Authors: Isabel Wilkerson
The flight to India landed in a gray veil that hid the terminal and its tower at the international airport in Delhi. It was January 2018, my first moments on the subcontinent. The pilot searched for a jetway through the drapery of mist. It was two in the morning, and it was as if we had landed in a steam kettle, were still airborne in a cloud, the night air pressing against cabin windows, and we could see nothing of the ground. I had not heard of rain in the forecast and was fascinated by this supernatural fog in the middle of the night, until I realized that it was not fog at all, but smoke—from coal plants, cars, and burning stubble—trapped in stagnant wind. The pollution was a shroud at first to seeing India as it truly was.
At daybreak, the sun pushed through the haze, and, once I connected with my hosts, I raced along with them to cross an intersection, an open stretch of asphalt with cars hurtling in every direction with no lanes or speed limits. We made our way along the side streets to the conference we were attending.
I saw the wayside altars and mushroom temples with their garlands and silk flowers to the Hindu deities at the base of the sacred fig trees. There, commuters can pause for reflection as they head to work or an exam or a doctor’s visit. The sidewalk shrines seemed exotic to me until I thought of the American ritual of spontaneous altars of flowers and balloons at the site of something very different, at the site of an accident or tragedy, as for the young woman killed at the infamous rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, just months before. Both reflect a human desire to connect with and honor something or someone beyond ourselves.
The United States and India are profoundly different from each other—in culture, technology, economics, ethnic makeup. And yet, many generations ago, these two great lands paralleled each other, both protected by oceans and ruled for a time by the British, fertile and coveted. Both adopted social hierarchies and abide great chasms between the highest and the lowest in their respective lands. Both were conquered by people said to be Aryans arriving, in one case, from across the Atlantic Ocean, in the other, from the north. Those deemed lowest in each country would serve those deemed high. The younger country, the United States, would become the most powerful democracy on earth. The older country, India, the largest.
Their respective hierarchies are profoundly different. And yet, as if operating from the same instruction manual translated to fit their distinctive cultures, both countries adopted similar methods of maintaining rigid lines of demarcation and protocols. Both countries kept their dominant caste separate, apart and above those deemed lower. Both exiled their indigenous peoples—the Adivasi in India, the Native Americans in the United States—to remote lands and to the unseen margins of society. Both countries enacted a fretwork of laws to chain the lowliest group—Dalits in India and African-Americans in the United States—to the bottom, using terror and force to keep them there.
Perhaps only the Jews have as long a history of suffering from discrimination as the Dalits,” wrote the Dalit journalist V. T. Rajshekar. “However, when we consider the nature of the suffering endured by the Dalits, it is only the African American parallel of enslavement, apartheid and forced assimilation that comes to mind.”
Both countries have since abolished the formal laws that defined their caste systems—the United States in a series of civil rights laws in the 1960s and India decades before, in the 1940s, but both caste systems live on in hearts and habits, institutions and infrastructures. Both countries still live with the residue of codes that prevailed for far longer than they have not.
This description of caste history from the 2017 Indian book
Ground Down by Growth
could be said of the American caste system with only a few word changes, as noted by parentheses:
The colonial powers officially abolished slavery in India (the United States) in 1843 (1865), but this simply led to its transformation into bondage through relations of debt, what has been called ‘debt peonage’ by scholars.”
In both countries and at the same time, the lowest castes toiled for their masters—African-Americans in the tobacco fields along the Chesapeake or in the cotton fields of Mississippi, Dalits plucking tea in Kerala and cotton in Nandurbar. Both worked as enslaved people and later for the right to live on the land that they were farming, African-Americans in the system of sharecropping, Dalits in the Indian equivalent, known as
both still confined to their fixed roles at the bottom of their respective worlds.
Both occupy the lowest positions on the status hierarchies in their societies,” wrote Harvard political scientist Sidney Verba and his colleagues in a study of Dalits and African-Americans. Both have been “particularly singled out from other groups” based on characteristics ascribed to them.
While doors have opened to the subordinated castes in India and in America in the decades since discrimination was officially prohibited, the same spasms of resistance have afflicted both countries. What is called “affirmative action” in the United States is called “reservations” in India, and they are equally unpopular with the upper castes in both countries, language tracking in lockstep, with complaints of reverse discrimination in one and reverse casteism in the other.
There are many overarching similarities but they are not the same in how they are structured or operate. The American system was founded as a primarily two-tiered hierarchy with its contours defined by the uppermost group, those identified as white, and by the subordinated group, those identified as black, with immigrants from outside of Europe forming blurred middle castes that sought to adjust themselves within a bipolar structure.
