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General Psychology

PSYC 1030

Course Overview

This document is meant to give you an overview of what will be included and required in this course and a recommendation for successful navigation and completion.

Since this course is entirely online EVERYTHING will be in D2L or linked resources. Let us take a look.

Our textbook comes with student resources and you should go their website to scan them (link provided in D2L). There are also chapter Powerpoint files.

Additionally, I will be adding:

· My personal chapter overview and suggestions for the major points to concentrate on.

· Writing assignments and resources on each chapter topic.

My recommendation for this course would be to follow the activities I have ordered for you in D2L. Under each chapter I have documents or links to all course requirements. The links, in order, are:

1. A “Woods Overview” of the chapter found in the Discussion Board.

2. The “Chapter Overview” from our textbook.

3. The textbook PowerPoint slides. These provide shallow chapter content.

4. Skim the textbook chapter, noting what is covered and the major topics.

5. STUDY the textbook chapter, paying attention to terminology and the example studies/experiments.

6. Look at the “Key Terms” for that chapter.

7. Take the “Review Quiz”. This will identify any areas of needed review.

8. Take the quiz. You only get two chances, do not waste the first on “let’s see what it looks like”.

9. Now move to the writing assignment. To integrate with our textbook content my writing assignments will involve textbook or relevant outside sources. These will be ESSAY questions, so think 4-6 sentences.

“Is there required interaction in this course Dr. Woods?” No. But I will communicate with you in two ways:

· The “Announcements” page. I will post comments here for each of our topics. What to concentrate on, what to look for, what I find especially fascinating.

· The “Discussion Board”. Here you will find my overview and sometimes relevant links. Here you can also comment back to me or to each other.

1

America’s Enduring Caste System

Our founding ideals promise liberty and equality for all. Our reality is an enduring racial hierarchy that
has persisted for centuries.

By Isabel Wilkerson

Published July 1, 2020; Updated Jan. 21, 2021 The New York Times Magazine

We saw a man face down on the pavement, pinned beneath a car, and above him another man, a man
in uniform, his skin lighter than the man on the ground, and the lighter man was bearing down on the
darker man, his knee boring into the neck of the darker man, the lighter man’s hands at his sides, in his
pockets — could it be that his hands were so nonchalantly in his pockets? — such was the ease and
casual calm, the confidence of embedded entitlement with which he was able to lord over the darker
man.

We heard the man on the ground pleading with the man above him, saw the terror in his face, heard
his gasps for air, heard the anguished cries of an unseen chorus, begging the lighter man to stop. But
the lighter man, the dominant man, looked straight at the bystanders, into the camera, and thus at all
of us around the world who would later bear witness and, instead of heeding the cries of the chorus,
pressed his knee deeper into the darker man’s neck as was the perceived right granted him in the
hierarchy. The man on the ground went silent, drained of breath. A clear liquid crept down the
pavement. We saw a man die before our very eyes.

What we did not see, not immediately anyway, was the invisible scaffolding, a caste system with
ancient rules and assumptions that made such a horror possible, that held each actor in that scene in
its grip. Off camera, two other men in uniform, who looked like the lighter man, were holding down
the darker man from the other side of the police car as dusk approached in Minneapolis. Yet another
man in uniform, of Asian descent and thus not in the dominant caste, stood near, watching,
immobilized, it seemed, at a remove from his own humanity and potential common cause, as the
darker man slipped out of consciousness. We soon learned that the man on the ground, George Floyd,
had been accused of trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill, and, like uncountable Black men over the
centuries, lost his life over what might have been a mere citation for people in the dominant caste.

In the weeks leading up to the country’s commemoration of its founding, protests and uprisings took
hold in cities in every state, in Bakersfield, Charleston, Buffalo, Poughkeepsie, Wichita, Boise, Sioux
Falls. Protesters tore down a statue of Christopher Columbus in St. Paul, Minn. They toppled a statue of
Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Va. And the country was forced to contemplate the observation of
Frederick Douglass a century and a half before: “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?”
What, we might ask in our day, is freedom to those still denied it as their country celebrates its own?

An Old House and an Infrared Light

The inspector trained his infrared lens onto a misshapen bow in the ceiling, an invisible beam of light
searching the layers of lath to test what the eye could not see. This house was built generations ago,
and I had noticed the slightest welt in a corner of plaster in a spare bedroom and chalked it up to
idiosyncrasy. Over time, the welt in the ceiling became a wave that widened and bulged despite the
new roof. It had been building beyond perception for years. An old house is its own kind of devotional,

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a dowager aunt with a story to be coaxed out of her, a mystery, a series of interlocking puzzles
awaiting solution. Why is this soffit tucked into the southeast corner of an eave? What is behind this
discolored patch of brick? With an old house, the work is never done, and you don’t expect it to be.

America is an old house. We can never declare the work over. Wind, flood, drought and human
upheavals batter a structure that is already fighting whatever flaws were left unattended in the original
foundation. When you live in an old house, you may not want to go into the basement after a storm to
see what the rains have wrought. Choose not to look, however, at your own peril. The owner of an old
house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away. Whatever is lurking will fester
whether you choose to look or not. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction.
Whatever you are wishing away will gnaw at you until you gather the courage to face what you would
rather not see.

