Race, Caste, and the Myth of American Exceptionalism

 By Eric Segall

Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of our Discontent, has made a huge impact on the study of race in America. When it was published in 2020, the New York Times gushed that it was an “instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far.” Most other reviewers agreed.

Wilkerson compares American slavery and Jim Crow to India’s Caste system as well as the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews. Although the comparisons are far from perfect, the analogies still reveal important truths about America both yesterday and today.

The book’s greatest strength is its beautiful prose describing almost unimaginable evil. Wilkerson’s descriptions of India and Germany are dramatic enough, but the stories she recounts of American slavery, lynching, segregation, and even modern-day caste (read racial) prejudice are brutal. Wilkerson’s fluid, conversational, storytelling is simply mesmerizing.

But there is much more to Caste than the horrific recounting of terrible treatments by the “dominant caste” of the “subordinate caste.”  Wilkerson wants the reader to understand Americans’ historic and present-day racism in the context of what she thinks is a more accurate and broader idea, caste, which she defines as follows:

A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned place.

Wilkerson goes out of her way to distinguish naked racism from the all-too present desire among the dominant caste to subjugate other people. This is a controversial argument but not the subject of this essay. Instead, I want to focus on the parts of the book describing and accounting for pure American evil. More than anything else, Caste should demolish the myth of American exceptionalism.

This concept of American exceptionalism probably originated in John Winthrop’s statement to New England colonists that we “shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” Our Founding Fathers, despite their horrific treatment of virtually everyone who wasn’t white, male, and rich, according to those who believe in American exceptionalism, “imagined the United States as an unprecedentedly free, new nation based on founding documents—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—that announced its unique destiny to become the champion of the universal rights of all humankind.”

There have been numerous accounts updating the notion of American exceptionalism throughout our history. Here is one relating to more modern times:

In the 1950s, exceptionalism became a weapon in the Cold War, suggesting a national responsibility to lead the forces of the Free World in the containment of Soviet power. The terrorist events of September 11, 2001, reinvigorated the rhetoric of exceptionalism as an all-purpose explanation for the attacks (‘they hate us because we are free’) and a new sense of American mission, now identified with the global war on terror…[R]ecently, American exceptionalism has emerged as a political slogan of the Tea Party and its acolytes. 

Today, there appears to be a partisan divide on the issue of American exceptionalism. According to a 2020 USA Today Poll, almost 9 out of 10 Trump voters said the United States was the greatest or one of the greatest countries in the world. Conversely, slightly fewer than 6 out of 10 Biden voters said it was average, has fallen behind, or is one of the worst countries in the world. Despite that divide, roughly 90% of the 74,000,000 Trump voters, a lot of people, believe in American exceptionalism, despite the American caste system Wilkerson so ably describes. We would all be better off if a large percentage of those 74,000,000 people read Caste.

The sections of Caste that had the greatest emotional impact on me were the comparisons of America to Nazi Germany and Wilkerson’s stories of America’s mistreatment of its lowest caste citizens. I suspect many readers of the book will be surprised to learn that Hitler and his Nazi allies in the mid-1930’s looked to the American South to learn the lessons of terror, dehumanization, and stigmatization. Although the Nazis’ eventual extermination of 6,000,000 Jews has no comparable event in American history, that fact does not mean we should ignore the Nazis’ research prior to the execution of those innocents. And that research shows, as Wilkerson documents with precision, that the Nazis took many of their early lesson from the United States of America. Here is an example:    

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 the 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.

This quote appears in the middle of a long section about how the Nazis admired America’s dehumanizing of its lowest caste. Before and after this section, Wilkerson fills her book with American atrocities that are almost too much to bear. Here are just a few to give the flavor of America’s past horrors:

The institution of slavery was, for a quarter millennium, the conversion of human beings into currency, into machines who existed solely for the profit of their owners, to be worked as long as the owners desired, who had no rights over their bodies or loved ones, who could be mortgaged, bred, won in a bet, given as wedding presents, bequeathed to heirs, sold away from spouses or children to cover an owner’s debt or to spite a rival or to settle an estate. They were regularly whipped, raped, and branded, subjected to any whim or distemper of the people who owned them. Some were castrated or endured other tortures too grisly for these pages, tortures that the Geneva Conventions would have banned as war crimes had the conventions applied to people of African descent on this soil. 

There are many accounts of lynching in the book. According to Wilkerson, during the first 40 years of the 20th century, there was a lynching every three-to-four days. This long quote is representative of the many tragic and horrible stories of lynching in the book:          

Lynchings were part carnival, part torture chamber, and attracted thousands of onlookers who collectively became accomplices to public sadism. Photographers were tipped off in advance and installed portable printing presses at the lynching sites to sell to lynchers and onlookers like photographers at a prom. They made postcards out of the gelatin prints for people to send to their loved ones. People mailed postcards of the severed, half-burned head of Will James atop a pole in Cairo, Illinois, in 1907. They sent postcards of burned torsos that looked like the petrified victims of Vesuvius, only these horrors had come at  the hands of human beings in modern times. Some people framed the lynching photographs with locks of the victim’s hair under glass if they had been able to secure any. One spectator wrote on the back of his postcard from Waco, Texas, in 1916: “This is the Barbecue we had last night [sic] my picture is to the left with the cross over it. Your son, Joe.”

Most Americans have passing familiarity with our history of slavery and segregation even if far too many are insensitive to the extreme brutality and torture that whites used for hundreds of years to maintain America’s caste system. Too few Americans, however, are familiar with our country’s post-World War II racist economic policies that helped maintain our rigid caste system and that are the cause of much of today’s institutional racism. Wilkerson discusses those policies with her usual fine rhetoric:  

The New Deal reforms of the 1930s, like the Social Security Act of 1935 (providing old age insurance) and the Wagner Act (protecting workers from labor abuse), excluded the vast majority of black workers—farm laborers and domestics—at the urging of southern white politicians. 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 those same chances to ear or build wealth.

Thus, it is no surprise, as I’ve written on this blog, that these overtly discriminatory policies have major lingering effects today. In 2017, black men on average earned only 69.7% of white men, and black women earned only 60.8% of white men. In 1953, four-fifths of white households earned more than the average black household. In 2018, almost nine-tenths of white households earned more than typical black ones. Moreover, "even black workers with an advanced degree experience a significant wage gap compared with their white counterparts. And after controlling for age, gender, education, and region, black workers are paid 16.2 percent less than white workers."

It is impossible to solve a problem until it is correctly diagnosed. I suggest that we must start with dispelling the notion of American exceptionalism. And there is no way to do that without a conscious, intentional acceptance by the American people and our government that we have engaged in horrific and systemic treatments of Blacks and other people of color and that behavior still haunts us today. Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste is a step in the right direction, if people who need to do so will only read it.