Authors: Isabel Wilkerson
Further tipping the scales, the Federal Housing Administration was created to make homeownership easier for white families by guaranteeing mortgages in white neighborhoods while specifically excluding African-Americans who wished to buy homes. It did so by refusing to back mortgages in any neighborhood where black people lived, a practice known as redlining, and by encouraging or even requiring restrictive covenants that barred black citizens from buying homes in white neighborhoods.
Together, these and other government programs extended a safety net and a leg-up to the parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents of white Americans of today, while shutting out the foreparents of African-Americans from those same job protections and those same chances to earn or build wealth.
These government programs for the dominant caste were in force during the lifetimes of many current-day Americans. These programs did not open to African-Americans until the late 1960s, and then only after the protests for civil rights. The more recent forms of state-sanctioned discrimination, along with denying pay to enslaved people over the course of generations, has led to a wealth gap in which white families currently have ten times the wealth of their black counterparts. If you are not black and “
if you or your parents were alive in the 1960s and got a mortgage,” wrote Ben Mathis-Lilley in
, “you benefited directly and materially from discrimination.”
The very machinery upon which many white Americans had the chance to build their lives and assets was forbidden to African-Americans who were still just a generation or two out of enslavement and the apartheid of Jim Crow, burdens so heavy and borne for so long that if they were to rise, they would have to work and save that much harder than their fellow Americans.
Rather than encouraging a greater understanding of how these disparities came to be or a framework for compassion for fellow Americans, political discourse has usually reinforced prevailing stereotypes of a lazy, inferior group getting undeserved handouts, a scapegoating that makes the formal barriers all the more unjust and the resentments of white working-class citizens all the more tragic. The subordinate caste was shut out of “
the trillions of dollars of wealth accumulated through the appreciation of housing assets secured by federally insured loans between 1932 and 1962,” a major source of current-day wealth, wrote the sociologist George Lipsitz. “Yet they find themselves portrayed as privileged beneficiaries of special preferences by the very people who profit from their exploitation and oppression.”
Once labor, housing, and schools finally began to open up to the subordinate caste, many working- and middle-class whites began to perceive themselves to be worse off, by comparison, and to report that they experienced
more racism than African-Americans, unable to see the inequities that persist, often in their favor.
Toward the end of the twentieth century, social scientists found new ways to measure what had transformed from overt racism to a slow boil of unspoken antagonisms that social scientists called unconscious bias. This was not the cross-burning, epithet-spewing biological racism of the pre-civil-rights era, but rather discriminatory behaviors based on subconscious prejudgments by people who professed and believed in equality.
By adulthood, researchers have found, most Americans have been exposed to a culture with enough negative messages about African-Americans and other marginalized groups that
as much as 80 percent of white Americans hold unconscious bias against black Americans, bias so automatic that it kicks in before a person can process it, according to the Harvard sociologist David R. Williams. The messaging is so pervasive in American society that a third of black Americans hold anti-black bias against themselves.
“All racial ethnic minority groups are stereotyped more negatively than whites,” Williams said. “Blacks are viewed the worst, then Latinos, who are viewed twice as negatively as Asians. There is a hierarchy of rank.”
What kind of person is likely to carry this kind of unconscious bias? “This is a wonderful person,” Williams said, “who has sympathy for the bad things that have happened in the past. But that person is still an American and has been fed the larger stereotypes of blacks that are deeply embedded in the culture of this society. So, despite holding no explicit racial prejudices, they nonetheless hold implicit bias that’s deep in their subconscious. They have all these negative images of African-Americans so that when they meet an African-American, although self-consciously they are not prejudiced, the implicit biases nonetheless operate to shape their behavior. This discriminatory behavior is activated more quickly and effortlessly than conscious discrimination, more quickly than saying, ‘I’ve decided to discriminate against this person.’
“This is the frightening point,” he said. “Because it’s an automatic process, and it’s an unconscious process, people who engage in this unthinking discrimination are not aware of it. They are not lying to you when they say, ‘I didn’t treat this person differently, and I treat everyone the same.’ They mean it because, consciously, that is the way they see themselves. These implicit biases shape their behavior in ways they are not even aware of. The research suggests that about 70 to 80 percent of whites fall into this category.”
These autonomic responses contribute to disparities in hiring, in housing, in education, and in medical treatment for the lowest-caste people compared to their dominant-caste counterparts and, as with other aspects of the caste system, often go against logic. For example, a pioneering study by the sociologist Devah Pager found that
white felons applying for a job were more likely to get hired than African-Americans with no criminal record.
In the life-and-death world of medicine, African-Americans and other marginalized people are granted fewer procedures and poorer-quality care than whites across every therapeutic intervention, said Williams, who specializes in biases in public health. Of the sixty most common procedures reimbursed by Medicare, he said, “African-Americans receive fewer procedures than white patients even though they have a higher rate of illness.” The only procedures that African-Americans receive at higher rates than whites, Williams said, are shunts for renal disease, the removal of stomach tissue for ulcers, leg amputation, and the removal of testicles.
