Isabel Wilkerson on the Legacies of American Chattel Slavery
The Making of Color Caste in the United States
The vast majority of African-Americans who lived in this land in the first 246 years of what is now the United States lived under the terror of people who had absolute power over their bodies and their very breath, subject to people who faced no sanction for any atrocity they could conjure.
“This fact is of great significance for the understanding of racial conflict,” wrote the sociologist Guy B. Johnson, “for it means that white people during the long period of slavery became accustomed to the idea of ‘regulating’ Negro insolence and insubordination by force with the consent and approval of the law.”
Slavery so perverted the balance of power that it made the degradation of the subordinate caste seem normal and righteous. “In the gentlest houses drifted now and then the sound of dragging chains and shackles, the bay of the hounds, the report of pistols on the trail of the runaway,” wrote the southern writer Wilbur J. Cash. “And as the advertisements of the time incontestably prove, mutilation and the mark of the branding iron.”
The most respected and beneficent of society people oversaw forced labor camps that were politely called plantations, concentrated with hundreds of unprotected prisoners whose crime was that they were born with dark skin. Good and loving mothers and fathers, pillars of their communities, personally inflicted gruesome tortures upon their fellow human beings.
“For the horrors of the American Negro’s life,” wrote James Baldwin, “there has been almost no language.”
This was what the United States was for longer than it was not. It is a measure of how long enslavement lasted in the United States that the year 2022 marks the first year that the United States will have been an independent nation for as long as slavery lasted on its soil. No current-day adult will be alive in the year in which African-Americans as a group will have been free for as long as they had been enslaved. That will not come until the year 2111.
It would take a civil war, the deaths of three-quarters of a million soldiers and civilians, the assassination of a president, Abraham Lincoln, and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to bring the institution of enslavement in the United States of America to an end. For a brief window of time, the twelve years known as Reconstruction, the North sought to rebuild the South and help the 4 million people who had been newly liberated. But the federal government withdrew for political expediency in 1877, and left those in the subordinate caste in the hands of the very people who had enslaved them.
Now, nursing resentments from defeat in the war, people in the dominant caste took out their hostilities on the subordinate caste with fresh tortures and violence to restore their sovereignty in a reconstituted caste system.
The dominant caste devised a labyrinth of laws to hold the newly freed people on the bottom rung ever more tightly, while a popular new pseudoscience called eugenics worked to justify the renewed debasement. People on the bottom rung could be beaten or killed with impunity for any breach of the caste system, like not stepping off the sidewalk fast enough or trying to vote.
The colonists made decisions that created the caste system long before the arrival of the ancestors of the majority of people who now identify as Americans. The dominant caste controlled all resources, controlled whether, when, and if a black person would eat, sleep, reproduce, or live. The colonists created a caste of people who would by definition be seen as dumb because it was illegal to teach them to read or write, as lazy to justify the bullwhip, as immoral to justify rape and forced breeding, as criminal because the colonists made the natural response to kidnap, floggings, and torture—the human impulse to defend oneself or break free—a crime if one were black.
Thus, each new immigrant—the ancestors of most current-day Americans—walked into a preexisting hierarchy, bipolar in construction, arising from slavery and pitting the extremes in human pigmentation at opposite ends. Each new immigrant had to figure out how and where to position themselves in the hierarchy of their adopted new land. Oppressed people from around the world, particularly from Europe, passed through Ellis Island, shed their old selves, and often their old names to gain admittance to the powerful dominant majority.
Somewhere in the journey, Europeans became something they had never been or needed to be before. They went from being Czech or Hungarian or Polish to white, a political designation that only has meaning when set against something not white. They would join a new creation, an umbrella category for anyone who entered the New World from Europe. Germans gained acceptance as part of the dominant caste in the 1840s, according to immigration and legal scholar Ian Haney López, the Irish in the 1850s to 1880s, and the eastern and southern Europeans in the early twentieth century. It was in becoming American that they became white.
“In Ireland or Italy,” López wrote, “whatever social or racial identities these people might have possessed, being White wasn’t one of them.”No current-day adult will be alive in the year in which African-Americans as a group will have been free for as long as they had been enslaved. That will not come until the year 2111.
Serbs and Albanians, Swedes and Russians, Turks and Bulgarians who might have been at war with one another back in their mother countries were fused together, on the basis not of a shared ethnic culture or language or faith or national origin but solely on the basis of what they looked like in order to strengthen the dominant caste in the hierarchy.
“No one was white before he/she came to America,” James Baldwin once said.
Their geographic origin was their passport to the dominant caste. “The European immigrants’ experience was decisively shaped by their entering an arena where Europeanness—that is to say, whiteness—was among the most important possessions one could lay claim to,” wrote the Yale historian Matthew Frye Jacobson. “It was their whiteness, not any kind of New World magnanimity that opened the Golden Door.”
To gain acceptance, each fresh infusion of immigrants had to enter into a silent, unspoken pact of separating and distancing themselves from the established lowest caste. Becoming white meant defining themselves as furthest from its opposite—black. They could establish their new status by observing how the lowest caste was regarded and imitating or one-upping the disdain and contempt, learning the epithets, joining in on violence against them to prove themselves worthy of admittance to the dominant caste.
