Author Topic: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents  (Read 15705 times)

peter_speckhard

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #15 on: April 28, 2021, 03:34:20 PM »
Here is an example of how being trained to see everything in terms of race causes needless trauma.

From Wilkerson (p. 301 in my library edition) In 2017, a Vietnamese-American passenger was dragged off a United Airlines plane in Chicago, suffering injuries to his head and knocking out some of his teeth. The airline had discovered that it had overbooked the flight, and no passenger took the airline up on offers of compensation in exchange for giving up their seats. The airline chose four passengers, at random by computer, to be ejected.

The first three passengers left the plane without incident, but the Vietnamese-American man, a physician named David Dao, said he had an urgent need to get back to his patients. He said he had paid his fare and should not have to give us his seat. The airline called security to remove him, and he was dragged by his legs in front of stunned passengers. Captured on a video that quickly went viral, the incident drew outrage across the country and in Asia.

Dao said he was convinced that his ethnicity was a factor in his treatment, that this would not have happened to a white man of his or most any other stature. The ordeal, he said, was more horrifying than when he fled Vietnam.


Here Wilkerson (along with Dao) sees a racial incident where knowably, demonstrably there wasn't one. He was chosen by random number generator. He was dragged because he refused to walk. Now, I am 100% with him when it comes to this being an example of terrible abuse. United Airlines deserved every bit of bad press it got. You overbook a flight, you pay the penalty. Had they upped the offers of compensation, they would have eventually found some takers. And they should have to swallow the loss because they caused the problem. But, and here is the key, he was convinced race had something to do with it even when he knows that it didn't. His lens (and Wilkerson's) blinds him. What does he think would have happened to a white person who refused to move? What were the races of the other three passengers that nothing happened to? If we accept (which we shouldn't, but that is a separate issue) that the airline had to remove four people from the plane, how could they have done it less caste-consciously than by doing it at random? What should they have done with someone who refused to budge? Dao's objection is not that the airline acted according to caste but that it failed to do so. The tell is in the word "stature." He was a doctor. That makes him a member of a high caste in his own mind. They should have found someone less important to kick off the plane.

What should have been a long day and good story over drinks the next day about the idiocy of the airline industry became a traumatic reliving of fleeing Vietnam for no other reason than that he/we train ourselves to explain everything in terms of race. Such a telling is unjust even to do the dolts at United; they displayed a lot of bad things in that incident, but racism, conscious or unconscious, was manifestly not one of them. And a story that with all its faults should have been about American castelessness (many cultures would not have chosen at random, they would have chosen the least important people according to some social order) becomes about American caste rigidity.
« Last Edit: April 28, 2021, 04:09:31 PM by peter_speckhard »

Brian Stoffregen

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #16 on: April 28, 2021, 05:27:25 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.


I believe that language has a much longer history of defining "race". Consider the many decades that Lutherans were divided by race/language: Germans, Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, Danes, and Slavs. A definition of "race" is: "a group of people sharing the same culture, history, language, etc.; an ethnic group." While "black" and "white" might not be present in Africa, there are still many races (i.e., ethic groups) who have fought with each other even up to the present day.


Even back to the ancient Greeks, non-Greek speaking people were called "barbarians" (βάρβαρος). My Greek professor said it was because, when they spoke, it sounded like they were saying, "bar bar bar bar bar." From "speaking another language" and "being from another country," the word then came to mean, "uncivilized,"  and even "stupid" when it was used in the LXX. Judging people by their language and culture has been going on for a long, long time.


Interestingly, in NT times, when the Romans considered everyone except themselves and the Greeks as "barbarians," the Greeks still considered Romans to be "barbarians."
« Last Edit: April 28, 2021, 06:34:56 PM by Brian Stoffregen »
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peter_speckhard

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #17 on: April 28, 2021, 05:58:32 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.