We in this country are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on
the outside but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks
patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even. Many people may rightly
say: “I had nothing to do with how this all started. I have nothing to do with the sins of the past. My
ancestors never attacked Indigenous people, never owned slaves.” And yes. Not one of us was here
when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we
are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures in the
foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars
or joists, but they are ours to deal with now.

And any further deterioration is, in fact, on our hands.

Unaddressed, the ruptures and diagonal cracks will not fix themselves. The toxins will not go away but
rather will spread, leach and mutate, as they already have. When people live in an old house, they
come to adjust to the idiosyncrasies and outright dangers skulking in an old structure. They put buckets
under a wet ceiling, prop up groaning floors, learn to step over that rotting wood tread in the staircase.
The awkward becomes acceptable, and the unacceptable becomes merely inconvenient. Live with it
long enough, and the unthinkable becomes normal. Exposed over the generations, we learn to believe
that the incomprehensible is the way that life is supposed to be.

In my own house, the inspector was facing the mystery of the misshapen ceiling, and so he first held a
sensor to the surface to detect if it was damp. The reading inconclusive, he then pulled out the infrared
camera to take a kind of X-ray of whatever was going on, the idea being that you cannot fix a problem
until and unless you can see it. He could now see past the plaster, beyond what had been wallpapered
or painted over, as we now are called upon to do in the house we all live in, to examine a structure
built long ago.

Like other old houses, America has an unseen skeleton: its caste system, which is as central to its
operation as are the studs and joists that we cannot see in the physical buildings we call home. Caste is
the infrastructure of our divisions. It is the architecture of human hierarchy, the subconscious code of
instructions for maintaining, in our case, a 400-year-old social order. Looking at caste is like holding the
country’s X-ray up to the light.

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

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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 ranks apart, distinct from one another and in
their assigned places.

Throughout human history, three caste systems have stood out. The lingering, millenniums-long caste
system of India. The tragically accelerated, chilling and officially vanquished caste system of Nazi
Germany. And the shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the United States. Each
version relied on stigmatizing those deemed inferior to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep
the lowest-ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement. A caste
system endures because it is often justified as divine will, originating from sacred text or the presumed
laws of nature, reinforced throughout the culture and passed down through the generations.

As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down
in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about
feelings or morality. It is about power — which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources
— which groups are seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them
and who does not. It is about respect, authority and assumptions of competence — who is accorded
these and who is not.

As a means of assigning value to entire swaths of humankind, caste guides each of us often beyond the
reaches of our awareness. It embeds into our bones an unconscious ranking of human characteristics
and sets forth the rules, expectations and stereotypes that have been used to justify brutalities against
entire groups within our species. In the American caste system, the signal of rank is what we call race,
the division of humans on the basis of their appearance. In America, race is the primary tool and the
visible decoy for caste.

Race does the heavy lifting for a caste system that demands a means of human division. If we have
been trained to see humans in the language of race, then caste is the underlying grammar that we
encode as children, as when learning our mother tongue. Caste, like grammar, becomes an invisible
guide not only of how we speak but also of how we process information, the autonomic calculations
that figure into a sentence without our having to think about it.

Many of us have never taken a class in grammar, yet we know in our bones that a transitive verb takes
an object, that a subject needs a predicate; we know without thinking the difference between third-
person singular and third-person plural. We may mention “race,” referring to people as Black or white
or Latino or Asian or Indigenous, when what lies beneath each label is centuries of history and
assigning of assumptions and values to physical features in a structure of human hierarchy.

What people look like, or rather, the race they have been assigned or are perceived to belong to, is the
visible cue to their caste. It is the historic flashcard to the public of how they are to be treated, where
they are expected to live, what kinds of positions they are expected to hold, whether they belong in
this section of town or that seat in a boardroom, whether they should be expected to speak with
authority on this or that subject, whether they will be administered pain relief in a hospital, whether
they are more or less likely to survive childbirth in the most advanced nation in the world, whether
they may be shot by the authorities with impunity.

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We know that the letters of the alphabet are neutral and meaningless until they are combined to make
a word, which itself has no significance until it is inserted into a sentence and interpreted by those who
speak or hear it. In the same way that “black” and “white” were applied to people who were literally
neither, but rather gradations of brown and beige and ivory, the caste system sets people at poles
from one another and attaches meaning to the extremes, and to the gradations in between, and then
reinforces those meanings, replicates them in the roles each caste was and is assigned and permitted
or required to perform.

And yet, in recent decades, we have learned from the human genome that all human beings are 99.9
percent the same. “Race is a social concept, not a scientific one,” said J. Craig Venter, the genomics
expert who ran Celera Genomics when the initial sequencing was completed in 2000. “We all evolved
in the last 100,000 years from the small number of tribes that migrated out of Africa and colonized the
world.” Which means that an entire racial caste system, the catalyst of hatreds and civil war, was built
on what the anthropologist Ashley Montagu called “an arbitrary and superficial selection of traits,”
derived from a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of genes that make up a human being. “The idea
of race,” Montagu wrote, “was, in fact, the deliberate creation of an exploiting class seeking to
maintain and defend its privileges against what was profitably regarded as an inferior social caste.”