The Indian caste system, by contrast, is an elaborate fretwork of thousands of subcastes, or
correlated to region and village, which fall under the four main
Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra, and the excluded fifth, known as Untouchables or Dalits. It is further complicated by non-Hindus—Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians—who are outside the caste system but have incorporated themselves into the workings of the country and, while eschewing rigid caste, may or may not have informal rankings among themselves and in relation to the
Unlike the United States, which primarily uses physical features to tell the castes apart, in India it is people’s surnames that may most readily convey their caste. Dalit names are generally “contemptible” in meaning, referring to the humble or dirty work they were relegated to, while the Brahmins carry the names of the gods. Generally, you must know the significance of the name, learn the occupation of their forefathers, and perhaps know their village or their place in the village to ascertain their caste. But after centuries of forced submission and in-group marriage, they may also be identified by their bearing, accents, and clothing, all of which, over the centuries, were required to be lowly and menial, as well as a tendency to be darker than upper-caste people, though not always.
The Indian caste system is said to be stable and unquestioned by those within it, bound as it is by religion and in the Hindu belief in reincarnation, the belief that one lives out in this life the karma of the previous ones, suffers the punishment or reaps the rewards for one’s deeds in a past life, and that the more keenly one follows the rules for the caste they were born to, the higher their station will be in the next life.
Some observers say that this is what distinguishes the Indian caste system from any other, that people in the lowest caste accept their lot, that it is fixed and unbending, that Dalits live out their karma decreed by the gods, and do their lowly work without complaint, knowing not to dream of anything more. In order to survive, some people in a subordinated caste may learn and believe that resistance is futile. But this condescending view disregards generations of resistance, as well as the work of Ambedkar and the reformer Jotiba Phule before him. It was also wrongly assumed of enslaved Africans, and it disregards a fundamental truth of the species, that all human beings want to be free.
The Dalits were no more contented with their lot than anyone would be. In a caste system, conflating compliance with approval can be dehumanizing in itself. Many Dalits looked out beyond their homeland, surveyed the oppressed people all over the world, and identified the people closest to their lamentations. They recognized a shared fate with African-Americans, few of whom would have known of the suffering of Dalits. Some Dalits felt so strong a kinship with one wing of the American civil rights movement and had followed it so closely that, in the 1970s, they created the Dalit Panthers, inspired by the Black Panther Party.
A few years ago, a group of African-American professors made a trip to a rural village in Uttar Pradesh, India. There, hundreds of villagers from the lowliest subcaste, the scavengers, came together for a ceremony to welcome the Americans. The villagers sang Dalit liberation songs for the occasion. Then they turned to their American guests and invited them to sing a liberation song of their own. A law professor from Indiana University, Kenneth Dau Schmidt, began a song that the civil rights marchers sang in Birmingham and Selma before they faced sheriffs’ dogs and water hoses. As he reached the refrain,
the Dalit hosts joined in and began to sing with their American counterparts. Across the oceans, they well knew the words to “We Shall Overcome.”
Berlin, June 1934
In the early stages of the Third Reich, before the world could imagine the horrors to come, a committee of Nazi bureaucrats met to weigh the options for imposing a rigid new hierarchy, one that would isolate Jewish people from Aryans now that the Nazis had taken control. The men summoned in the late spring of 1934 were not, at that time, planning, nor in a position to plan, extermination. That would come years later at a chillingly bloodless and cataclysmic meeting in Wannsee deeper into a world war that had not yet begun.
On this day, June 5, 1934, they were there to debate the legal framework for an Aryan nation, to turn ideology into law, and were now anxious to discuss the findings of their research into how other countries protected racial purity from the taint of the disfavored. They sat down for a closed-door session in the Reich capital that day, and considered it serious enough to bring a stenographer to record the proceedings and produce a transcript. As they settled into their chairs to hash out what would eventually become the Nuremberg Laws, the first topic on the agenda was the United States and what they could learn from it.
The man chairing the meeting, Franz Gürtner, the Reich minister of justice, introduced a memorandum in the opening minutes, detailing the ministry’s investigation into how the United States managed its marginalized groups and guarded its ruling white citizenry. The seventeen legal scholars and functionaries went back and forth over American purity laws governing intermarriage and immigration. In debating “
how to institutionalize racism in the Third Reich,” wrote the Yale legal historian James Q. Whitman, “they began by asking how the Americans did it.”
The Nazis needed no outsiders to plant the seeds of hatred within them. But in the early years of the regime, when they still had a stake in the appearance of legitimacy and the hope of foreign investment, they were seeking legal prototypes for the caste system they were building. They were looking to move quickly with their plans for racial separation and purity, and knew that the United States was centuries ahead of them with its anti-miscegenation statutes and race-based immigration bans. “
For us Germans, it is especially important to know and see how one of the biggest states in the world with Nordic stock already has race legislation which is quite comparable to that of the German Reich,” the German press agency Grossdeutscher Pressedienst wrote as the Nazis were solidifying their grip on the country.
