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From Jan. 6 to Tyre Nichols, American Life Is Still Defined by Caste

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Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, is the author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, from which this essay is adapted; out in paperback on Feb. 14.

How did our country arrive at this moment of rupture and fury? How is it that mass shootings, even of children in their classrooms, and police killings of unarmed citizens of color like Tyre Nichols have become a feature of our days?

How is it that politicians are banning books in a country whose founding First Amendment protects the right to free speech? How is it that the U.S., despite its wealth and technology, leads the world with more than 1 million deaths from COVID-19—more than any other nation on earth? How is it that insurrectionists could storm the citadel of American democracy in a crusade to overturn a presidential election? How is it that we actually saw a Confederate flag inside the U.S. Capitol—that a rioter, in our era, could deliver the Confederate flag farther than Robert E. Lee himself?

In the two years since the global concept of caste entered the national conversation with the initial release of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, recent events have lamentably only affirmed its observations: that the will to maintain the caste system would drive some people to trample democracy itself, as we saw on Jan. 6; that powerful forces would seek to reverse the rights of the marginalized and less powerful, as we have seen in recent Supreme Court rulings; that these turns of events are a natural consequence of our unreconciled history. Because, all told, our country is not terribly unlike a patient with a pre-existing condition like heart disease, and if ever a heart patient, without treatment or intervention, has a heart attack, it should come as no surprise to anyone.

When we open our eyes to it, the ancient lens of caste helps explain most every regression we are now undergoing. It accounts for oppression of all kinds across time and space, allows us to understand the human impulse toward tribalism and domination and the ways in which the restrictions on those least valued in a hierarchy radiate outward to everyone and endanger our planet.

Caste is essentially an artificial, arbitrary graded ranking of human value, the underlying infrastructure of a society’s divisions. Any number of random metrics could be used to divide and rank people in a caste system—ethnicity, lineage, religion, language. In our case, the early colonists took otherwise neutral, physical characteristics that comprise what we now see as race, a relatively new concept in the span of human history, and used this to determine who would be enslaved or free, who would have rights or none at all, and assigned groups to an inherited role in a hierarchy that has persisted to this day.

Collage of historical figures for Isabel Wilkerson Essay
Artwork by Lavett Ballard for TIME

For as long as there has been a United States of America, people of European descent, people who looked like the early colonists, have been the majority and the dominating caste. What happens if the demographic configuration that Americans have grown accustomed to transposes to a distribution the country has never known? What happens at merely the thought of a reconfiguration, the looming prospect of 2042, or 2045—the years the census has alternately projected as the point of a demographic sea change?

These were questions that originally propelled me as I trained a light on the stress cracks in this old house, our country, and its foundation. Then, in 2021, a year after Caste was first published, the Census Bureau made a startling announcement in alignment with an underlying premise I foreshadowed in the book: for the first time in American history, the white population showed a numerical decline—the only racial or ethnic group to do so, falling by 8.6%, from 223.6 million in 2010 to 204.3 million in 2020—as the white birth rate lagged that of the Black and Latino population and as white deaths exceeded white births. While still in the majority, the share of the dominant caste who identify as white alone in the population of the U.S. had fallen from 63.7% in 2010 to 57.8% in 2020, “the lowest on record,” the Associated Press reported.

This was seen by some Americans as an alarming development. A Pew Research Center study found that while the majority of respondents said they were neutral about an impending demographic shift, nearly 4 in 10 conservatives said that a declining white population was “bad” or “very bad” for the country, as did 1 in 4 white respondents overall.

It was in this atmosphere that the language of replacement theory—the belief in a left-wing campaign to subsume the white majority with immigrants and people of color, leading to white extinction—entered the mainstream and that powerful forces took dramatic steps to fortify the numbers and primacy of the historic majority.

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Thus, with the caste system under threat, we are witnessing desperate efforts to impose the will of a diminishing but dominant subset of Americans onto the rest of the country. What could account for the convergence of fixations on controlling the population in the most intimate of spaces—in the push to ban abortion and deny autonomy in how and when to build one’s family; in the push to restrict immigration from south of the border; in the push to restrict LGBTQ rights, which amounts to denying unions seen as less likely to produce children and forbidding people to be who they are and love whom they wish?

