If it is true that “none of us are ourselves,” as Isabel Wilkerson declares in her book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent,” the obvious question is who are we, then. Equally important, can any racial or economic equity campaign, like those that are being launched by governments, businesses and nonprofit organizations across the country, guide us to our humanity, to the home where our best selves reside and where the Caste system is seen for what it is: a foreign element that continues to infect America.
Interestingly, the question of who am I haunted me during my early years. Growing up in the deep south I experienced or witnessed some of the devastating consequences of racism and racial discrimination in the lives of others who claimed, as I did, to be African American. But what prompted my self-reflection was my time as a community organizer when I met whites who were much like me. Our commonality was indisputable, and I could not ignore it.
There was no place for me to take that knowledge, however. I couldn’t find a place where color and class-- or caste--had become inoperable, even if, in my mind, I didn’t parse people. Society had me locked into a perpetual state of discrimination, seeing white, and yellow and Black and even gradations of colors.
When I first met Barack Obama as a candidate for president, through the media—newspaper articles and magazine features--I thought he might be a great example of what we could become without labels and caste assignments. In one article, he noted that the circumstances of his and best friend Valerie Jarrett’s births may have been reasons for their success: Her parents were African Americans, but she born in Shiraz, Iran. He was born to a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, Africa. That heritage “allows us to maybe travel between worlds and cultures in ways that have proven to be not only professionally important but emotionally satisfying,” he said. “I guess another way of putting it is, she and I both are constantly looking for links and bridges between cultures and peoples.”
“If caste system can be created,” as proved by the Nazis,” writes Wilkerson, “it can be dismantled.”
The task of dismantling is not easy feat, however, since the system is maintained not just physically, it also exists in the mind, in the subconscious. She captures the feeling of some Dalits and Brahmins in India who believe their place in a caste is no fluke but a feature of their birth, of reincarnation, of Karma.
“Caste is a notion,” Dalit leader Bhimrao Ambedkar said. “It is a state of mind.”
Obama and Jarrett may have had control over the concept of race and the limitations it imposed. However, many Blacks and others of color have not been provided an escape, even momentary.
Consider, for example, what happened to the children and others who witnessed the murder of George Floyd. At least one as young as nine years old, talked of seeing Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, dig his knee into Floyd’s knee for what seemed like forever. It actually was nearly 10 minutes. Some begged the police to roll him over so he could breathe. Everyone was visible shaken by the experience, each displayed signs of trauma during their courtroom testimony. They are sure to be its prisoner for untold years.
“It is also tempting to vilify a single despot at the sight of injustice when, in fact, it is the actions, or more commonly inaction of ordinary people that keep the mechanism of caste running.”
While there may have been attempts to intervene with the Floyd murder, Asian Americans have not necessarily been the beneficiaries of such interventions. A doorman in New York, temporarily remained at his station as an Asian woman was beaten and kicked.
Wilkerson calls for a “public accounting for what caste has cost us.” That should be done, she argued, through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. California Congresswoman Rep. Barbara Lee has introduced legislation—United States Commission on Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation-- to create a similar entity. Sen. Cory Booker introduced a companion bill in the Senate. I called last year for President Joe Biden to create a commission within his first 100 years. Thus far, there has not been any movement in any of those areas.
“The challenge of our era is not merely the social construct of black and white but seeing through the many layers of a caste system that has more power than we as humans should permit it to have,” writes Wilkerson, who seems to believe it is possible to overcome by using “radical empathy.”
We saw empathy on display following Floyd’s death, with hundreds of thousands of people of all ages and races protesting in the street, calling for the end to police abuse and hostile treatment of Blacks, particularly Black men. We are seeing it on display during the Chauvin trail.
That is all good, but empathy is not enough. Americans must find a way to rid themselves of color and caste, to reach the depth of their humanity. It won’t be possible in a year. It may not be possible in my lifetime. However, as Wilkerson observes: “A world without caste would set everyone free.”