Western Europeans had long been aware of the American paradox of proclaiming liberty for all men while holding subsets of its citizenry in near total subjugation. The French writer Alexis de Tocqueville toured antebellum America in the 1830s and observed that only the “surface of American society is covered with a layer of democratic paint.” Germany well understood the U.S. fixation on race purity and eugenics, the pseudoscience of grading humans by presumed group superiority. Many leading Americans had joined the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century, including the inventor Alexander Graham Bell, the auto magnate Henry Ford, and Charles W. Eliot, the president of Harvard University. During the First World War, the German Society for Racial Hygiene applauded “
the dedication with which Americans sponsor research in the field of racial hygiene and with which they translate theoretical knowledge into practice.”
The Nazis had been especially taken with the militant race theories of two widely known American eugenicists, Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant. Both were men of privilege, born and raised in the North and educated in the Ivy League. Both built their now discredited reputations on hate ideology that devised a crude ranking of European “stock,” declared eastern and southern Europeans inferior to “Nordics” and advocated for the exclusion and elimination of “races” they deemed threats to Nordic racial purity, foremost among them Jews and “Negroes.”
A racial slur that the Nazis adopted in their campaign to dehumanize Jews and other non-Aryans—the word
meaning “subhuman”—came to them from the New England–born eugenicist Lothrop Stoddard. A 1922 book he wrote carried the subtitle
The Menace of the Under-man,
which translated into
in the German edition. The Nazis took the word as their own and would most become associated with it.
They made Stoddard’s book on white supremacy a standard text in the Reich’s school curriculum and accorded him a private audience with the purposely remote Adolf Hitler at the Reich Chancellery in December 1939. Well into World War II, Stoddard sat in on Nazi sterilization trials and commended the Nazis for “
weeding out the worst strains in the Germanic stock in a scientific and truly humanitarian way.” He lamented, though, that, “if anything, their judgments were almost too conservative.”
Madison Grant, a leading eugenicist from New York whose social circle included Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover, converted his zeal for Aryan supremacy into helping enact a series of American immigration and marriage restrictions in the 1920s, as the Nazi Party was forming across the Atlantic. Grant went far beyond southern segregationists in his contempt for marginalized people. He argued that “
inferior stocks” should be sterilized and quarantined in “a rigid system of elimination of those who are weak or unfit” or “perhaps worthless race types.” Grant published a rabid manifesto for cleansing the gene pool of undesirables, his 1916 book,
The Passing of the Great Race,
the German edition of which held a special place in the
’s library. Hitler wrote Grant a personal note of gratitude and said, “The book is my Bible.”
Hitler had studied America from afar, both envying and admiring it, and attributed its achievements to its Aryan stock. He praised the country’s near genocide of Native Americans and the exiling to reservations of those who had survived. He was pleased that the United States had “
shot down the millions of redskins to a few hundred thousand.” He saw the U.S. Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 as “
a model for his program of racial purification,” historian Jonathan Spiro wrote. The Nazis were impressed by the American custom of lynching its subordinate caste of African-Americans, having become aware of the ritual torture and mutilations that typically accompanied them. Hitler especially marveled at the American “
knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death.”
By the time that Hitler rose to power, the United States “
was not just a country with racism,” Whitman, the Yale legal scholar, wrote. “It was
leading racist jurisdiction—so much so that even Nazi Germany looked to America for inspiration.” The Nazis recognized the parallels even if many Americans did not.
Thus, on that day in June 1934, as seventeen Reich bureaucrats and legal scholars began to deliberate what would become unprecedented legislation for Germany, they were scrutinizing the United States, and they had done their homework. One of the men, Heinrich Krieger, had studied law in the American South, as an exchange student at the University of Arkansas. He had written extensively about foreign race regimes, having spent two years in South Africa, and was at that very moment completing a book that would be titled
Race Law in the United States
to be published in Germany two years hence. The Nazi lawyers had researched U.S. jurisprudence well enough to know that, from the fugitive slave cases to
Plessy v. Ferguson
and beyond, “
the American Supreme Court entertained briefs from southern states whose arguments were indistinguishable from those of the Nazis,” Whitman observed.
In their search for prototypes, the Nazis had looked into white-dominated countries such as Australia and South Africa, but “
there were no other models for miscegenation law that the Nazis could find in the world,” Whitman wrote. “Their overwhelming interest was in the ‘classic example,’ the United States of America.”
These seventeen men were convening at a time of intrigue and upheaval in a country descending into dictatorship. The Nazis were in the final throes of consolidating their power after their takeover the year before. Hitler had been sworn in as chancellor but was not yet the
. That would not happen until later that summer, in August 1934, when the death of Germany’s ailing president, Paul von Hindenburg, the last holdover of the Weimar regime, cleared the way for Hitler to seize total control.
