I have just read a new book by Isabel Wilkerson entitled simply “Caste” I believe that it is one of the most important books that I have read in a long time. The author is an Afro-American reporter who has studied the caste system in India, among the Nazis in Germany during the ‘30’s of the last century, and in the United States with the Afro-Americans. Although I will be referring to some of her basic ideas, I would like to say from the beginning that my greatest criticism of her work is that she does not go far enough in her analysis. With reference to the US, she begins with the arrival of the first Africans to the English colonies in 1619, in Germany she starts with the election victory of Hitler in 1932. As I see it, the caste system has its roots in the first civilizations of the Middle East, and has grown and spread out through the great empires of Egypt, Greece, Rome and Spain to the present day. It seems to be something so rooted in human nature that it takes a lot of work to pull it out of the lives of individuals and even more out of the culture in which we live.

According to the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy, the word “cast” is derived from the old Gothic word “kastan”. So clearly the Goths knew what it was because it existed in their society. Their casts were based on arms: the ones at the top were those who showed themselves better in the use of lances and swords. The Romans created divisions based on the antiquity of one’s family and on the possession of Roman citizenship, among other things. The Greeks, Egyptians and Persians built their cultures on the shoulders of slaves, the losers in war. Of course, rank in India is based on the kind of work one performs, such as soldier, carpenter or bathroom cleaner. It is important to note that the different casts were not distinguished according to the color of their skin (race), but some other characteristic that varied from one civilization to another. What they had in common was that there were always people at the top and bottom; some had the advantages of education, wealth and power, and some remained set apart in poverty, without the possibility of going up the social ladder. The ones on the top not only looked down on the others, but they created systems that firmly maintained the relative positions of the various castes. Caste systems never favor those on the bottom.

When I was 4 or 5 years old, I used to play outdoors during the summer. I am of Italian ancestry and my skin would turn brown to the point of becoming very dark. One day my grandfather took me to a playground with swings. In an incident that I will never forget, some other children began to call me names, identifying me as Black, and they refused to use the same swing or to play with me. Obviously, I felt humiliated, but since that time I became aware of how I, in the small town where I grew up, had absorbed some of the same attitudes. It seems unbelievable now, but during the first six years of my education, I had no contact with an Afro-American child. My parents “protected” me from them. For many years I continued to observe them as an object of curiosity who made me uncomfortable and whom I had to avoid. Not that I intended to discriminate against them or to oppress them in any way. Simply they were not from my caste and for that reason I was supposed to live apart from them.

In her book, Ms. Wilkerson describes what she calls the “eight pillars” of caste. The first is that the separation of castes claims to be established and ordered by religion. The dominant caste has been blessed by God while the subordinate one has not. In the US, for example, the Bible was used to justify the oppression of the Black race; in Germany it was the Jews who suffered because of their being cursed by God. The second pillar is the necessity that the characteristic that defines the caste be an inherited one. An Untouchable in India is descended from others and passes the caste on to his children. You can never get out of the caste into which you are born. Next comes the important pillar of endogamy, that is, the legal system that mandates that one can only marry with another member of the same caste. It was for that reason that marriages between blacks and whites were prohibited in South Africa and the United States. Fourth, the development of the idea of purity of caste which has to be maintained at all costs. One cannot use the same bathrooms, dining rooms, utensils, etc., as the inferior caste, so that the superior caste would not be defiled by the contact. In India, Untouchables cannot even allow their shadow to fall on someone of a superior caste. Fifth, the division of labor. The members of each caste can only exercise the kind of work that is appropriate to them. One is predestined by caste to be a carpenter, for example, and cannot open a business. Sixth, it is necessary to dehumanize one’s inferiors. The Nazis convinced everyone else that the Jews were subhuman and so it became necessary to eliminate them from the earth. In seventh place, in order to maintain the caste system, it’s necessary to do it by force, terror, which extends to all the castes. In the US, the Blacks suffered whippings and even lynching as punishment for disobedience, but the whites lived in terror that the blacks could rebel and assassinate them. Lastly, the dominated caste is considered inferior by nature and so they have to be treated that way. Although they might become educated, although President Obama was a lawyer graduated from Harvard, they had to be considered inferior to any member of the dominant caste.