Caste and race are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive. They can and do coexist in the same
culture and serve to reinforce each other. Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen
force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin. Race is what we can see, the physical traits that have
been given arbitrary meaning and become shorthand for who a person is. Caste is the powerful
infrastructure that holds each group in its place. Its very invisibility is what gives it power and longevity.
And though it may move in and out of consciousness, though it may flare and reassert itself in times of
upheaval and recede in times of relative calm, it is an ever-present through line in the country’s
operation.

Caste is rigid and deep; race is fluid and superficial, subject to periodic redefinition to meet the needs
of the dominant caste in what is now the United States. While the requirements to qualify as white
have changed over the centuries, the fact of a dominant caste has remained constant from its
inception — whoever fit the definition of white, at whatever point in history, was granted the legal
rights and privileges of the dominant caste. Perhaps more critical and tragic, at the other end of the
ladder, the subordinated caste, too, has been fixed from the beginning as the psychological floor
beneath which all other castes cannot fall.

Thus we are all born into a silent war game, centuries old, enlisted in teams not of our own choosing.
The side to which we are assigned in the American system of categorizing people is proclaimed by the
team uniform that each caste wears, signaling our presumed worth and potential. That any of us
manages to create abiding connections across these manufactured divisions is a testament to the
beauty of the human spirit.

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The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in India, whose nonviolent-protest movement inspired his own.
Credit: Royal Studio via American Friends Service Committee

An American Untouchable

In the early winter of 1959, after leading the Montgomery bus boycott that arose from the arrest of
Rosa Parks and before the trials and triumphs to come, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife,
Coretta, landed in India, in the city then known as Bombay, to visit the land of Mohandas K. Gandhi,
the father of nonviolent protest. They were covered in garlands upon arrival, and King told reporters,
“To other countries, I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim.”

He had long dreamed of going to India, and they stayed for more than a month, welcomed by Prime
Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. King wanted to see for himself the place whose fight for freedom from
British rule had inspired his fight for justice in America. He wanted to see the so-called untouchables,
the lowest caste in the ancient Indian caste system, whom he had read of and had sympathy for, and
who were left behind after India gained its independence the decade before.

He discovered that people in India had been following the trials of his own oppressed people in
America, knew of the bus boycott he led. Wherever he went, people on the streets of Bombay and
Delhi crowded around him for an autograph.

One afternoon, King and his wife journeyed to the southern tip of the country, to the city then known
as Trivandrum in the state of Kerala, and visited with high school students whose families had been
untouchables. The principal made the introduction.

“Young people,” he said, “I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of
America.”

King was floored. He had not expected that word to be applied to him. He was, in fact, put off by it at
first. He had flown in from another continent, had dined with the prime minister. He did not see the
connection, did not see what the Indian caste system had to do directly with him, did not immediately
see why the lowest-caste people in India would view him, an American Negro and a distinguished
visitor, as low-caste like themselves, see him as one of them.

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“For a moment,” he would later recall, “I was a bit shocked and peeved that I would be referred to as
an untouchable.”

Then he began to think about the reality of the lives of the people he was fighting for — 20 million
people, consigned to the lowest rank in America for centuries, “still smothering in an airtight cage of
poverty,” quarantined in isolated ghettos, exiled in their own country.

And he said to himself, “Yes, I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States of America is
an untouchable.” In that moment, he realized that the Land of the Free had imposed a caste system
not unlike the caste system of India and that he had lived under that system all his life. It was what lay
beneath the forces he was fighting in America. He would later describe this awakening at Ebenezer
Baptist Church in Atlanta in 1965 during his sermon for the Fourth of July.

“Caste” is not a word often applied to the United States. It is considered the language of India or feudal
Europe. But some anthropologists and scholars of race in America have made use of the word for
decades. Before the modern era, one of the earliest Americans to take up the idea of caste was the
antebellum abolitionist and U.S. senator Charles Sumner as he fought against segregation in the North.
“The separation of children in the Public Schools of Boston, on account of color or race,” he wrote, “is
in the nature of Caste, and on this account is a violation of Equality.” He quoted a native of India:
“Caste makes distinctions among creatures where God has made none.”

What are the origins and workings of the hierarchy that intrudes upon the daily life and life chances of
every American? That had intruded upon my own life with disturbing regularity and consequences? I
wanted to understand the origins and evolution of classifying and elevating one group of people over
another and the consequences of doing so to the presumed beneficiaries and to those targeted as
beneath them. Moving about the world as a living, breathing caste experiment myself, I wanted to
understand the hierarchies that I and many millions of others have had to navigate to pursue our work
and dreams.

An Atlanta trolley in 1956, before the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation on all public
buses. Credit: Horace Cort/Associated Press

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The R Word

Once awakened to the underlying power of caste, we can better see the tool of race for what it is.
What we face in our current day is not the classical racism of our ancestors’ era but a mutation of the
software that adjusts to the updated needs of the operating system. In the half century since civil
rights protests forced the United States to make state-sanctioned discrimination illegal, what
Americans consider to be racism has shifted, and now the word is one of the most contentious and
misunderstood in American culture. For many in the dominant caste, the word is radioactive —
resented, feared, denied, lobbed back toward anyone who dares to suggest it. Resistance to the word
often derails any discussion of the underlying behavior it is meant to describe, thus eroding it of
meaning.