From a caste perspective, recent developments boil down to this: while many opponents of abortion rights may surely be acting out of sincere religious convictions in matters of childbirth, rulings that ban abortion and restrict voting rights serve to enshrine the objectives of a conservative minority and to shore up the caste system for generations to come. A rise in birth rates and thus a rise in the population in the red states—those that most readily enacted abortion bans—could grant those states, and conservative policies in general, a greater weight in Congress and in national affairs, even as the majority of Americans, polls show, do not agree with these rightward extremes, even in states most affected by them. One state, Georgia, has already elevated embryos to virtual citizens by permitting people to claim them as dependents on their tax returns after six weeks of gestation and by allowing the state to include fetuses in its population counts, potentially bolstering the state’s numbers.

Bans on abortion would seem to open the door to a disproportionate number of Black and brown births, but the caste system, throughout our history, has shown that it can mutate to sustain itself when under threat. In addition to immigration restrictions to control the Latino population overall, some Latinos, the white-adjacent middle-caste subgroups already being courted by conservative elites, could conceivably be folded into the white population to shore up dominant caste power, as with the Italians and Irish in previous generations. Failing all else, the caste system can resort to violence against those in the middle and subordinated castes, as we have seen in the shootings of Asian women in Atlanta, of Black shoppers in Buffalo, N.Y., and of Latinos in El Paso, Texas, with the Buffalo shooter declaring that his motive was to prevent “eliminating the white race.”

The system has already created structural limits on the growth of the subordinated caste. Mass incarceration for nonviolent crimes, often on charges for which the dominant caste receives lesser sentences, keeps a disproportionate share of Black men from the reproductive pool for long periods of time. The school-to-prison pipeline, harsher punishment of Black schoolchildren, and high rates of police brutality continue to threaten the subordinate caste population.

But perhaps most directly, widespread bias, documented in study after study of the health care system, prevents many pregnant women in the subordinated caste from getting the treatment they need, their humanity and symptoms often dismissed, imperiling the lives of Black mothers and children, as in the near tragedy faced by Serena Williams. One of the most decorated women in tennis history, who had access to the best medical care available, nearly died after giving birth to her daughter in 2017. She suffered paralysis in her legs and back and struggled to breathe; yet hospital staff at first paid little heed when she alerted them to symptoms she recognized as a recurrence of blood clots that had nearly killed her years before. She asked for a heparin drip to thin the blood and wondered why they had not started one already, given her medical history; she requested a CAT scan to locate any clots. But a nurse told her that “all this medicine is making you talk crazy” and that she just needed to rest. “No, I’m telling you what I need,” Williams told the nurse. “I need the scan immediately, and I need it to be done with dye.” Williams persisted and finally got a CAT scan. “Lo and behold,” Williams recounted in Elle magazine, “I had a blood clot in my lungs, and they needed to insert a filter into my veins to break up the clot before it reached my heart.”

Mothers and babies from the subordinated caste are more likely to die from complications of childbirth than any other group in America. The Black maternal death rate is three times that of white women overall, and, not surprisingly from a caste perspective, the death rate is five times higher for college-educated Black mothers than for college-educated white mothers. The disparities are so wide that a college-educated mother from the subordinated caste is more likely to die from childbirth than a dominant-caste mother who did not finish high school.

Caste, the invisible hand beneath our fears and discontents, diminishes us all.

The inequities continue to the newborns themselves. The Black infant mortality rate (IMR) is twice that of white babies, and “Black women with doctorates and professional degrees have a higher IMR than white women who never finished high school,” according to the authors of a 2018 Duke University report. “Not only does the Black-white disparity for infant mortality exist at all educational levels, it is greatest for those with a master’s degree or higher. Further, the IMR is highest for Black women with a doctorate or professional degree.”

These counterintuitive outcomes reflect both the long-standing resentments, unconscious biases, and pressures faced by those who defy their expected place at the bottom of the caste system and the toll on the bodies of those who may experience “weathering”—the dangerous shortening of the telomeres at the ends of the cells—as they, by their ambitions and achievements, find themselves in continuous contention with the boundaries of caste. All of these factors, undergirded by caste, keep Black childbirth structurally under assault. Further, if these abortion bans were solely about the sanctity of life, then visibly pregnant women in the subordinated caste would not be attacked or killed by the authorities at a time of declared urgency over the fate of the unborn, leading up to the reversal of Roe v. Wade, as in the case of a pregnant woman shackled in New York City while in active labor and of a pregnant woman thrown facedown with an officer kneeling on her back in Kansas City, Mo. The hazards of being forced to carry pregnancies to term could lead to more tragic outcomes and deaths for Black women and babies, with a 2022 study by the sociologist Amanda Jean Stevenson finding that the death rate for Black mothers will rise by as much as a third under these abortion bans. Thus, given the risks to the subordinated caste, forced reproduction suggests an underlying will to curate the American population to forestall the day that the dominant caste might be in the minority, and in the process puts the rights of most everyone in peril.