Bias does not contain the damage it inflicts to one group, however. One tragic form of unconscious bias has had the unintended effect of unwittingly protecting the disfavored castes of African-Americans and Latinos from a scourge that has brought untold heartache to many white Americans. Empirical studies have found that physicians
often disregard the reports of pain from black and Latino patients, wrongly believing that African-Americans in particular have higher pain thresholds. This has led physicians to undertreat or to deny pain medication to black patients—even those with metastatic cancer—while readily prescribing medication to white patients reporting equivalent levels of pain. The disparity is so severe that African-Americans as a group receive pain medication at levels beneath the thresholds established by the World Health Organization.
Just as pollutants don’t confine themselves to the air around a factory, this single caste inequity has spared no one. The undertreatment of the subordinate caste leaves them to suffer needlessly, and the overtreatment of the dominant caste may have contributed to the rising mortality rate for white Americans who become addicted to opioids.
Worse still, society was less prepared for the opioid crisis than it might have been had it not missed the chance to build a comprehensive framework for dealing with substance abuse in the 1990s, when it was the subordinate caste that was in need of help. The crack cocaine epidemic of that era was dismissed as an urban crime problem rather than addressed as a social and health crisis, considered a black problem rather than a human one. The response was to criminalize addiction when the abusers were subordinate caste, which swelled the rate of mass incarceration, broke up families, and left the country ill-equipped for the incoming tragedy of opioid addiction. Caste assumptions created devastation on both sides of the caste divide and have made for a less generous society overall.
Exclusion costs lives, up and down the hierarchy. The physician Jonathan M. Metzl, who has conducted research into the health of disaffected whites in middle America, has measured the life-and-death consequences of state decisions to withhold benefits seen as helping presumably undeserving minority groups. In the state of Tennessee, for example, he found that restrictive health policies may have cost the lives of as many as 4,599 African-Americans between 2011 and 2015, but also cost the lives of as many as 12,013 white Tennesseans, more than double the loss sustained by black residents.
In his book
Dying of Whiteness,
Metzl told of the case of a forty-one-year-old white taxi driver who was suffering from an inflamed liver that threatened the man’s life. Because the Tennessee legislature had neither taken up the Affordable Care Act nor expanded Medicaid coverage, the man was not able to get the expensive, lifesaving treatment that would have been available to him had he lived just across the border in Kentucky. As he approached death, he stood by the conviction that he did not want the government involved.
No way I want my tax dollars paying for Mexicans or welfare queens,” the man told Metzl. “Ain’t no way I would ever support Obamacare or sign up for it. I would rather die.”
And sadly, so he would.
Every year, on the day of atonement, the ancient Hebrews took two male goats and presented them before the Lord at the entrance to the tent of meeting. Then the high priest cast lots to determine the fate of each goat.
One they would kill as a sacrifice to the Lord to cleanse and make sacred the sanctuary.
The other, the scapegoat, they would present to the Lord alive.
The high priest would lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess upon its head all the guilt and misdeeds of the Israelites. All of their sins he would transpose to the goat, and the goat was then banished to the wilderness, carrying on its back the weight of the faults of the Israelites, and thus freeing the Israelites to flourish in peace.
The goat was cast out to suffer for the sins of others and was called the scapegoat.
This was the ritual according to Leviticus that was passed down through the ages, adopted by the ancient Greeks. It survives not only in individual interactions but within nations and castes. For the ancients, the scapegoat served as the healing agent for the larger whole. In modern times, the concept of the scapegoat has mutated from merely the bearer of misfortune to the person or group blamed for bringing misfortune.
This serves to relieve others,” wrote the Jungian psychologist Sylvia Brinton Perera, to free “the scapegoaters, of their own responsibilities, and to strengthen the scapegoaters’ sense of power and righteousness.”
In a caste system, whether in the United States or in India or in World War II Germany, the lowest caste performed the unwitting role of diverting society’s attention from its structural ills and taking the blame for collective misfortune. It was seen, in fact, as misfortune itself.
Thus the scapegoat unwittingly helps unify the favored castes to be seen as free of blemish as long as there is a visible disfavored group to absorb their sins. “Scapegoating, as it is currently practiced,” Perera wrote, “means finding the one or ones who can be identified with evil or wrongdoing, blamed for it and cast out of the community in order to leave the remaining members with a feeling of guiltlessness, atoned (at one).”