Social scientists often define racism as the combination of racial bias and systemic power, seeing
racism, like sexism, as primarily the action of people or systems with personal or group power over
another person or group with less power, as men have power over women, white people over people
of color and the dominant over the subordinate.

But over time, racism has often been reduced to a feeling, a character flaw, conflated with prejudice,
connected to whether one is a good person or not. It has come to mean overt and declared hatred of a
person or group because of the race ascribed to them, a perspective few would ever own up to. While
people will admit to or call out sexism or xenophobia or homophobia, people may immediately deflect
accusations of racism, saying they don’t have “a racist bone in their body” or are the “least racist
person you could ever meet,” that they “don’t see color,” that their “best friend is Black,” and they
may have even convinced themselves on a conscious level of these things.

What does racism mean in an era when even extremists won’t admit to it? What is the litmus test for
racism? Who is racist in a society where someone can refuse to rent to people of color, arrest brown
immigrants en masse or display a Confederate flag but not be “certified” as a racist unless he or she
confesses to it or is caught using derogatory signage or slurs? The instinctive desire to reject the very
idea of current discrimination on the basis of a chemical compound in the skin is an unconscious
admission of the absurdity of race as a concept.

With no universally agreed-upon definition, we might see racism as a continuum rather than an
absolute. We might release ourselves of the purity test of whether someone is or is not racist and
exchange that mind-set for one that sees people as existing on a scale based on the toxins they have
absorbed from the polluted and inescapable air of social instruction we receive from childhood.

Caste, on the other hand, predates the notion of race and has survived the era of formal state-
sponsored racism long officially practiced in the mainstream. The modern-day version of easily
deniable racism may be able to cloak the invisible structure that created and maintains hierarchy and
inequality. But caste does not allow us to ignore structure. Caste is structure. Caste is ranking. Caste is
the boundaries that reinforce the fixed assignments based upon what people look like. Caste is a living,
breathing entity. It is like a corporation that seeks to sustain itself at all costs. To achieve a truly
egalitarian world requires looking deeper than what we think we see.

Caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit
of the doubt and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the
hierarchy. Caste pushes back against an African-American woman who, without humor or apology,

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takes a seat at the head of the table speaking Russian. It prefers an Asian-American man to put his
technological expertise at the service of the company but not aspire to chief executive. Yet it sees as
logical a white 16-year-old serving as store manager over employees from the subordinate caste three
times his age. Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred; it is not necessarily
personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a
social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.

What is the difference between racism and casteism? Because caste and race are interwoven in
America, it can be hard to separate the two. Any action or institution that mocks, harms, assumes or
attaches inferiority or stereotype on the basis of the social construct of race can be considered racism.
Any action or structure that seeks to limit, hold back or put someone in a defined ranking, seeks to
keep someone in their place by elevating or denigrating that person on the basis of their perceived
category, can be seen as casteism.

Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking,
advantage or privilege or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you. For those in the
marginalized castes, casteism can mean seeking to keep those on your disfavored rung from gaining on
you, to curry the favor and remain in the good graces of the dominant caste, all of which serve to keep
the structure intact.

In the United States, racism and casteism frequently occur at the same time, or overlap or figure into
the same scenario. Casteism is about positioning and restricting those positions, vis-à-vis others. What
race and its precursor, racism, do extraordinarily well is to confuse and distract from the underlying
structural and more powerful Sith lord of caste. Like the cast on a broken arm, like the cast in a play, a
caste system holds everyone in a fixed place.

For this reason, many people — including those we might see as good and kind people — could be
casteist, meaning invested in keeping the hierarchy as it is or content to do nothing to change it, but
not racist in the classical sense, not active and openly hateful of this or that group. Actual racists, actual
haters, would by definition be casteist, as their hatred demands that those they perceive as beneath
them know and keep their place in the hierarchy.

In everyday terms, it is not racism that prompts a white shopper in a clothing store to go up to a
random Black or brown person who is also shopping and to ask for a sweater in a different size, or for a
white guest at a party to ask a Black or brown person who is also a guest to fetch a drink, as happened
to Barack Obama as a state senator, or even perhaps a judge to sentence a subordinate-caste person
for an offense for which a dominant-caste person might not even be charged. It is caste or rather the
policing of and adherence to the caste system. It’s the autonomic, unconscious, reflexive response to
expectations from a thousand imaging inputs and neurological societal downloads that affix people to
certain roles based upon what they look like and what they historically have been assigned to or the
characteristics and stereotypes by which they have been categorized. No ethnic or racial category is
immune to the messaging we all receive about the hierarchy, and thus no one escapes its
consequences.

When we assume that a woman is not equipped to lead the meeting or the company or the country, or
that a person of color or an immigrant could not be the one in authority, is not a resident of a certain
community, could not have attended a particular school or deserved to have attended a particular
school, when we feel a pang of shock and resentment, a personal wounding and sense of unfairness

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and perhaps even shame at our discomfort upon seeing someone from a marginalized group in a job or
car or house or college or appointment more prestigious than we have been led to expect, we are
reflecting the efficient encoding of caste, the subconscious recognition that the person has stepped out
of his or her assumed place in our society. We are responding to our embedded instructions of who
should be where and who should be doing what, the breaching of the structure and boundaries that
are the hallmarks of caste.

