Author Topic: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents  (Read 15275 times)

peter_speckhard

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Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« on: April 27, 2021, 10:16:32 PM »
On another thread several people recommended the book Caste by Isabel Wilkerson as a way to understand much of political and social debate raging about race in our country. I just finished it this evening and do indeed recommend it, though with some caveats. It is very readable and engaging. This thread will be devoted to discussion of it.

I agree whole-heartedly with some of its central theses, such as that race is a fiction and that forcing people into identity groups dehumanizes them. I also disagree whole-heartedly with some of them, such as that slavery and caste are not a flaw of the American founding and experience but the essence, purpose, and defining characteristic of it, and that antiracism is the answer.

A few small to medium sized quibbles. The author falls prey to a fault common among scholars, of thinking they have found a lens of all-encompassing explanatory power. According to this book, everything is about caste, which diminishes the solid argument that some things really are. As many great minds have noted, the key to everything has been discovered way too often, and Wilkerson thinks she's finally found it with the concept of caste systems, which causes her to way overplay her hand despite having a good hand to play. She also comes across as an unbearable snob at times. Her preferred world is not one without Brahmins, it is one in which academics are the Brahmins to be looked up to by everyone else. 

In diagnosing the 2016 election and 21st Century political trends, she basically accepts the left-wing take on events as the simple truth of the matter without even bothering to consider other takes or explanations, which is unfortunate. She also insists on injecting all kinds of unrelated political issues into the narrative, such as Obamacare, global warming, and the whole salad of progressive political causes, which needlessly gives the book an extremely partisan flavor that detracts from her thesis. A one sentence description of the purpose of this book would be to argue that America was founded for the purpose of advancing white supremacy and the modern Republican party exists to preserve it that way. But if you can wade through that lamentable flaw in the book, it is an extremely interesting take on the pervasiveness of caste and how it functions in various contexts.
« Last Edit: April 28, 2021, 08:55:02 AM by peter_speckhard »

Jeremy Loesch

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #1 on: April 28, 2021, 08:54:07 AM »
Thanks for starting this thread Peter.  I have the book on hold at our public library.  I'm looking forward to reading it for what it can offer.  And thanks for your initial review. 

Jeremy
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Charles Austin

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #2 on: April 28, 2021, 09:00:39 AM »
Peter writes:
In diagnosing the 2016 election and 21st Century political trends, she basically accepts the left-wing take on events as the simple truth of the matter without even bothering to consider other takes or explanations, which is unfortunate.

I comment:
In her television interviews, it seemed clear that she did not fail to consider “other takes or other explanations “, but that she rejected them as not valid. And it could be, Peter, that at times what you consider “left-wing“ is indeed the “simple truth of the matter.“ in a discussion group sponsored by our church, a dozen people read this book and talked about it for two hours. Everyone seemed to be in tune with what she was saying, including a couple of people who surprised me by expressing themselves that way.
« Last Edit: April 28, 2021, 09:03:36 AM by Charles Austin »
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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #3 on: April 28, 2021, 09:06:56 AM »
Peter writes:
A one sentence description of the purpose of this book would be to argue that America was founded for the purpose of advancing white supremacy and the modern Republican party exists to preserve it that way.

I comment:
Rephrase that to say “white male supremacy“ and you pretty much got it right, both for the book and for the truth of history. Except maybe that in the days of our founding you would have to add the word, “Protestant  “ to the list. White, male, Protestant  supremacy.
Retired ELCA Pastor. Parishes in Iowa, New York and New Jersey. LCA/LWF staff. Former journalist. When the nation is troubled, the patriot depends on the Constitution. The opportunistic traitor tries to dump or ignore the Constitution.

peter_speckhard

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #4 on: April 28, 2021, 10:21:45 AM »
For the purposes of this forum it might be easier to say that her take on modern politics is more or less the same as Charles' take on modern politics, or at least very consonant with it, and she takes it as read that the reader shares that view. If you find yourself tending to agree with Charles on social issues and politics, you'll find nothing objectionable (or new or noteworthy for that matter) in the parts of the book that address such things. If you tend not to see things the way Charles sees them, you'll find those parts of the book (one of which is right near the beginning) somewhat tiresome and wrongheaded. But I would encourage you not to throw out the baby of the book with the bathwater of the author's boilerplate progressivism.

