american caste system

Anthropological Significance of the American Caste System

The United States is one of the most highly developed nations on the globe. We have political and social freedoms many other nations and states are not privy to. The American economy is also though to be one of the world’s most evolved. So, what is missing? What do we lack? When social body and economic methodology should function well independently, what throws America’s combined socio-economic structure so off kilter? An  answer that stands out among the rest is the impact of the American caste system, what most people would refer to as class structure in our ‘developed’ nation. But what is the American caste system, how do we define it, and where did it come from?

Defining the Caste System: A Stratified Society

Usually, we hear the word ‘caste’ associated with birthright. An old ideal that allows high borne folk the ability to rise higher still while retaining their families riches, for artisans to remain artisans and rulers to stand fast over their lands; genetically inherent status. This type of caste system, a clear hierarchal organization of social position, has formally been done away with almost everywhere. In India, a country recognized as having one of the oldest caste systems, functioned under a pyramid of strict social stratification for thousands of years.

Caste graphic

Image source: BBC

Divided based on karma and dharma, here meaning “work” and “duty,” India’s castes split Hindu folk into clear categories. At the top of the pyramid stood the Brahmins, teachers and priests. Underneath them were Kshatriyas, India’s warriors. Shudras, falling third, were laborers. And beneath the Shudras, pushed outside of Hindu culture entirely, were the Dalits or “untouchables.” The station you were born into was where you would stay and there was little opportunity for betterment. This firm delegation of place and role was adhered to for centuries. Though caste-based discrimination has lessened, those considered Dalits are still subject to undue prejudice.

Similar systems of social division exist in many other nations. In North Korea, there is the songbun or “sociopolitical classification…based largely on their family’s history of perceived loyalty to the government.” Remnants of a feudal system in Japan still press down on people classed as ‘Buraki’ or ‘Buraku.’ And in Nigeria, a harsh caste system continues to marginalize and malign Osu populations.

The Shape of The American Caste System

Ivy by any other name remains ivy. And dressed in barbs she carries a sharp and poisonous sting. Though we have no clear names or binomial designations for the castes in the nation’s social structure, their presence is keenly felt and seen throughout American history and within socio-economic structures today.

The Jim Crow North. The American Caste System
Image source : Upfront Magazine

A truth since the founding of the nation’s first colonies; outward appearance wields a harsh and heavy hand over an individual’s socio-economic and political dividends as well as those of their descendants. By this token the caste system is a color-based institution rooted in classifying the “superior,” and the “inferior.”

 Scaffolding Trauma

Systemic, oppressive, culturally and socially stifling. America’s caste structure is decades old and, given a nametag, hers might simply read ‘racism.’ But, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson agrees that social structure in the states goes far beyond bare bigotry and white supremacy. The race-centered caste structure in the “greatest country in the World,” means the potential for lifelong displacement. It means more than immediate oppression, but oppression spanning decades. And, beyond that, being a person of color in America can mean entrapment in a cyclical structure that leaves few on the uptick and many on a long road down, and down, and down.

The path to our current social structure began with the entrapment of human beings and endures through continued socialization and lack of intervention.

 (Paul Tong / Op-Art) American Caste System
Image credit: Seattle Times

Starting as early as 1619, white supremacists began kidnapping African men and women from their homes and bringing them to the New World. Enslaved, taken from all that they’d known, and forced into brutal labor, free people became anything but. Years of dehumanization and abuse of Black men and women at the hands of white people went unchecked, even encouraged. By 1860 the slave trade plundered more than 4 million lives. It wasn’t until January 1, 1863 that slavery was outlawed, declared by Lincoln as the day that any enslaved man would be “thenceforth, and forever free.” But freedom is a variable term.

Continued History

The 13th Amendment, ratified on December 18, 1865, constitutionally abolished slavery. On paper, slavery was no longer legal, but the adoption of a new law did little to dismantle an already developed social scaffolding. For decades more, Black Americans were subject to an immense amount of overt discrimination. In the workplace, as parties in the housing market, in the media, as rightful voters and contributors to American democracy.

Then came the 14th and 15th Amendments, granting Black Americans “equality” under law and the right to vote. But even with these distinctions–which should have been inherent–many citizens were subject to Black Codes that would restrict their financial capabilities and force many of them into undesirable arrangements like sharecropping, as well as falling prey to social pressures and the whims of their local governments.

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Teaching Hard History | Southern Poverty Law Center (American Caste System)
Image credit: SPLC

Federally, “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” should have no bearing on a person’s ability to exert their right to democratic involvement. But locally, extra polling taxes, reading tests and threats of violence forced Black Americans away from the polls, away from opportunities for gainful employment, away from true social freedom. This lack of outwardly enforced economic and social capability restricted mobility for a lot of people. Hundreds of Black citizens who surely wanted nothing more than to get out of the South, were forced to remain in the South, locked into underprivileged spaces.

The late 1870s saw a resurgence of white supremacy, especially in the American South, along with the looming presence of organizations like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and other fascist groups. By the 1960s, white supremacy and overt bigotry were still a scourge. That decade saw the civil rights movement, and “the greatest political and social gains for Black Americans.”