Race and caste are not the cause of and do not account for every poor outcome or unpleasant
encounter. But caste becomes a factor, to whatever infinitesimal degree, in interactions and decisions
across gender, ethnicity, race, immigrant status, sexual orientation, age or religion that have
consequences in our everyday lives and in policies that affect our country and beyond. It may not be as
all-consuming as its targets may perceive it to be, but neither is it the ancient relic, the long-ago
anachronism, that post-racialists, post-haters of everything, keep wishing away. Its invisibility is what
gives it power and longevity. Caste, along with its faithful servant race, is an X-factor in most any
American equation, and any answer one might ever come up with to address our current challenges is
flawed without it.

Through the Fog of Delhi to the Parallels in India and America

My 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 2 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 …

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America’s Enduring Caste System

Our founding ideals promise liberty and equality for all. Our reality is an enduring racial hierarchy that
has persisted for centuries.

By Isabel Wilkerson

Published July 1, 2020; Updated Jan. 21, 2021 The New York Times Magazine

We saw a man face down on the pavement, pinned beneath a car, and above him another man, a man
in uniform, his skin lighter than the man on the ground, and the lighter man was bearing down on the
darker man, his knee boring into the neck of the darker man, the lighter man’s hands at his sides, in his
pockets — could it be that his hands were so nonchalantly in his pockets? — such was the ease and
casual calm, the confidence of embedded entitlement with which he was able to lord over the darker
man.

We heard the man on the ground pleading with the man above him, saw the terror in his face, heard
his gasps for air, heard the anguished cries of an unseen chorus, begging the lighter man to stop. But
the lighter man, the dominant man, looked straight at the bystanders, into the camera, and thus at all
of us around the world who would later bear witness and, instead of heeding the cries of the chorus,
pressed his knee deeper into the darker man’s neck as was the perceived right granted him in the
hierarchy. The man on the ground went silent, drained of breath. A clear liquid crept down the
pavement. We saw a man die before our very eyes.

What we did not see, not immediately anyway, was the invisible scaffolding, a caste system with
ancient rules and assumptions that made such a horror possible, that held each actor in that scene in
its grip. Off camera, two other men in uniform, who looked like the lighter man, were holding down
the darker man from the other side of the police car as dusk approached in Minneapolis. Yet another
man in uniform, of Asian descent and thus not in the dominant caste, stood near, watching,
immobilized, it seemed, at a remove from his own humanity and potential common cause, as the
darker man slipped out of consciousness. We soon learned that the man on the ground, George Floyd,
had been accused of trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill, and, like uncountable Black men over the
centuries, lost his life over what might have been a mere citation for people in the dominant caste.

In the weeks leading up to the country’s commemoration of its founding, protests and uprisings took
hold in cities in every state, in Bakersfield, Charleston, Buffalo, Poughkeepsie, Wichita, Boise, Sioux
Falls. Protesters tore down a statue of Christopher Columbus in St. Paul, Minn. They toppled a statue of
Jefferson Davis in Richmond, Va. And the country was forced to contemplate the observation of
Frederick Douglass a century and a half before: “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?”
What, we might ask in our day, is freedom to those still denied it as their country celebrates its own?

An Old House and an Infrared Light

The inspector trained his infrared lens onto a misshapen bow in the ceiling, an invisible beam of light
searching the layers of lath to test what the eye could not see. This house was built generations ago,
and I had noticed the slightest welt in a corner of plaster in a spare bedroom and chalked it up to
idiosyncrasy. Over time, the welt in the ceiling became a wave that widened and bulged despite the
new roof. It had been building beyond perception for years. An old house is its own kind of devotional,

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a dowager aunt with a story to be coaxed out of her, a mystery, a series of interlocking puzzles
awaiting solution. Why is this soffit tucked into the southeast corner of an eave? What is behind this
discolored patch of brick? With an old house, the work is never done, and you don’t expect it to be.

America is an old house. We can never declare the work over. Wind, flood, drought and human
upheavals batter a structure that is already fighting whatever flaws were left unattended in the original
foundation. When you live in an old house, you may not want to go into the basement after a storm to
see what the rains have wrought. Choose not to look, however, at your own peril. The owner of an old
house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away. Whatever is lurking will fester
whether you choose to look or not. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction.
Whatever you are wishing away will gnaw at you until you gather the courage to face what you would
rather not see.

We in this country are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on
the outside but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks
patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even. Many people may rightly
say: “I had nothing to do with how this all started. I have nothing to do with the sins of the past. My
ancestors never attacked Indigenous people, never owned slaves.” And yes. Not one of us was here
when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we
are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures in the
foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars
or joists, but they are ours to deal with now.

And any further deterioration is, in fact, on our hands.

Unaddressed, the ruptures and diagonal cracks will not fix themselves. The toxins will not go away but
rather will spread, leach and mutate, as they already have. When people live in an old house, they
come to adjust to the idiosyncrasies and outright dangers skulking in an old structure. They put buckets
under a wet ceiling, prop up groaning floors, learn to step over that rotting wood tread in the staircase.
The awkward becomes acceptable, and the unacceptable becomes merely inconvenient. Live with it
long enough, and the unthinkable becomes normal. Exposed over the generations, we learn to believe
that the incomprehensible is the way that life is supposed to be.