D. Engebretson

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #5 on: April 28, 2021, 10:41:15 AM »
I recently ordered the book after Pr. Weedon's recommendation, and have worked through the first 70 pages thus far.  Admittedly it has been a jolt to consider how African-Americans were treated from the 17th century and for many years after.  I was not unfamiliar with the general history, but to re-examine it in light of how African-Americans were treated as sub-human was disturbing, to say the least.  Although an argument can be made that much of what was started centuries prior influences our behavior today, I would like to think that even with our less-than-perfect society we have come much further than that era. 

I found it particularly interesting how the idea of "black" was foreign to those from Africa. I also found it interesting that the idea of "race" is a relatively recent concept, historically speaking.  Discovering the origin of the word "Caucasian" was revealing.  Our categories in this country are rather unique, and after a lifetime of using such words you do not even consider how they came about, or how they are seen by others. 

I noticed of late that even the word "black" has been joined with "brown," with the growing recognition that color doesn't do a very good job of classifying, especially within the African-American community that exists along a diverse color spectrum.  This becomes additioinally complicated when we get into those of Asian descent, who historically were categorized as "yellow" and Native Americans who were categorized as "red."  We know there have been issues with each of these groups and that within these groups are layers of distinction (e.g. Hmong Americans are different from those who came from China or Japan, and they have a different historical background in this country). 

I have a lot of the book yet to cover, but I'm beginning to see that words like "black" and "race" have a complicated usage.  The idea of "caste" is Wilkerson's way of looking at it from a different perspective, and it is interesting.  I suspect, however, that trying to describe things with one word will always present problems, but I'll keep reading and listening to see how she continues to unpack the concept. 
« Last Edit: April 28, 2021, 10:42:46 AM by D. Engebretson »
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Dave Benke

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #6 on: April 28, 2021, 10:46:25 AM »
I recently ordered the book after Pr. Weedon's recommendation, and have worked through the first 70 pages thus far.  Admittedly it has been a jolt to consider how African-Americans were treated from the 17th century and for many years after.  I was not unfamiliar with the general history, but to re-examine it in light of how African-Americans were treated as sub-human was disturbing, to say the least.  Although an argument can be made that much of what was started centuries prior influences our behavior today, I would like to think that even with our less-than-perfect society we have come much further than that era. 

I found it particularly interesting how the idea of "black" was foreign to those from Africa. I also found it interesting that the idea of "race" is a relatively recent concept, historically speaking.  Discovering the origin of the word "Caucasian" was revealing.  Our categories in this country are rather unique, and after a lifetime of using such words you do not even consider how they came about, or how they are seen by others. 

I noticed of late that even the word "black" has been joined with "brown," with the growing recognition that color doesn't do a very good job of classifying, especially within the African-American community that exists along a diverse color spectrum.  This becomes additioinally complicated when we get into those of Asian descent, who historically were categorized as "yellow" and Native Americans who were categorized as "red."  We know there have been issues with each of these groups and that within these groups are layers of distinction (e.g. Hmong Americans are different from those who came from China or Japan, and they have a different historical background in this country). 

I have a lot of the book yet to cover, but I'm beginning to see that words like "black" and "race" have a complicated usage.  The idea of "caste" is Wilkerson's way of looking at it from a different perspective, and it is interesting.  I suspect, however, that trying to describe things with one word will always present problems, but I'll keep reading and listening to see how she continues to unpack the concept.

If you'd like a mega-dose of jolt, then watch to full completion the HBO series, "Exterminate All the Brutes" by Raul Peck.  The history of colonialism is exposed at every level, painfully. 

Dave Benke
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peter_speckhard

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #7 on: April 28, 2021, 11:23:09 AM »
I wasn't shocked by the history, but only because I already knew of the recent origins of color/race as a classification and have for a long time made the same point as the author describes a teacher making to her class, that categorizing people by skin color is as arbitrary as classifying them by height or eye color. The whole idea of identifying with or having a sense of solidarity with people whose skin is the same color as yours (or assuming that other people should do that) is bogus from the word go. It was bogus five hundred years ago and hasn't become credible since. I made that point in an FL article several months back, that Christianity calls for us to express solidarity with different people in different ways (fellow believers, family members, neighbors, one's particular secular government) but never calls anyone to have solidarity with one's own race/color. It simply isn't a Christian category of thought, and it is highly destructive to think according to it, as Wilkerson's book details extensively.

The problem with the antiracist solution is that it fails to dissolve those bogus categories but accepts the codification of them and reinforces and solidifies them. If the antiracist program prevails, then people 50 years from now will be no more free from the dehumanizing burden of being classified according their skin color than they are today. Wilkerson sees clearly that skin color should be as irrelevant as eye color, but as far as I can tell none of her ideas work toward that end. We don't get any closer to a state of affairs in which skin color is as irrelevant as eye color by following the antiracist program. Instead, we simply get a more equitable distribution of the dehumanizing effects of being considered not as an individual but as a member of a community defined by skin color.