I believe that language has a much longer history of defining "race". Consider the many decades that Lutherans were divided by race/language: Germans, Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, Danes, and Slavs. A definition of "race" is: "a group of people sharing the same culture, history, language, etc.; an ethnic group." While "black" and "white" might not be present in Africa, there are still many races (i.e., ethic groups) who have fought with each other even up to the present day.
Yes, most words have different usages. What this book talks about includes operational definitions.

peter_speckhard

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #18 on: April 29, 2021, 12:49:03 AM »
An episode that starts of page 218 of my library edition and goes through page 223 (5 pages of a 388 page book, so an appreciable percentage, and too much to transcribe here in its entirety) describes how one time two DEA agents, a man and a woman, caught up with the author when she was hustling through the Detroit airport to get to an interview. They wanted to ask her a bunch of questions. She was running late and told them she had to catch her shuttle. They said they would ride with her. And they did. That was it. They rode with her, got off, and told her to have a nice day.

Here is the part that sticks out:

The man and the woman stood there, holding up the bus, holding up the passengers, holding up me.

"What's this for?"

"We're DEA. We need to know where you live, how long you will be in Detroit, and exactly what you're doing here."


Now, at this point you would understand the situation. They're doing their job, they either picked you at random or because you matched some profile they were on the lookout for. So you'd say, "I live in Chicago, I'll just be in Detroit for the day, and I'm here to interview someone at such and such a conference." A similar thing happened to me in Israel. I was taken aside in the airport when everyone else just walked through. I found out it was because I was a younger male walking alone and a bit behind the group, which was cause for suspicion. It was annoying but totally understandable. But if your lens is that everything is always about race, you might have a reaction similar to Wilkerson's, which she describes as follows, picking up with the DEA's request for info:

This was too preposterous to comprehend. The Drug Enforcement Administration? Why in the world were they stopping me, out of all the travelers in the airport? This was a day trip, so I didn't have luggage, like a lot of business travelers between cities close to each other. I was in a suit like everyone else, Coach bag slung over my shoulder. Covering the Midwest as I was at the time, I used to tell people that I catch planes the way other people catch the subway. Airports were a second home to me. How could the not see that I was like every other business traveler boarding the shuttle?

How could they not see? The real question is how could she not see that they were probably looking for someone who might be expected to be trying to look like every other business traveler in the airport? Does she really think the DEA asking questions of an innocent person in the airport is "too preposterous to comprehend"? They did literally nothing to her but ask her some questions and ride with her on the shuttle. But because she views everything as about race, she is convinced she has suffered an indignity white people would never suffer. She describes herself as shaking. She "somehow" got to the rental car but remembers nothing of it, so traumatized was she by the idea that the DEA wanted to ask her some questions. She was so dazed she couldn't find her way onto the familiar freeway. She goes on: "Now, in the car, away from the agents, I was beginning to comprehend the seriousness of that encounter, only now able to admit my terror...The quiet mundanity of that terror has never left me, the scars outliving the cut."

So what is to be done about that? Abolish the DEA? Tell them only to bother people who aren't in a hurry? Refuse to let them stop black people? What do white people blame it on when they get pulled aside for questioning in an airport, as has happened to me? She wasn't traumatized by the DEA, she was traumatized by an outlook that says race/caste is the only or best explanation for what happened. If she could for just a moment comprehend what is not too preposterous to comprehend, that the DEA might reasonably do exactly what they did for reasons having nothing to do with race, and that it cost her nothing more than an annoying few moments of delay and some awkward embarrassment about holding up the shuttle bus, she wouldn't be devoting five pages of a book to the incident.

I don't think her terror wasn't real. I think it was a very real result of her outlook, not any misconduct on the part of the DEA.