In my own house, the inspector was facing the mystery of the misshapen ceiling, and so he first held a
sensor to the surface to detect if it was damp. The reading inconclusive, he then pulled out the infrared
camera to take a kind of X-ray of whatever was going on, the idea being that you cannot fix a problem
until and unless you can see it. He could now see past the plaster, beyond what had been wallpapered
or painted over, as we now are called upon to do in the house we all live in, to examine a structure
built long ago.

Like other old houses, America has an unseen skeleton: its caste system, which is as central to its
operation as are the studs and joists that we cannot see in the physical buildings we call home. Caste is
the infrastructure of our divisions. It is the architecture of human hierarchy, the subconscious code of
instructions for maintaining, in our case, a 400-year-old social order. Looking at caste is like holding the
country’s X-ray up to the light.

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

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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 ranks apart, distinct from one another and in
their assigned places.

Throughout human history, three caste systems have stood out. The lingering, millenniums-long caste
system of India. The tragically accelerated, chilling and officially vanquished caste system of Nazi
Germany. And the shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the United States. Each
version relied on stigmatizing those deemed inferior to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep
the lowest-ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement. A caste
system endures because it is often justified as divine will, originating from sacred text or the presumed
laws of nature, reinforced throughout the culture and passed down through the generations.

As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down
in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about
feelings or morality. It is about power — which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources
— which groups are seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them
and who does not. It is about respect, authority and assumptions of competence — who is accorded
these and who is not.

As a means of assigning value to entire swaths of humankind, caste guides each of us often beyond the
reaches of our awareness. It embeds into our bones an unconscious ranking of human characteristics
and sets forth the rules, expectations and stereotypes that have been used to justify brutalities against
entire groups within our species. In the American caste system, the signal of rank is what we call race,
the division of humans on the basis of their appearance. In America, race is the primary tool and the
visible decoy for caste.

Race does the heavy lifting for a caste system that demands a means of human division. If we have
been trained to see humans in the language of race, then caste is the underlying grammar that we
encode as children, as when learning our mother tongue. Caste, like grammar, becomes an invisible
guide not only of how we speak but also of how we process information, the autonomic calculations
that figure into a sentence without our having to think about it.

Many of us have never taken a class in grammar, yet we know in our bones that a transitive verb takes
an object, that a subject needs a predicate; we know without thinking the difference between third-
person singular and third-person plural. We may mention “race,” referring to people as Black or white
or Latino or Asian or Indigenous, when what lies beneath each label is centuries of history and
assigning of assumptions and values to physical features in a structure of human hierarchy.

What people look like, or rather, the race they have been assigned or are perceived to belong to, is the
visible cue to their caste. It is the historic flashcard to the public of how they are to be treated, where
they are expected to live, what kinds of positions they are expected to hold, whether they belong in
this section of town or that seat in a boardroom, whether they should be expected to speak with
authority on this or that subject, whether they will be administered pain relief in a hospital, whether
they are more or less likely to survive childbirth in the most advanced nation in the world, whether
they may be shot by the authorities with impunity.

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We know that the letters of the alphabet are neutral and meaningless until they are combined to make
a word, which itself has no significance until it is inserted into a sentence and interpreted by those who
speak or hear it. In the same way that “black” and “white” were applied to people who were literally
neither, but rather gradations of brown and beige and ivory, the caste system sets people at poles
from one another and attaches meaning to the extremes, and to the gradations in between, and then
reinforces those meanings, replicates them in the roles each caste was and is assigned and permitted
or required to perform.

And yet, in recent decades, we have learned from the human genome that all human beings are 99.9
percent the same. “Race is a social concept, not a scientific one,” said J. Craig Venter, the genomics
expert who ran Celera Genomics when the initial sequencing was completed in 2000. “We all evolved
in the last 100,000 years from the small number of tribes that migrated out of Africa and colonized the
world.” Which means that an entire racial caste system, the catalyst of hatreds and civil war, was built
on what the anthropologist Ashley Montagu called “an arbitrary and superficial selection of traits,”
derived from a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of genes that make up a human being. “The idea
of race,” Montagu wrote, “was, in fact, the deliberate creation of an exploiting class seeking to
maintain and defend its privileges against what was profitably regarded as an inferior social caste.”

Caste and race are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive. They can and do coexist in the same
culture and serve to reinforce each other. Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen
force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin. Race is what we can see, the physical traits that have
been given arbitrary meaning and become shorthand for who a person is. Caste is the powerful
infrastructure that holds each group in its place. Its very invisibility is what gives it power and longevity.
And though it may move in and out of consciousness, though it may flare and reassert itself in times of
upheaval and recede in times of relative calm, it is an ever-present through line in the country’s
operation.

Caste is rigid and deep; race is fluid and superficial, subject to periodic redefinition to meet the needs
of the dominant caste in what is now the United States. While the requirements to qualify as white
have changed over the centuries, the fact of a dominant caste has remained constant from its
inception — whoever fit the definition of white, at whatever point in history, was granted the legal
rights and privileges of the dominant caste. Perhaps more critical and tragic, at the other end of the
ladder, the subordinated caste, too, has been fixed from the beginning as the psychological floor
beneath which all other castes cannot fall.