One of the limitations of Wilkerson's approach to illustrating the thread of her thesis is that she relies heavily on various anecdotes with the presupposition that she knows when someone is saying something typical. All contrary evidence is simply ignored or dismissed as the sort of thing people who don't get it might say. Using a similar approach, one could cherry-pick statements, articles, and statistics to prove the story of America was about practically anything, from sports to education to evangelism to innovation to exploration to libertine morality. You can always find someone who says something that fits into your point no matter what point you are making. Wilkerson does this in support of her thesis that racism isn't a flaw of the American founding, it is the purpose and essence of the American founding. 
« Last Edit: April 28, 2021, 01:48:56 PM by peter_speckhard »

Dan Fienen

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #8 on: April 28, 2021, 11:54:34 AM »
In America today, the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is being repudiated and his dream is being scorned. What was his dream?
Quote
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

The greater tragedy is that his dream is being repudiated not just by those who would continue the oppression of African-Americans but by those who claim to champion their cause. The very idea that sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners would sit together at the table of brotherhood has become anathema. Racial divides are to be deepened and hardened not overcome and whites, whether the decedents of one time slave owners or not, are to be judged not by the content of their character but by the color of their skin.
« Last Edit: April 28, 2021, 12:04:59 PM by Dan Fienen »
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Donald_Kirchner

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #9 on: April 28, 2021, 01:10:04 PM »
Dave,

and it seems that the more painful it is for one is a manifestation of how "woke" one is.

A couple of months ago, I watched a webinar on diversity for my continuing legal education requirement. The presenter was a  Native-American former tribal court judge.

During the presentation, she told us about her 16-year-old daughter, who she said is very "astute" and "brilliant." She told about the two of them driving to Grandma's and her daughter suddenly letting out a blood-curdling scream. Mom thought they'd hit someone! She pulled over and asked her daughter what was wrong. The reply was "That house back there was flying a Confederate flag!!" Mom: "We talked about it for a while, I got her settled down, and we continued on to Grandma's. Good grief!   :o

In 6th grade, we visited the Minnesota State Capitol building, and I remember admiring the large, 10-foot statue of Christopher Columbus on the grounds.

"During the weeks following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, protests spread to Saint Paul, then to the rest of the nation. The removal of monuments became a theme of the movement early on and by June 10, protesters in Richmond, Virginia had tore down their Columbus statue, set it on fire, and tossed it in a lake while protesters in Boston had severed the head of theirs.

Members of the American Indian Movement, led by Mike Forcia of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians, announced via social media their intentions to topple the statue on June 10. Governor Tim Walz addressed the plans during a news conference and Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington announced that the Minnesota State Patrol would meet with the protesters and seek an alternative resolution.

State Patrol troopers and a Department of Public Safety tribal liaison met with organizers prior to the event,[7] encouraging them to follow a legal process for removal and warning them that they could face charges for destruction of public property. Forcia countered that they had already waited far too long, having worked through official channels for years without success.

Members of the American Indian Movement of Twin Cities joined residents, including Dakota and Ojibwe community members at the northeastern corner of the Capitol Mall. They looped a rope around the statue and pulled it off its granite pedestal. The group drummed, sang songs, and took photos with the fallen statue. No one was arrested at the event. State Patrol troopers watched from a distance and did not intervene. Troopers eventually formed a line to protect the statue before it was transported offsite.

Michael Forcia, a Ramsey County resident, was charged with first-degree damage to property, which could have resulted in a penalty of up to five years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000. In December, he agreed to a plea deal and accepted 100 hours in community service in connection with the incident. Officials estimated the cost to repair the statue would be over $154,000.

Governor Walz said he did not condone the action, calling it a dangerous act for which there would be consequences.[12] Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, previously co-authored a bill to remove the statue when she served in the Minnesota legislature. Flanagan indicated she was not sad that the statue was gone, saying "I will not shed a tear over the loss of a statue that honored someone who by his own admission sold nine- and 10-year-old girls into sex slavery." Republican politicians Paul Gazelka, Jim Nash, and Steve Drazkowski condemned the failure to protect the statue, with Drazkowski calling the act a "lynching-like desecration."