In what seems a single-minded mission, leaders on the far right have pursued a range of unimagined measures to ensure maximum births. Anyone who performs an abortion in Texas faces a penalty of $100,000 per procedure and up to 20 years in prison. Texans can sue anyone suspected of helping a patient get an abortion. Far-right policymakers have been seeking to target people in free states with potential lawsuits if they help patients from restrictive states who cross state lines for the procedure, a proposal that calls to mind the bounty hunter mechanisms of the Fugitive Slave Acts before the Civil War.

No one is spared. Patients in the traumatizing throes of miscarriage, a fate besetting 1 in 10 women in her lifetime, have been turned away in the affected states as hospitals fear running afoul of abortion laws, leaving patients to fend for themselves against potential life-threatening hemorrhage and sepsis. Even groups not inclined to see themselves as marginalized—men of all backgrounds who may not be ready to be fathers, for instance—are getting swept into the undertow of the drive for a higher birth rate that could help stanch the losses in the numbers of the dominant caste. These developments have taught us that in the perhaps unrecognized drive to maintain caste, the rights that many considered established for all time and had perhaps planned their lives around were in fact provisional—hard-fought and short-lived, wholly dependent on who happens to be able to wield power.

Caste, the invisible hand beneath our fears and discontents, diminishes us all. It turns neighbor against neighbor, makes spies of ordinary people incited to surveil those targeted by the caste system, forces patients and couples to go underground at a time of personal crisis, crossing borders in secret as people were forced to cross the Iron Curtain or to flee the Jim Crow South.

The tragic case of Tyre Nichols, fatally beaten in Memphis in January by five police officers who, like him, were Black, reminds us that caste is not about Black vs white. It is about enforcing the hierarchy. It is about the deadly dehumanization of the subordinated caste that allows almost any atrocity to be inflicted upon them—by anyone in any group, including their own, in order to uphold the caste system and to maintain one’s own place, however marginal, within it. This is why racism alone can at times seem an incomplete term to describe the challenges we face as a nation. I wrote in Caste in 2020: “The enforcers of caste come in every color, creed, and gender. One does not have to be in the dominant caste to do its bidding. In fact, the most potent instrument of the caste system is a sentinel at every rung, whose identity forswears any accusation of discrimination and helps keep the caste system humming.”

This era is the country’s karmic moment of truth. The question now, as it has always been, is: What kind of country do we want to be, and what are we willing to do to achieve it? Here we are, having to come to terms with the fact that during a global pandemic, the U.S. has led the world in the grimmest of distinctions. Not only has the U.S. exceeded all other countries in the number of recorded COVID-19 deaths, it has led the world in the number of confirmed cases, millions more than the nation with the second highest outbreak—India. The numbers in the U.S. are in line, not with our peer nations, but with the developing world.

How is it that these two very different countries, the presumed oldest democracy and the largest democracy, have been stricken with these numbers? One country has the world’s oldest caste system, the other has a less recognized one. A caste system relies on strife and inequity to sustain itself. It programs people to believe they have no stake in the well-being of those they have been told are beneath them, those they are told are unworthy, undeserving. It makes for a less magnanimous society, a built-in us-vs.-them distance between groups. Because of the caste system, we more readily turn against one another. Because of caste, we insufficiently protect one another. Because of caste, along with other breakdowns in society, our democracy is in danger.

Over the decades, political scientists have found ways to measure the health of a democracy and to define the characteristics of a country on the brink of unrest and civil war. It is in the liminal space between the twin poles of democracy and autocracy that civil wars are more likely to arise, and not from the ranks of the people at the bottom, but rather from those fearful of losing the status to which they had grown accustomed, according to the political scientist Barbara F. Walter. After the turmoil over the 2020 election and the resulting insurrection in January 2021, the U.S. dropped to its lowest democracy score since 1800, and for a time entered the uncertain space in between, known as anocracy—a partial democracy characterized by freedoms that can lull people into complacency, alongside erosions on suffrage, elections, or other democratic norms. The attempt to overthrow a presidential election was a disruption to more than 200 years of precedent.