An Enduring Blueprint

Though many like to think, and even tend to believe, that this pattern of racist, hierarchal categorization has been abolished–that simply isn’t the case. Article I of the Constitution classed each Black citizen as “3/4ths of a person.” Those words, and the events and actions of white citizens that buttress them, left something behind, an etymological designation whose connotations have imprinted centuries old scarring on entire populations, an entire society.

America's Enduring Caste System - The New York Times
Image credit: NYT

The American caste system of today is a direct biproduct of the nation’s social and ancestral past. What acted as a plain and raw barrier between those at the bottom of the social strata–Black men and women–

According to U.S. Poverty Statistics data, gathered by Federal Safety Net, Black Americans have the highest poverty rate, at 18.8%, while non-Hispanic White Americans have the lowest, at just 7.3% (data garnered, November, 2020). Having exponentially less wealth than whites, people of color in this country are too often forced into the role of economic ‘untouchable’.  Yes, opportunity for advancement exists and people do take advantage of it, but lower wealth means fewer chances for upward mobility, lower overall income levels, and inability to pass wealth down to future generations.

A splinter determined to keep its bearings, wealth disparity is one of the most damaging aspects of the American caste system. The Center for American Progress puts it plainly; “Even when African Americans pursue higher education, purchase a home, or secure a good job, they still lag behind their white counterparts in terms of wealth…the disparities between white and black Americans can nearly always be traced back to policies that either implicitly or explicitly discriminate against black Americans.”

Know your history: Understanding racism in the US | Black Lives Matter | Al Jazeera
Image credit: Al Jazeera

Further, Black, Latinx, and Hispanic Americans are statistically more likely than White folks to pass away from preventable diseases due to lack of access to medical care. Non-white populations are still more likely to become trapped in under-served, segregated communities (with fewer hospitals and more instances of chronic illness). They are more often overlooked for professional opportunities, tend to be socially maligned by American media, and are proven to be payed less than their White American counterparts. Black women, especially single Black mothers, are victim to all of the above more than any other minority group in the United States.

Black men and boys in particular are also 50% more likely to become victims of police brutality and three times as likely to serve time in the American state or federal prison systems–a significant portion of this number attributed to a higher rate of arrest for the same crimes committed by white men which then go unpunished.

Significance in Anthropology

The loss endured by Black American’s in the early days of the New World are incalculable. Men, women, children, enslaved by privileged folk who thought himself superior. The ramifications of such a crime are as numbered as the lives that were taken, but the scar tissue left behind molded itself into the bipedal shape of the Unites States’ present social strata. This American Caste System is a long standing institution that feeds on, and into, systematic inequality.

As recently as 2016, the average household wealth for a Black family in America was less than 10% of that of the average white family. Its also important to note that unemployment of Black Americans has consistently been almost twice that of white Americans while that 2:1 ratio is echoed by a disproportionate amount of high-interest accruing debt. As reported by the Economic Policy Institute, the black-white disparities we see in employment and wages have less to do with practical, measurable things like education level and past work experience, and more to do with lack of follow through on anti-discrimination laws and blatant workplace discrimination.

To put it plainly, the United States’ socio-economic structures have been scaffolded in such a way as to keep people barred into the ephemeral station to which they are borne. That is the American caste system. For those in the ‘upper crust,’ the white folks dwelling at the top of a bi-polar scheme, this structure has been a social and financial benefit. For the Black Americans relegated to the bottom of the pole, the space of the ‘untouchables,’ the system acts as a multi-level condemnation.

Racism in America (American Caste System)
Image source: PBS 

Anthropologically speaking, this intense stratification has the power to stunt social amalgamation, prevent cultural sharing, and poses an incredible risk to the development of what, hundreds of years into this country’s maturation, have historically been under-served communities. Because of white-favoring socio-economic structures and a lack of representation in our political systems, minority groups are put in a position where their cultural practices are less of a priority. Where survival must, customs and traditions can be lost. The social justice implications of keeping whole communities marginalized garner heavy costs too.

The current incarnation of the American caste system is what makes crimes of hate–seen and unseen–possible, and lets many of them go unpunished. Yet another cog in a cyclical machine that keeps those on top, on top, and those down bellow rooted firmly in a privilege lacking space. It is a machine that pushes certain perspectives, enforces certain ideas, and, by extension, exerts heavy influence over so many aspects of American culture as a whole.

The Path Ahead

Just as the Hindu based castes of India have dictated peoples professions, personal connections, and involvement in their wider communities, so too does the American caste system exert its pressure on marginalized folk in the United States. Were it not for the American caste system and the ideals, or lack there of, of those that started its building, one has to wonder what shape the cultural framework of the New World would have taken. By that same token we’re led to ask what the nation would look like today if the white men who conquered these lands had chosen a different path–one more kind and engendered by that allusive concept; inclusivity.

Looking to the future, America’s socio-economic structure (and the cultures it bolsters) depends wholly on how far we, as a nation-body, choose to delineate from the path stretched out behind us. The footprints before, the tread our feet leave now, is marred and snarled with ill choices and bodies pressed down by the hierarchal beast above them. What lies ahead; a blueprint we have the power to lend new life, new perspective, and new structure.

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