A scapegoat caste has become necessary for the collective well-being of the castes above it and the smooth functioning of the caste system. The dominant groups can look to those cast out as the cause of any fate or misfortune, as representing the worst aspects of society. “
The scapegoater feels a relief in being lighter,” Perera wrote, “without the burden of carrying what is unacceptable to his or her ego ideal, without shadow.” The ones above the scapegoat can “stand purified and united with each other, feeling blessed by their God.”
In the American South, the designated scapegoat was expelled not to the wilderness but to the margins of society, an attempted near banishment from the human race. Many men and women in the dominant caste blamed the people they enslaved for poor harvests or for meager returns, called the people who worked as many as eighteen hours a day for the enrichment of others lazy, and took out their frustrations on the bodies of those they held captive.
The caste system spared no one in the scapegoat caste. When pregnant women were to be whipped, “
before binding them to the stakes, a hole is made in the ground to accommodate the enlarged form of the victim,” a Mr. C. Robin of Louisiana wrote in describing what he had witnessed.
The Negro becomes both a scapegoat and an object lesson for his group,” the anthropologist Allison Davis wrote. “He suffers for all the minor caste violations which have aroused the whites, and he becomes a warning against future violations.”
After the Civil War, Confederates blamed the people they had once owned for the loss of the war. Well into the twentieth century, into the lifetimes of people among us today, lynchings served as a form of ritual human sacrifice before audiences sometimes in the thousands. People drove in from neighboring states, schools let out early so that white children could join their parents to watch men in the dominant caste perform acts of sadism on people from the subordinate caste before hanging them from the limb of a sycamore. Lynchings almost always occurred “
at the hands of persons unknown,” performed “in a collective way so that no one person could be blamed.”
Whites were unified in seeing the Negro as a scapegoat and proper object for exploitation and hatred,” wrote Gunnar Myrdal, a leading social economist in the 1940s. “White solidarity is upheld and the caste order protected.”
As scapegoats, they are seen as the reason for societal ills. The scapegoats are blamed for a crime rate that they alone do not cause and for drugs that they are no more likely to use than the dominant caste, but for which they are incarcerated at six times the rate as whites accused of similar offenses. Thousands of African-Americans are behind bars for having been in possession of a substance that businessmen in the dominant caste are now converting to wealth in the marijuana and CBD industry.
In the United States and in India, people in the dominant caste have blamed stagnant careers or rejections in college admissions on marginalized people in the lower caste, even though African-Americans in the United States and Dalits in India are rarely in positions to decide who will get hired at corporations or admitted to universities. In the United States, it is a numerical impossibility for African-Americans to wreak such havoc in employment and higher education: there are simply not enough African-Americans to take the positions that every member of the dominant caste dreams of holding.
Notably, while affirmative action grew out of the civil rights movement fought by lowest-caste people and their white allies, decades of analysis show that
it is white women, and thus white families, rather than African-Americans, who became the prime beneficiaries of a plan intended to redress centuries of injustice against the lowest-caste people. Scapegoating nimbly obscures the structural forces that make life harder than it has to be for many Americans for the benefit of a few, primarily in the dominant caste. It blames societal ills on the groups with the least power and the least say in how the country operates while allowing the larger framework and those who control and reap the dividends of these divisions to go unchecked. It worsens during times of economic tensions when the least secure in the dominant group attacks a group in the minority “
for structural economic problems that actually harmed both,” one social scientist observed, “and that neither caused.”
The human impulse to blame a disfavored outsider group puts the lives of both the favored and disfavored in peril.
On an autumn evening in October 1989, a suburban Boston couple, expecting their first child that December, were driving home from a childbirth class. The husband, twenty-nine-year-old Charles Stuart, was the reserved and ambitious store manager at a luxury furrier downtown. His wife, thirty-year-old Carol DiMaiti Stuart, was a petite and gregarious attorney. They had bought a split-level house in the suburbs and had already decided that if that baby was a boy, they would name him Christopher. They were both children of the dominant caste, who had risen from modest, blue-collar backgrounds. They had just celebrated their fourth wedding anniversary.
That evening, they were driving home through the neighborhood of Roxbury, which had been the landing place for waves of European immigrants and, after World War II, became mostly black, poor and working class, ravaged by the war on drugs. The husband was behind the wheel of their Toyota and had taken a somewhat circuitous route. At a traffic light in the Mission Hill section, shots were fired, hitting the wife in the head and the husband in the abdomen, both at close range. The husband was in better shape than the wife, and he called police dispatch from his car phone. His wife died at the hospital of the massive wounds she sustained. Their baby was delivered in the wife’s final hours, two months premature, and named Christopher as his parents had wished. He lived for only seventeen days.
The night of the shooting, Charles Stuart told police that a black man with a raspy voice and wearing a jogging suit had forced his way into the car and had mugged and shot them. The tragedy triggered every deep-seated fear and horror in Boston and across the nation. The husband’s desperate call to police dispatch aired repeatedly on television, as did video footage of paramedics pulling the mortally wounded wife from the Toyota.
