and the former enslavers took power again, ready to avenge their defeat in the Civil War. In North Carolina, during slavery and into the era of sharecropping, people in the lowest caste were
forbidden to sell or trade goods of any kind or be subject to thirty-nine lashes. This blocked the main route to earning money from their own farm labors and forced them into economic dependence on the dominant caste.
The caste order that followed slavery defined the Negroes as workers and servants of the whites,” wrote the scholar Edward Reuter. “The range of occupations was narrow, and many of those outside the orbit of common labor were closed to the Negroes.”
The South foreclosed on them any route to a station higher than that assigned them. “
Anything that causes the negro to aspire above the plow handle, the cook pot, in a word the functions of a servant,” Gov. James K. Vardaman of Mississippi said, “will be the worst thing on earth for the negro. God Almighty designed him for a menial. He is fit for nothing else.”
Those who managed to go north after the Civil War and in the bigger waves of the Great Migration, starting in World War I, found that they could escape the South but not their caste.
They entered the North at the bottom, beneath southern and eastern Europeans who might not yet have learned English but who were permitted into unions and into better-served neighborhoods that barred black citizens whose labor had cleared the wilderness and built the country’s wealth. While there was no federal law restricting people to certain occupations on the basis of race, statutes in the South and custom in the North kept lower-caste people in their place. Northern industries often hired African-Americans only as strikebreakers, and unions blocked them from entire trades reserved for whites, such as pipe fitters or plumbers. City inspectors would refuse to sign off on the work of black electricians. A factory in Milwaukee turned away black men seeking jobs as they walked toward the front gate. In New York and Philadelphia, black people were long denied licenses merely to drive carts.
Every avenue for improvement was closed against him,” wrote William A. Sinclair, author of a history of slavery and its aftermath, of the fate of the subordinate-caste man.
There were exceptions—those select enslaved people, often the children of slaveholders, who were permitted to serve as carpenters or blacksmiths or in other trades as would be required on large plantations like Thomas Jefferson’s at Monticello.
Even in India, where there are thousands of castes within castes, within the four main
no one occupation has but one caste assigned to it,” wrote the anthropologists W. Lloyd Warner and Allison Davis. “While in theory caste demands occupational specialization, in practice even the most ideally organized of the several castes, the Brahmans, have a great variety of occupations.” The French anthropologist and philosopher Célestin Bouglé wrote that, in the Indian caste system, “
one can distinguish six merchant castes, three of scribes, forty of peasants, twenty-four of journeymen, nine of shepherds and hunters, fourteen of fishermen and sailors, twelve of various kinds of artisans, carpenters, blacksmiths, goldsmiths and potters, thirteen of weavers, thirteen of distillers, eleven of house servants.”
Thus, the caste lines in America may have at one time been even starker than those in India. In 1890, “
85 percent of black men and 96 percent of black women were employed in just two occupational categories,” wrote the sociologist Stephen Steinberg, “agriculture and domestic or personal service.” Forty years later, as the Depression set in and as African-Americans moved to northern cities, the percentages of black people at the bottom of the labor hierarchy remained the same, though, by then, nearly half of black men were doing manual labor that called merely for a strong back. Only 5 percent were listed as white-collar workers—many of them ministers, teachers, and small business owners who catered to other black people.
North and south, the status of African-Americans was so well understood that people in the dominant caste were loath to perform duties they perceived as beneath their station. A British tourist in the 1810s noted that white Americans well knew which tasks were seen as befitting only black people. White paupers in Ohio, “
refused to carry water for their own use,” wrote the historian David R. Roediger, “for fear of being considered ‘like slaves.’ ”
The historic association between menial labor and blackness served to further entrap black people in a circle of subservience in the American mind. They were punished for being in the condition that they were forced to endure. And the image of servitude shadowed them into freedom.
As the caste system shape-shifted in the twentieth century, the dominant caste found ever more elaborate ways to enforce occupational hierarchy. “
If white and colored persons are employed together,” wrote the historian Bertram Doyle in the 1930s, “they do not engage in the same tasks, generally, and certainly not as equals….Negroes are seldom, if ever, put into authority over white persons. Moreover, the Negro expects to remain in the lower ranks; rising, if at all, only over other Negroes.” No matter how well he does his job, Doyle wrote, “he cannot often hope for promotion.”
Your place was preordained before you were born. “A Negro may become a locomotive fireman,” Doyle wrote, “but never an engineer.”
Thus, caste did not mean merely doing a certain kind of labor; it meant performing a dominant or subservient role. “There must be, then, a division of labor where the two races are employed, and menial labor is commonly supposed to be the division assigned to Negroes,” Doyle wrote, “and he must look and act the part.”
A black man in the 1930s was on his way to pay a visit to a young woman he fancied, which occasioned him to go into the town square. There, some white men approached him and “
forced him to procure overalls, saying he was ‘too dressed up for a weekday.’ ”
Slavery set the artificial parameters for the roles each caste was to perform, and the only job beyond the plow or the kitchen that the caste system openly encouraged of the lowest caste was that of entertainment, which was its own form of servitude in that world. It was in keeping with caste notions of their performing for the pleasure of the dominant caste. It affirmed the stereotypes of innate black physicality, of an earthiness based on animal instinct rather than human creativity and it presented no threat to dominant-caste supremacy in leadership and intellect.
Making enslaved people perform on command also reinforced their subjugation. They were made to sing despite their exhaustion or the agonies from a recent flogging or risk further punishment. Forced good cheer became a weapon of submission to assuage the guilt of the dominant caste and further humiliate the enslaved. If they were in chains and happy, how could anyone say that they were being mistreated? Merriment, even if extracted from a whip, was seen as essential to confirm that the caste structure was sound, that all was well, that everyone accepted, even embraced their station in the hierarchy. They were thus forced to cosign on their own degradation, to sing and dance even as they were being separated from spouses or children or parents at auction. “
This was done to make them appear cheerful and happy,” wrote William Wells Brown, a speculator’s assistant before the Civil War, whose job it was to get the human merchandise into sellable condition. “I have often set them to dancing,” he said, “when their cheeks were wet with tears.”
African-Americans would later convert the performance role that they were forced to occupy—and the talent they built from it—into prominence in entertainment and in American culture disproportionate to their numbers. Since the early twentieth century, the wealthiest African-Americans—from Louis Armstrong to Muhammad Ali—have traditionally been entertainers and athletes. Even now, in a 2020 ranking of the richest African-Americans, seventeen of the top twenty—from Oprah Winfrey to Jay-Z to Michael Jordan—made their wealth as innovators, and then moguls, in the entertainment industry or in sports.
Historically, this group would come to dominate the realm carved out for them, often celebrated unless they went head to head against an upper-caste person, as did the black boxer Jack Johnson when he unexpectedly knocked out James Jeffries in 1910. The writer Jack London had coaxed Jeffries out of retirement to fight Johnson in an era of virulent race hatred, and the press stoked passions by calling Jeffries “the Great White Hope.” Jeffries’s loss on that Fourth of July was an affront to white supremacy, and triggered riots across the country, north and south, including eleven separate ones in New York City, where whites set fire to black neighborhoods and tried to lynch two black men over the defeat. The message was that, even in an arena into which the lowest caste had been permitted, they were to know and remain in their place.
For centuries, enslaved people had been ordered to perform at the whim of the master, either to be mocked in the master’s parlor games or to play music for their balls, in addition to their hard labors in the field. “
Menial and comic roles were the chief ones allotted to Negroes in their relationships with white people,” wrote the anthropologists W. Lloyd Warner and Allison Davis of slavery-based caste relations that worked their way into American culture.