Thus we are all born into a silent war game, centuries old, enlisted in teams not of our own choosing.
The side to which we are assigned in the American system of categorizing people is proclaimed by the
team uniform that each caste wears, signaling our presumed worth and potential. That any of us
manages to create abiding connections across these manufactured divisions is a testament to the
beauty of the human spirit.

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The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in India, whose nonviolent-protest movement inspired his own.
Credit: Royal Studio via American Friends Service Committee

An American Untouchable

In the early winter of 1959, after leading the Montgomery bus boycott that arose from the arrest of
Rosa Parks and before the trials and triumphs to come, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife,
Coretta, landed in India, in the city then known as Bombay, to visit the land of Mohandas K. Gandhi,
the father of nonviolent protest. They were covered in garlands upon arrival, and King told reporters,
“To other countries, I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim.”

He had long dreamed of going to India, and they stayed for more than a month, welcomed by Prime
Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. King wanted to see for himself the place whose fight for freedom from
British rule had inspired his fight for justice in America. He wanted to see the so-called untouchables,
the lowest caste in the ancient Indian caste system, whom he had read of and had sympathy for, and
who were left behind after India gained its independence the decade before.

He discovered that people in India had been following the trials of his own oppressed people in
America, knew of the bus boycott he led. Wherever he went, people on the streets of Bombay and
Delhi crowded around him for an autograph.

One afternoon, King and his wife journeyed to the southern tip of the country, to the city then known
as Trivandrum in the state of Kerala, and visited with high school students whose families had been
untouchables. The principal made the introduction.

“Young people,” he said, “I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of
America.”

King was floored. He had not expected that word to be applied to him. He was, in fact, put off by it at
first. He had flown in from another continent, had dined with the prime minister. He did not see the
connection, did not see what the Indian caste system had to do directly with him, did not immediately
see why the lowest-caste people in India would view him, an American Negro and a distinguished
visitor, as low-caste like themselves, see him as one of them.

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“For a moment,” he would later recall, “I was a bit shocked and peeved that I would be referred to as
an untouchable.”

Then he began to think about the reality of the lives of the people he was fighting for — 20 million
people, consigned to the lowest rank in America for centuries, “still smothering in an airtight cage of
poverty,” quarantined in isolated ghettos, exiled in their own country.

And he said to himself, “Yes, I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States of America is
an untouchable.” In that moment, he realized that the Land of the Free had imposed a caste system
not unlike the caste system of India and that he had lived under that system all his life. It was what lay
beneath the forces he was fighting in America. He would later describe this awakening at Ebenezer
Baptist Church in Atlanta in 1965 during his sermon for the Fourth of July.

“Caste” is not a word often applied to the United States. It is considered the language of India or feudal
Europe. But some anthropologists and scholars of race in America have made use of the word for
decades. Before the modern era, one of the earliest Americans to take up the idea of caste was the
antebellum abolitionist and U.S. senator Charles Sumner as he fought against segregation in the North.
“The separation of children in the Public Schools of Boston, on account of color or race,” he wrote, “is
in the nature of Caste, and on this account is a violation of Equality.” He quoted a native of India:
“Caste makes distinctions among creatures where God has made none.”

What are the origins and workings of the hierarchy that intrudes upon the daily life and life chances of
every American? That had intruded upon my own life with disturbing regularity and consequences? I
wanted to understand the origins and evolution of classifying and elevating one group of people over
another and the consequences of doing so to the presumed beneficiaries and to those targeted as
beneath them. Moving about the world as a living, breathing caste experiment myself, I wanted to
understand the hierarchies that I and many millions of others have had to navigate to pursue our work
and dreams.

An Atlanta trolley in 1956, before the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation on all public
buses. Credit: Horace Cort/Associated Press

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The R Word

Once awakened to the underlying power of caste, we can better see the tool of race for what it is.
What we face in our current day is not the classical racism of our ancestors’ era but a mutation of the
software that adjusts to the updated needs of the operating system. In the half century since civil
rights protests forced the United States to make state-sanctioned discrimination illegal, what
Americans consider to be racism has shifted, and now the word is one of the most contentious and
misunderstood in American culture. For many in the dominant caste, the word is radioactive —
resented, feared, denied, lobbed back toward anyone who dares to suggest it. Resistance to the word
often derails any discussion of the underlying behavior it is meant to describe, thus eroding it of
meaning.

Social scientists often define racism as the combination of racial bias and systemic power, seeing
racism, like sexism, as primarily the action of people or systems with personal or group power over
another person or group with less power, as men have power over women, white people over people
of color and the dominant over the subordinate.

But over time, racism has often been reduced to a feeling, a character flaw, conflated with prejudice,
connected to whether one is a good person or not. It has come to mean overt and declared hatred of a
person or group because of the race ascribed to them, a perspective few would ever own up to. While
people will admit to or call out sexism or xenophobia or homophobia, people may immediately deflect
accusations of racism, saying they don’t have “a racist bone in their body” or are the “least racist
person you could ever meet,” that they “don’t see color,” that their “best friend is Black,” and they
may have even convinced themselves on a conscious level of these things.