We are in an unspoken state of emergency. We have learned that freedom and democracy are not a destination nor a settled state of being but a fragile proposition, and their preservation is an ever present duty of each and every one of us who cherishes liberty. There is no time for infighting or tribalism or self-centered egotism or internal division. We need a clear-eyed focus on the threats to our democracy. The circumstances in which we find ourselves require us to step out of the presumed safety of our isolated corners and to do all that we can in our spheres of influence to make this a fairer world, to educate ourselves and our children about our true and full history, to alert legislators and policymakers to the depths of what they, and we, are up against.

Artwork by Lavett Ballard for TIME; Photographed by Eric James Montgomery

I pray that one day we will transcend the origins of our discontents, the divisions of caste that led to this perilous hour, starting with the fact that the very foundation of how we have been trained to see ourselves is based on the lies of enslavers. Every 10 years, the census struggles to measure and define a fable, reworking 400-year-old slavery-era mythologies into race labels that change with every census, trying to shoehorn a complex species into tidy categories that are anything but.

For most of our history, from the very first census in 1790 through the one in 1950, a person’s race was determined by whatever a given census taker happened to think, based upon what people looked like or were perceived to be. Census enumerators thus became the unwitting arbiters of a central pillar of caste, defining and protecting the purity of the dominant majority, leading to inconsistent classifications that persisted even after people were allowed to check a box for themselves.

In 1790, the race categories were free whites, free others, and slaves. By 1850, so many subordinate-caste women had been raped by their enslavers or other dominant-caste men that the census added a new category, “Mulatto.” Over time, ethnicity, nationality, and color merged into an unscientific, evolving designation of race, such that the same person with origins in India, for example, would have been categorized at least four different ways in the past century. They would have been “Hindu” from 1920 to 1940, “other race” in 1950 and 1960, “white” in 1970, and “Asian Indian” in 1980.

If race were truly the lodestar defining element of human categorization, these labels would never change, and yet they do constantly, the poles always clear despite the name changes, but the middle castes shifting and fluctuating as humans complicate things by being ourselves, by loving, mating, procreating beyond the containers in which society has attempted to confine us. How well have the lens and the language of enslavers served us all these centuries?

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Caste is so deeply embedded in the human subconscious that even when laws are passed and proclamations made to protect against it, statutes may be no match for its endurance. Laws can be reversed if there is not the common will to uphold them. Even when the formal barriers are removed, caste can persist in the human hunger to be better than someone else, to assure our place in society, to quell our fears and insecurities. The structure of caste is maintained by the people within it, up and down the hierarchy, and thus the solutions must account for both the structure that holds inequality in place and the individuals who keep it running. As we have seen in recent years, and as occurred after the 1965 march in Selma, for good, or after the 1915 release of Birth of a Nation, for ill, Abraham Lincoln’s words still hold true: “Public sentiment is everything,” he said in 1858, referring essentially to the dominant caste of his era and ours. “Whoever can change public opinion can change the government.”

I pray that we will harness both structure and sentiment to solve our collective, overlapping crises. We have seen the limits of legislation, vital and necessary though it is, and the insufficiency of politics. We have seen the abuse of power by those entrusted with our lives and futures. The challenges we face require a lasting and meaningful reconstruction of our society. These challenges call for a massive re-education of our citizenry to lay bare the full history of this country so that every citizen can know the ways in which the state has systematically favored some groups and excluded others and can become aware of the urgent, long-overdue need to atone for past and current injustices and rectify continuing disparities for the collective healing of our nation. I have long believed that if the majority of Americans knew the true, full history of what was sacrificed to create this country, they themselves would be calling for reparations. Of course, the greatest corrective of all would be ending the caste system itself.

If we truly want to end caste, each of us, every single one of us, needs to search our souls for the ways in which we may be complicit in upholding caste and stereotype and hierarchy, as our society has so cleverly trained us to do, and to consciously work against this programming in our everyday lives if we are ever to overcome it. One reason why we haven’t ended caste is that too many people benefit from it and not enough people understand it or see reason enough for it to end.

If Census projections hold, we have 20 years to prepare for an impending demographic sea change that the country has never seen before. We have the opportunity to set a standard for how to work together to create a truly egalitarian, multiethnic democracy, a stronger, all-encompassing, reconstituted version of ourselves as a society, and to prove to ourselves and to the world that the divisions we have inherited do not have to be our destiny.

Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is the author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, from which this essay is adapted; out in paperback on Feb. 14. Copyright © 2020, 2023 by Isabel Wilkerson

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