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Christopher_Columbus_Statue_Torn_Down_at_Minnesota_State_Capitol_on_June_10,_2020.jpg

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statue_of_Christopher_Columbus_(Saint_Paul,_Minnesota)

Anyway, this former judge addressed the issue, explaining that she was involved in the whole negotiation and toppling of the statue. She explained that they couldn't find any law to assist them with their actions and confirmed their view that they'd "waited far too long, having worked through official channels..." So, they simply toppled the statue as the State stood by. Other attendees at the webinar posted positive responses, with comments like "You did what had to be done." My thought was "You, a former judge, felt it necessary to ignore the rule of law and engage in the physical destruction of historical State property, property that belongs to all of the citizens of Minnesota?!" I questioned whether the one CLE credit I gained for watching this B---s--- from the "woke" crowd was worth it. And having to again apologize for being a white, "Protestant" male with a job. ::)
« Last Edit: April 28, 2021, 01:27:29 PM by Pr. Don Kirchner »
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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #10 on: April 28, 2021, 01:45:19 PM »
Peter writes:
Wilkerson does this in support of her thesis that racism isn't a flaw of the American founding, it is the purpose and essence of the American founding.

I comment:
And do you contend that the “purpose and essence of the American founding“ had nothing to do with protecting the dominance of white, male, property owning, Protestant citizens of the new country? The founders accepted, readily accepted (most of them of them) the continuing existence of slavery so that the dominance of these other things - white, male, protestant, property-owning -  could be secured.
Retired ELCA Pastor. Parishes in Iowa, New York and New Jersey. LCA/LWF staff. Former journalist. When the nation is troubled, the patriot depends on the Constitution. The opportunistic traitor tries to dump or ignore the Constitution.

peter_speckhard

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #11 on: April 28, 2021, 02:04:12 PM »
Peter writes:
Wilkerson does this in support of her thesis that racism isn't a flaw of the American founding, it is the purpose and essence of the American founding.

I comment:
And do you contend that the “purpose and essence of the American founding“ had nothing to do with protecting the dominance of white, male, property owning, Protestant citizens of the new country? The founders accepted, readily accepted (most of them of them) the continuing existence of slavery so that the dominance of these other things - white, male, protestant, property-owning -  could be secured.
Henry Ford accepted segregation and held racist views. That is an aspect of his story worth knowing about him. But it would be ludicrous to say he founded Ford Motor Company for the purpose of upholding white supremacy or that white supremacy was the essence of the company. Racism was an ugly part of it, but was not the purpose or essence.

I think if the African slave trade had proven fruitless or never gotten off the ground for some reason, such that there were no Africans in the New World, that the Founding Fathers would have fought for independence from the British crown for the same reasons they did. Racism is an ugly and tragic aspect of America's history. It is not the essence of America or the purpose of its founding. You seem to acknowledge nothing in between "racism had nothing to do with it" and "racism was the whole point." Which is why you rarely manage to understand what I'm saying but often manage to think you do.   

peter_speckhard

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #12 on: April 28, 2021, 02:58:39 PM »
Here is a quote from the first chapter (p.18 of my hardcover library edition).

"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 we encode as children, as when learning our mother tongue..." Then in the next paragraph, "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."

On the following page: "Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race is 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."

I agree with these statements. I think it therefore right and proper to STOP training people to see humans in the language of race, and stop using color as shorthand for who a person is. The divisions will dissolve (painfully slowly) like an ice cube melting, if we do that. The problem though, is that the antiracists insist on speaking of everything in the language of race and using group identity politics as a shorthand for who any individual is. If we do that, we will find ourselves in an endless, Marxist power-struggle between fundamentally artificial identity groups.

 
« Last Edit: April 28, 2021, 04:20:30 PM by peter_speckhard »

D. Engebretson

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #13 on: April 28, 2021, 03:12:55 PM »
Wilkerson also offers this definition distinction between casteism and racism:
"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."
Page 70
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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #14 on: April 28, 2021, 03:21:17 PM »
Because we have long used, as Wilkerson puts it, the "social construct of race" as a means of identifying a group of people, and because our way of defining "race" has been a matter of simple color (black and brown), we have all seemingly locked ourselves into an artificial sense of division. As she points out, such a division as "black" and "white" is unknown in Africa and was not used historically in other parts of the world prior to its use in our country. 

But how we break free from that is complicated, even for those who wish for what they see as a less "racist" country.  Even the slogan "Black Lives Matter" falls into this trap, and with the perceived recent backlash against Asian-Americans, especially in connection with the pandemic (because of its origin in China), you again have a conundrum.  The idea of "all lives matter" as a counter has been accused as being insensitive to those perceived as "black," and yet how do we then identify that other lives matter which may be suffering the same problems as those identified as "black"?  Race and color as identifying markers are complicated.
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