They might have arrived as neutral innocents but would have been forced to choose sides if they were to survive in their adopted land. Here they had to learn how to be white. Thus Irish immigrants, who would not have had anything against any one group upon arrival and were escaping famine and persecution of their own under the British, were pitted against black residents when they were drafted to fight a war over slavery from which they did not benefit and that they did not cause.
Unable to attack the white elites who were sending them to war and who had prohibited black men from enlisting, Irish immigrants turned their frustration and rage against the scapegoats who they by now knew were beneath them in the American hierarchy. They hung black men from lamp poles and burned to the ground anything associated with black people—homes, businesses, churches, a black orphanage—in the Draft Riots of 1863, considered the largest race riot in American history. A century later and in living memory, some four thousand Italian and Polish immigrants went on a rampage when a black veteran tried to move his family into the all-white suburb of Cicero, Illinois, in 1951. Hostility toward the lowest caste became part of the initiation rite into citizenship in America.
Thus, people who had descended from Africans became the unifying foil in solidifying the caste system, the bar against which all others could measure themselves approvingly. “It was not just that various white immigrant groups’ economic successes came at the expense of nonwhites,” Jacobson wrote, “but that they owe their now stabilized and broadly recognized whiteness itself in part to those nonwhite groups.”
The institution of slavery created a crippling distortion of human relationships where people on one side were made to perform the role of subservience and to sublimate whatever innate talents or intelligence they might have had. They had to suppress their grief over the loss of children or spouses whose bodies had not died but in a way had died because they had been torn from them never to be seen again and at the hands of the very people they were forced to depend upon for their very breath—the reward for all this being that they might not be whipped that day or their remaining son or daughter might not be taken from them this time.The dominant caste controlled all resources, controlled whether, when, and if a black person would eat, sleep, reproduce, or live.
On the other side, the dominant caste lived under the illusion of an innate superiority over all other groups of humans, told themselves that the people they forced to work for up to eighteen hours, without the pay that anyone had a right to expect, were not, in fact, people, but beasts of the field, childlike creatures, not men, not women, that the performance of servility that had been flogged out of them arose from genuine respect and admiration for their innate glory.
These disfigured relationships were handed down through the generations. The people whose ancestors had put them atop the hierarchy grew accustomed to the unearned deference from the subjugated group and came to expect it. They told themselves that the people beneath them did not feel pain or heartache, were debased machines that only looked human and upon whom one could inflict any atrocity. The people who told themselves these things were telling lies to themselves. Their lives were to some degree a lie and in dehumanizing these people whom they regarded as beasts of the field, they dehumanized themselves.
Americans of today have inherited these distorted rules of engagement whether or not their families had enslaved people or had even been in the United States. Slavery built the man-made chasm between blacks and whites that forces the middle castes of Asians, Latinos, and new immigrants of African descent to navigate within what began as a bipolar hierarchy.
Newcomers learn to vie for the good favor of the dominant caste and to distance themselves from the bottom-dwellers, as if everyone were in the grip of an invisible playwright. They learn to conform to the dictates of the ruling caste if they are to prosper in their new land, a shortcut being to contrast themselves with the degraded lowest caste, to use them as the historic foil against which to rise in a harsh, every-man for himself economy.
By the late 1930s, as war and authoritarianism were brewing in Europe, the caste system in America was fully in force and into its third century. Its operating principles were evident all over the country, but caste was enforced without quarter in the authoritarian Jim Crow regime of the former Confederacy.
“Caste in the South,” wrote the anthropologists W. Lloyd Warner and Allison Davis, “is a system for arbitrarily defining the status of all Negroes and of all whites with regard to the most fundamental privileges and opportunities of human society.” It would become the social, economic, and psychological template at work in one degree or another for generations.
A few years ago, a Nigerian-born playwright came to a talk that I gave at the British Library in London. She was intrigued by the lecture, the idea that 6 million African-Americans had had to seek political asylum within the borders of their own country during the Great Migration, a history that she had not known of. She talked with me afterward and said something that I have never forgotten, that startled me in its simplicity.Thus, people who had descended from Africans became the unifying foil in solidifying the caste system, the bar against which all others could measure themselves approvingly.
“You know that there are no black people in Africa,” she said.
Most Americans, weaned on the myth of drawable lines be tween human beings, have to sit with that statement. It sounds nonsensical to our ears. Of course there are black people in Africa. There is a whole continent of black people in Africa. How could anyone not see that?
“Africans are not black,” she said. “They are Igbo and Yoruba, Ewe, Akan, Ndebele. They are not black. They are just themselves. They are humans on the land. That is how they see themselves, and that is who they are.”
What we take as gospel in American culture is alien to them, she said.
“They don’t become black until they go to America or come to the U.K.,” she said. “It is then that they become black.”
It was in the making of the New World that Europeans became white, Africans black, and everyone else yellow, red, or brown. It was in the making of the New World that humans were set apart on the basis of what they looked like, identified solely in contrast to one another, and ranked to form a caste system based on a new concept called race. It was in the process of ranking that we were all cast into assigned roles to meet the needs of the larger production.
None of us are ourselves.
From Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. Copyright © 2020 by Isabel Wilkerson. Used with the permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.