Outraged over an incomprehensible tragedy, the city went into action and began a massive manhunt. Mayor Raymond Flynn vowed to “get the animals responsible” and ordered every available detective diverted to the case. Officers combed Roxbury and stopped and strip-searched every man who fit the description, which meant almost any black man on the streets, hundreds of them. The hunt for a suspect became the near singular fixation for weeks. The dragnet yielded a thirty-nine-year-old unemployed black man with a criminal record whom Charles picked out in a police lineup. People began calling for the death penalty.
For months, officials had paid little notice to inconsistencies in the husband’s behavior, distracted as they were by a storyline tailored to their expectations. The night of the shooting, Charles had driven around aimlessly for thirteen minutes while talking to dispatch, rather than heading back to the hospital that the couple had just left, claiming not to recognize any landmarks in the city he had lived in all his life. “
He never tried to comfort his wife, never called her name,” according to
magazine. “In the ambulance to the hospital, he only asked about the seriousness of his own wound, and never about his wife’s condition.”
Not long before, he had taken out several insurance policies on his young and healthy wife. After his release from the hospital, he collected on one of them and promptly bought a new car, a Nissan Maxima, and a thousand-dollar pair of women’s diamond earrings. It turned out that he had been staying out late on Friday evenings and into the early morning hours to the consternation of his wife in the months before her death. He had been seen with a young blond woman who worked summers at the furrier and whom he had arranged to phone him at the hospital, though she vehemently denied a relationship as the story broke. He had told friends he did not want the baby, that it would disrupt his climb up the social ladder.
Those contradictory details were not powerful enough to dislodge the fixed assumptions about the case. But there had been a third person involved on the night of the shooting, and as Christmas approached, that person began to crack. It was the husband’s brother, Matthew. Charles had planned ahead for Matthew to meet the car at a rendezvous site the night of the shooting. Before the brother arrived, Charles had stopped the car and shot his wife in the head, after which Charles pointed the gun at himself, intending to shoot his foot but misfiring into his torso instead. Charles told his brother to take and dispose of Carol’s jewelry and purse and the gun that Charles had used to kill her. This would make it look like the robbery he would later report to the police.
But afterward, the brother’s conscience began to plague him, and he told other members of the family. He said he thought he was helping his brother in an insurance scam when he got the purse and gun, not in a murder plot. Word got back to Charles Stuart that his brother was planning to go to the police and testify against him in exchange for immunity. With the investigation closing in on him, the husband jumped to his death from the Tobin Bridge into the Mystic River that January. His brother, Matthew, later pleaded guilty to conspiracy and possession of a firearm, among other charges, and served three years in prison.
In the end, the husband alone was responsible for the death of his wife, but the caste system was his unwitting accomplice. He knew that he could count on the caste system to spring into action as it is programmed to do, that people would readily accept his account if the perpetrator were black, believe the dominant-caste man over subordinate people, focus on them rather than him, see the scapegoat caste as singularly capable of any depravity, and would deflect any suspicion away from him. The story didn’t even have to be airtight to be believed. It needed only to be plausible. Any sympathy would accrue to him and not the scapegoat caste, which bears the burdens of someone else’s sins, no matter the protestations.
The caste system had given Charles Stuart cover and endangered the life of Carol DiMaiti Stuart, as it had for white women in the Jim Crow South, where husbands and lovers knew that a black man could be blamed for anything that befell a white woman if the dominant caste chose to accuse him. This is not to say that any group is more prone to criminality or subterfuge than another. It is to say that one of the more disturbing aspects of a caste system, and of the unequal justice it produces, is that it makes for a less safe society, allowing the guilty to shift blame and often to go free. A caste system gives us false comfort, makes us feel that the world is in order, that we automatically know the good guys from the bad guys.
It is possible that nothing could have saved Carol Stuart’s life, given the man she was married to. We will never know. Had the husband not been able to depend upon the universal decoy of black criminality, had he not been able to count on the instinctive reviling of the lowest caste and the corresponding presumption of virtue of the dominant caste, had he not been able to correctly assume that the caste system would act on his behalf, perhaps he might not have been as brazen, perhaps he might have tried something else, divorce, for instance. Perhaps he might not have felt as free to attempt something so heinous. Perhaps the wife might not have been killed, their son not been lost, at least not that night and not in that way, if he thought the suspicion would rightly be trained on the actual perpetrator from the start.
Decades later, in the years of anxiety after the 2016 election,
Anthony Stephan House, a thirty-nine-year-old project manager in Austin, Texas, was getting ready to take his eight-year-old daughter to school. It was just before seven in the morning on March 2, 2018. Something prompted him to go to his front door, and when he stepped over the threshold, he noticed a package on the porch. As he picked it up, it exploded. He died shortly after his arrival at the hospital.