I also know she isn't dumb. She knows the DEA has to ask people questions if they are to do their job, and that sometimes that means asking a black people questions. What seems to really irk her is that they didn't profile correctly. She was important. A pro who looked the part. Surely the DEA should be going after people who looked the part of lowlife drug dealers, not impressive conference speakers and NYT correspondents. I think she is being honest in thinking they weren't wrong to be questioning people, they were just wrong to be questioning her. And she can't think of any reason they would do so other than to put a black person back in her place.           
« Last Edit: April 29, 2021, 01:06:28 AM by peter_speckhard »

peter_speckhard

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #19 on: April 29, 2021, 10:47:49 AM »
Although the last two examples I've offered from the book illustrate my thesis that an all encompassing racial lens causes trauma (real trauma, I'm not trying to say either Dao or Wilkerson didn't really feel the way they felt) needlessly by causing people to see animus or injustice where none necessarily exists, or to see it far out of proportion where it might exist, there are several other examples in the book that illustrate how genuinely traumatizing things are far more common and more serious than people of the "dominant caste" think. The book is full of episodes from everyday life, often involving unnamed people. All in all, I think the book does an excellent job of making a case for the author's thesis. I don't find it fully persuasive regarding the diagnosis or the cure, but the history and the symptoms are well laid out.

Key concepts to the whole discussion involve words like marginalizing, othering, centering/decentering, and terms that apply the idea of location. How do social groups and individuals relate to one another. The author argues (and in this case I think very persuasively) that caste systems, often visible only to those who are aware of them, are a natural part of human existence. Wilkerson describes how when she interacts at conferences with Indians, even conferences about equality where Indians from the different castes could be expected to be making a deliberate effort not to go by their caste system, she can generally tell who is from what caste, not from their clothing or physical appearance "...but on the basis of the universal human response to hierarchy--in the case of an upper-caste person, an inescapable certitude in bearing, demeanor, behavior, a visible expectation of centrality."

For me that sentence rang completely true. And it explains so much of the friction in minor interactions between people. Where I agree with Wilkerson is that I have no doubt that I must come across that way very often in dealing with others. She would say that a "dominant caste" person, which in America in her view using intersectionality as a means of categorizing people, means straight, white, Christian male, could almost not avoid coming across that way to people of other categories. It wouldn't be an intended offense or even a measurable offense. It would just be irksome. It might be analogous to the way the popular kids in school irritate the others without even knowing what they're doing that is so irritating. If nothing else, I think the book was worth it to me just for giving me that phrase: "an inescapable certitude in bearing...a visible expectation of centrality," with which to view myself through the eyes of others and see why it is irksome.

I was once challenged by several black people on facebook to prove that I understood the concept of white privilege, and if I recall correctly I said in a more convoluted way exactly what this phrase captures. What do to about it is hard to know-- certainly we shouldn't everyone to be more uncertain, hesitant, timid, etc. If anything, we should call others to be more confident. This is where the complaints come in that when others act with that demeanor they are not received the same way. Women are called bossy, etc. where men would not be, is a common example.     
« Last Edit: April 29, 2021, 12:43:04 PM by peter_speckhard »

Donald_Kirchner

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #20 on: April 29, 2021, 11:13:34 AM »
...my thesis that an all encompassing racial lens causes trauma (real trauma, I'm not trying to say either Dao or Wilkerson didn't really feel the way they felt) needlessly by causing people to see animus or injustice where none necessarily exists, or far out of proportion...

Indeed, as in my example of the Native-American teen who had a meltdown upon seeing a flying confederate flag. Her trauma was real and, in some way, she was taught the racial lens by which to view such things.
Don Kirchner

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peter_speckhard

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #21 on: April 29, 2021, 12:51:58 PM »
Pr. John Nunes often argues that privilege is unavoidable in human society is not always a bad thing. As long as the one to whom it comes naturally to be at ease and confident uses that fact for the benefit of those who don't (whether their lack of it stems from lack of privilege or some other reason) then it becomes simply one more aspect of life for Christians to put to service of God and others. But in setting where everyone is trying to get ahead, such a bearing is more often put to climbing over the others who never had a chance to have that bearing ingrained in them.