Hitler had made it to the chancellery in a brokered deal that conservative elites agreed to only because they were convinced they could hold him in check and make use of him for their own political aims. They underestimated his cunning and overestimated his base of support, which had been the very reason they had felt they needed him in the first place. At the height of their power at the polls, the Nazis never pulled the majority they coveted and drew only 38 percent of the vote in
the country’s last free and fair elections at the onset of their twelve-year reign. The old guard did not foresee, or chose not to see, that his actual mission was “
to exploit the methods of democracy to destroy democracy.”
By the time they recognized their fatal miscalculation, it was too late. Hitler had risen as an outside agitator, a cult figure enamored of pageantry and rallies with parades of people carrying torches that an observer said looked like “rivers of fire.” Hitler saw himself as the voice of the
of their grievances and fears, especially those in the rural districts, as a god-chosen savior, running on instinct. He had never held elected office before.
As soon as he was sworn in as chancellor, the Nazis unfurled their swastikas, a Sanskrit symbol linking them to their Aryan “roots,” and began to close in on the Jews. They stoked ancient resentments that dated back to the Middle Ages but that rose again when the Jews were made the scapegoats for Germany’s loss and humiliation at the end of World War I. Seen as dominant in banking and finance, Jews were blamed for the insufficient financial support of the war effort, although historians now widely acknowledge that Germany lost on the battlefield and not solely for lack of funds.
Still, Nazi propaganda worked to turn Germans against Jewish citizens. Nazi thugs taunted and beat up Jews in the streets and any Aryans who were found to be in relationships with them. The regime began restricting Jews from working in government or in high-status professions like medicine or the law, fields that incited jealousy among ordinary Germans who could not afford the expensive cars and villas on the lake that many successful Jews had acquired. This was the middle of the Great Depression, and
more than a third of Germans were out of work in 1933, the year the Nazis came to power. The Jews’ prestige and wealth were seen as above the station of a group that Nazis decreed were beneath the Aryans.
Mindful of appearances beyond their borders, for the time being at least, the Nazis wondered how the United States had managed to turn its racial hierarchy into rigid law yet retain such a sterling reputation on the world stage. They noticed that in the United States, when it came to these racial prohibitions, “
public opinion accepted them as natural,” wrote the historian Claudia Koonz.
A young Nazi intellectual named Herbert Kier was tasked with compiling a table of U.S. race laws, and was confounded by the lengths to which America went to segregate its population. He made note that, by law in most southern states, “
white children and colored children are sent to different schools” and that most states “further demand that race be given in birth certificates, licenses and death certificates.” He discovered that “many American states even go so far as to require by statute segregated facilities for coloreds and whites in waiting rooms, train cars, sleeping cars, street cars, buses, steamboats and even in prisons and jails.” In Arkansas, he noted, the tax rolls were segregated. He later remarked that, given the “fundamental proposition of the equality of everything that bears a human countenance, it is all the more astonishing how extensive race legislation is in the USA.”
Kier was just one of several Nazi researchers “
who thought American law went overboard,” Whitman wrote.
With the results of their research laid out before them, the men at the June meeting began debating two main pathways to their version of a caste system: first, creating a legal definition for the categories of Jews and Aryans, and, second, prohibiting intermarriage between the two. Germany had looked at America’s miscegenation laws decades before and tested its own intermarriage ban at the turn of the twentieth century, when it forbade its settlers to mix with indigenous people in its colonies in South West Africa. In so doing, Germany went further than most colonial powers, but it did not come close to the American model. Now Nazi extremists pushed for ways to prevent “
any further penetration of Jewish blood into the body of the German
As the debate got under way, Krieger, the former University of Arkansas law student, reported that Americans had gone so far as to make interracial marriage a crime punishable by as much as ten years’ imprisonment in many jurisdictions. He pointed out that the United States had divided its population in two with “artificial line-drawing” between white and colored people. He and other Nazis showed a fascination with the American habit of assigning humans to categories by fractions of perceived ancestry. “
There is a growing tendency in judicial practice,” Krieger said, “to assign a person to a group of coloreds whenever there is even a trace of visible Negro physical features.”
The men who gathered for that meeting did not agree on how much to draw from American jurisprudence. The moderates at the table, among them the chair himself, Franz Gürtner, argued for less onerous methods than the Americans were using. He suggested that “education and enlightenment” about “the perils of race-mixing” might be enough to discourage Aryans from intermarrying with others. At one point, he sought to downplay the U.S. prototype because he had a hard time believing that Americans actually enforced the laws the Nazis had uncovered. “
Gürtner simply refused to concede that the Americans actually went so far as to prosecute miscegenists,” Whitman wrote.