The caste system affects and infects all of our social relationships, including our relationship with the planet we inhabit. I know that that statement is a broad generalization, but I have realized , looking at my own attitudes and those of others, that caste is something intrinsic, imperceptible to the conscience often, and nevertheless real. It rules our reactions, the vocabulary that we use, our friendships, where we live. They begin from the point in which we seen an inequality between “me and my group” and “them”. And it isn’t only that I belong to a superior caste; I can feel like part of an inferior caste at the same time. In most of the world caste is not established by law. There are no legal or physical barriers that one has to go across. I am the one who creates boundaries. Their construction is automatic for all of the reasons stated above. We inherit our caste and the idea of the necessity of caste from our ancestors. Probably, our parents met and married because they were of the same caste. We are afraid when we form a friendship with someone, will we still be accepted by my family and the others of my caste? All of this is reinforced by our education, or the lack of it.

For almost all of y life, since I learned Spanish, a great concern for me and the focus of my ministry has been the latino population of the United States. Many of them came from countries where the caste system was part of their daily life and it has prevailed since the time of the Spanish conquistadors. Social ranks were formed according to the purity of blood: pure whites, Creole, mestizos, Indians, slaves. The castes still exist. Upon escaping to the US, the latinos have found a similar situation, only worse. Their caste is considered below that of the blacks. In India, one’s surname identifies you as part of a certain caste. The same is true for the latinos, in addition to their lack of education, their preference for the use of Spanish (or an indigenous language), and the lack of “papers” that brands them as “illegal”. Even their religion marks them as a caste.

One question: Why does the caste system exist in the modern world? If everyone understands that it is something humiliating that has not been imposed by law by any current country, what is the poser that it has over the minds and bodies of so many people? I will leave a complete answer to the sociologists and psychologists. My own view is that no system lasts long if there are not advantages for the participants. The advantages for the dominant caste are obvious: power, privileges, wealth, leisure. For the dominated castes there is a certain comfort to be taken in knowing the role that one is expected to play in society. There is no worry about improving yourself. A peasant is always a peasant. His father was and his children will be peasants. The landowner is the one in charge and always will be in charge, even of the government of a country.

Of course, you can tell me that it is possible to overcome the barriers of caste, create another kind of social relationships and conquer ignorance and superstition. And I would say “Yes, of course.” There are many daily examples even in our own lives. Nevertheless, I maintain that each time it is for having made a positive decision not to listen to the siren call of caste. I can believe that “race” is an artificial category, many times based on the color of one’s skin. And so it is. But if I meet an African-American, for example, am I going to deny that he is black? I am not blind. Could I recognize that my immediate reaction has more to do with caste and that I can decide to act a different way? Obviously, yes. We are conditioned to look at everything and everyone through the lenses of caste before everything else. Later, we can decide to take another path, follow other instincts and explore new territory outside of our caste. Prejudice is exactly that, a “pre-judgement”. It is the judgment that we make based on caste, the spontaneous reaction to an unknown person or situation. It is my decision to accept it or not.

In the last few days, Pope Francis has signed a new encyclical entitled “Fratelli tutti” – we are all brothers and sisters. He writes that all human beings are equal, both physically and in the eyes of God. We all have a common heritage and we all share a common home. Therefore, it is not just, it is not what Jesus asks of us, when there is inequality of resources, when there are differences based on racism, poverty, the lack of education. It is not possible to justify that 90% of the wealth of the earth is in the hands of 1% of the population, that large populations are controlled by terror and force of arms, that basic freedoms are taken away under the excuse of national defense. What the Pope desires is that we all accept the commandment to love that Jesus gave us and that we might live in accordance with it. That by definition includes the acceptance of all other human beings as equal.

We will never arrive at the point that Francis wishes if we cannot abolish the mentality of caste that controls us. The first step in the abolition is the recognition of its existence. It is like the situation that we are experiencing with the COVID pandemic. There are countries and governments that do not recognize its existence or its potency, and the consequences for the people, especially for the invalid and the poor, are disastrous. In other countries, they have seen the reality, they have accepted it and they have overcome it. Once we as individuals focus on the reality, on the fact that we all have prejudices of caste, that we are going to follow those prejudices if we don’t take another path, the divisions of caste will begin to disappear. It is not that they will melt like snow in the Spring and we will have a perfect world. It will cost us a lot of work and the will to do it.

[Image by Михаил Мамонтов from Pixabay]

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Born in the state of Pennsylvania, USA, he has been a Jesuit for 53 years. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1978. He has a bachelor’s degree in Languages and a Master’s in Spanish Literature. In 1984 he obtained a Doctorate in Law, and for the following 35 years he was a practicing lawyer in various immigrant communities. He studied in the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, he has lived in Salamanca and loves Barcelona. He also speaks Italian and a little Russian.
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