The reason I think Nunes explains these things more effectively than Wilkerson is that Nunes uses vocation and charity, i.e. religious categories, as the basic matrix where Wilkerson can only use secular concepts, which in the world of sociology always and only means the exercise of power. Combine that with group identity and you end up inescapably with Marxist categories and group struggles, and always and inescapably with socialism/communism/forced redistribution as the only answer.
« Last Edit: April 29, 2021, 02:42:57 PM by peter_speckhard »

peter_speckhard

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #22 on: April 29, 2021, 01:42:14 PM »
My father was an occupation troop in Japan right after WWII ended. He used to tell is various stories about that, and the joke was always that he enlisted at 17 when he looked like he was about 12, and he always thought the Japanese must have been looking at him and thinking to themselves, "How could we have lost a war to those guys?" At any rate, the point is that whether by family lore or in textbooks, Americans learn history as it pertains to America, as is to be expected. We learn more about earth that about Mars because we live here, not there. In Indiana we teach our students a unit on the history of Indiana, but not any units on the particular history of Arkansas. We live here, not there. Indiana is "centered" in at least that aspect of our history classes just as, presumably, Arkansas is centered in grade schools in Arkansas. And America is centered in all of them, at least until you get to later in high school or college.

Suppose I moved my family to Japan, and my children learned the history of WWII in Japanese schools. Many topics would probably be taught differently in a telling that centered on the experience of Japan. So be it. I might disagree with what they emphasized or what facts they thought important enough to include or meaningless enough to exclude from the text. It would be the same war, but a different story.

If we had conquered Japan and annexed it such that it was today one of the states, a star on our flag, the telling of WWII would be a huge bone of contention, as it is regarding Mexico in many places in the Southwest. America's story would not just be multi-faceted, but the facets would be contradictory and mutually-exclusive. Everything would depend on whose telling was "centered."

Wilkerson argues that upper caste people like me assume that our telling is central. If you center the experience of what we now refer to as white people, slavery is a sad, shameful aspect of the story of America. It is important, but not central. But if you center the experience of African-Americans, the story of America is simply about slavery and subsequent oppression. Slavery is not a facet of the story, it is what the story is about. The 1619 Project seeks to center the experience of slaves, but goes further than that in claiming that this story, the one in which the center of the story and the purpose and essence of the American experience is racial oppression, is the "real" story of America.

Here is the rub. Japan has a story. Germany has a story. Russia has a story. America has two (or more) contradictory stories. Multi-culturalism demands that no story be centered. But a story with no center is a story with no shape. Anything with a shape or an outline has central things and peripheral things. By dissolving artificial race/color identity groups, we can have one story that features slaves and slave-owners, rebels and liberators, and incorporate multiple points of view without contradiction. But if we codify race/color identities, such that people with dark skin today must identify with slaves and people with light skin must identify with slave-owners because the artificial caste-by-color-system must be preserved, we'll always have two clashing stories and eventually become two separate nations altogether.

On page 43 of my library edition, Wilkerson writes, "Slavery is commonly dismissed as a 'sad, dark chapter' in the country's history." She then goes on, "...but the country cannot become until it confronts what was not a chapter in its history, but the basis of its economic and social order. For a quarter of a millenium, slavery was the country." [emphasis in original]

Simply put, no it wasn't. Slavery was the country only if you center that experience. Slavery was there but only a facet of the story, and a fairly incidental facet at that, if you center the Puritans or, say, the Saxon migrants who came here for religious freedom prior to the Civil War. Notably, Wilkerson says the country becomes "whole" by decentering the white experience and then centering the experience of people oppressed by whites. THat doesn't work. The country becomes whole through an honest telling of history from all sides in a way that does not perpetuate false group identities.