What does racism mean in an era when even extremists won’t admit to it? What is the litmus test for
racism? Who is racist in a society where someone can refuse to rent to people of color, arrest brown
immigrants en masse or display a Confederate flag but not be “certified” as a racist unless he or she
confesses to it or is caught using derogatory signage or slurs? The instinctive desire to reject the very
idea of current discrimination on the basis of a chemical compound in the skin is an unconscious
admission of the absurdity of race as a concept.

With no universally agreed-upon definition, we might see racism as a continuum rather than an
absolute. We might release ourselves of the purity test of whether someone is or is not racist and
exchange that mind-set for one that sees people as existing on a scale based on the toxins they have
absorbed from the polluted and inescapable air of social instruction we receive from childhood.

Caste, on the other hand, predates the notion of race and has survived the era of formal state-
sponsored racism long officially practiced in the mainstream. The modern-day version of easily
deniable racism may be able to cloak the invisible structure that created and maintains hierarchy and
inequality. But caste does not allow us to ignore structure. Caste is structure. Caste is ranking. Caste is
the boundaries that reinforce the fixed assignments based upon what people look like. Caste is a living,
breathing entity. It is like a corporation that seeks to sustain itself at all costs. To achieve a truly
egalitarian world requires looking deeper than what we think we see.

Caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit
of the doubt and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the
hierarchy. Caste pushes back against an African-American woman who, without humor or apology,

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takes a seat at the head of the table speaking Russian. It prefers an Asian-American man to put his
technological expertise at the service of the company but not aspire to chief executive. Yet it sees as
logical a white 16-year-old serving as store manager over employees from the subordinate caste three
times his age. Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred; it is not necessarily
personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a
social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.

What is the difference between racism and casteism? Because caste and race are interwoven in
America, it can be hard to separate the two. Any action or institution that mocks, harms, assumes or
attaches inferiority or stereotype on the basis of the social construct of race can be considered racism.
Any action or structure that seeks to limit, hold back or put someone in a defined ranking, seeks to
keep someone in their place by elevating or denigrating that person on the basis of their perceived
category, can be seen as casteism.

Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking,
advantage or privilege or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you. For those in the
marginalized castes, casteism can mean seeking to keep those on your disfavored rung from gaining on
you, to curry the favor and remain in the good graces of the dominant caste, all of which serve to keep
the structure intact.

In the United States, racism and casteism frequently occur at the same time, or overlap or figure into
the same scenario. Casteism is about positioning and restricting those positions, vis-à-vis others. What
race and its precursor, racism, do extraordinarily well is to confuse and distract from the underlying
structural and more powerful Sith lord of caste. Like the cast on a broken arm, like the cast in a play, a
caste system holds everyone in a fixed place.

For this reason, many people — including those we might see as good and kind people — could be
casteist, meaning invested in keeping the hierarchy as it is or content to do nothing to change it, but
not racist in the classical sense, not active and openly hateful of this or that group. Actual racists, actual
haters, would by definition be casteist, as their hatred demands that those they perceive as beneath
them know and keep their place in the hierarchy.

In everyday terms, it is not racism that prompts a white shopper in a clothing store to go up to a
random Black or brown person who is also shopping and to ask for a sweater in a different size, or for a
white guest at a party to ask a Black or brown person who is also a guest to fetch a drink, as happened
to Barack Obama as a state senator, or even perhaps a judge to sentence a subordinate-caste person
for an offense for which a dominant-caste person might not even be charged. It is caste or rather the
policing of and adherence to the caste system. It’s the autonomic, unconscious, reflexive response to
expectations from a thousand imaging inputs and neurological societal downloads that affix people to
certain roles based upon what they look like and what they historically have been assigned to or the
characteristics and stereotypes by which they have been categorized. No ethnic or racial category is
immune to the messaging we all receive about the hierarchy, and thus no one escapes its
consequences.

When we assume that a woman is not equipped to lead the meeting or the company or the country, or
that a person of color or an immigrant could not be the one in authority, is not a resident of a certain
community, could not have attended a particular school or deserved to have attended a particular
school, when we feel a pang of shock and resentment, a personal wounding and sense of unfairness

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and perhaps even shame at our discomfort upon seeing someone from a marginalized group in a job or
car or house or college or appointment more prestigious than we have been led to expect, we are
reflecting the efficient encoding of caste, the subconscious recognition that the person has stepped out
of his or her assumed place in our society. We are responding to our embedded instructions of who
should be where and who should be doing what, the breaching of the structure and boundaries that
are the hallmarks of caste.

Race and caste are not the cause of and do not account for every poor outcome or unpleasant
encounter. But caste becomes a factor, to whatever infinitesimal degree, in interactions and decisions
across gender, ethnicity, race, immigrant status, sexual orientation, age or religion that have
consequences in our everyday lives and in policies that affect our country and beyond. It may not be as
all-consuming as its targets may perceive it to be, but neither is it the ancient relic, the long-ago
anachronism, that post-racialists, post-haters of everything, keep wishing away. Its invisibility is what
gives it power and longevity. Caste, along with its faithful servant race, is an X-factor in most any
American equation, and any answer one might ever come up with to address our current challenges is
flawed without it.

Through the Fog of Delhi to the Parallels in India and America

My 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 2 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 …

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