Toward the beginning of Caste (p.19) Wilkerson writes, "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 uniforms that each caste wears, signalling our presumed worth and potential." I think that an apt metaphor in many ways. For me, the obvious thing to do is to stop wearing the uniforms, or (since we can't change our skin color) stop acknowledging them or categorizing individuals by them. For Wilkerson, the answer seem to be make the losing team the winning team by decentering the team that has hitherto been centered. In other words, the problem isn't the assigning of teams by uniform but with which team wins.
« Last Edit: May 04, 2021, 05:51:58 PM by peter_speckhard »

Mark Brown

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #23 on: April 29, 2021, 04:08:15 PM »
...In other words, the problem isn't the assigning of teams by uniform but with which team wins.

This is exactly the problem with the anti-racist/marxist pseudo-religion.  It assumes a zero sum world, and then it attempts through revolution to change perceived winners.  What it does is deny the Common Providence of God.  The world is not zero sum, not even this broken one.  And even if we suffer for doing good, what we do is make God our debtor.  And God repays his debts fully and abundantly.

James S. Rustad

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #24 on: April 29, 2021, 07:22:47 PM »
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.

That is the biggest piece of "whimsy" I've ever heard.

Charles Austin

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #25 on: April 29, 2021, 08:21:07 PM »
You don’t think it was white, male, land-owning, protestant folks who founded this country and made sure that they kept control of everything?
Retired ELCA Pastor. Parishes in Iowa, New York and New Jersey. LCA/LWF staff. Former journalist  Writer for many church publications.

Dan Fienen

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #26 on: April 29, 2021, 08:53:41 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.
Once again Charles you forget that life is messy and human motivation is rarely all and only one thing or another. Peter did not say that the "purpose and essence of the American founding" had nothing to do with dominance, just that that was not the only purpose.
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peter_speckhard

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #27 on: April 29, 2021, 09:12:10 PM »
You don’t think it was white, male, land-owning, protestant folks who founded this country and made sure that they kept control of everything?
When people found something, they do what it takes to ensure that they retain control of it. That is true of a newspaper, a car company, a club, a non-profit, a Republic, or anything else. Those companies, clubs, non-profits, etc. do not therefore exist for the purpose of excluding others from control, nor is exclusion the essence of what they’re about. What they’re about is making products, addressing various issues, helping people, or whatever. In order to do that, they maintain control, for good or for ill. But that is a facet of their enterprise, not the essence of their enterprise.

It is telling that you can’t tell the difference between saying that they made sure they kept control of their enterprise vs. saying that the whole purpose of their enterprise was preventing other people from being included in their enterprise.   
« Last Edit: April 29, 2021, 09:38:03 PM by peter_speckhard »

Charles Austin

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #28 on: April 29, 2021, 10:41:44 PM »
That, Peter, is a distinction without a difference.
Maintaining control “for good or ill,” you say. The end - control - justifies the means, even if the “ill” is there.
Why can we not admit the errors and ills of our founders? We glory in what we say we are every July 4 and Memorial Day. Why can we not be fully honest and admit that we can - if we have the integrity - try to fix our founders’ errors. We have fixed some. The legacy of some others still clouds our land.
Retired ELCA Pastor. Parishes in Iowa, New York and New Jersey. LCA/LWF staff. Former journalist  Writer for many church publications.

peter_speckhard

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Re: Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents
« Reply #29 on: April 29, 2021, 10:53:00 PM »
That, Peter, is a distinction without a difference.
Maintaining control “for good or ill,” you say. The end - control - justifies the means, even if the “ill” is there.
Why can we not admit the errors and ills of our founders? We glory in what we say we are every July 4 and Memorial Day. Why can we not be fully honest and admit that we can - if we have the integrity - try to fix our founders’ errors. We have fixed some. The legacy of some others still clouds our land.
We can and should admit their errors. We should not claim that their errors were the purpose, focus, and essence of what they founded. Again, you fail to recognize anything in between “the founders were flawless” and “the founders were only about white supremacy.”