Notes from Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson

After Obama's victory in 2012, optimists predicted a new era of post-racialism in the US.  That turned out to be wishful thinking.  When Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960's, he predicted that Democrats had lost the South for a generation.  Well, it is two and a half generations and counting.  Not since Lyndon Johnson has any Democratic Presidential Candidate received a majority of the white vote.

The passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments after the Civil War outlawed slavery and granted the vote to Black American men, but the end of Reconstruction and the return to power of Southern whites brought Jim Crow and American Caste system, analogous in its principles and effects to the caste system of India in systematically creating rigid barriers between black and white, depriving Blacks of the vote, and consigning them to menial and poorly paid jobs.

Wilkerson argues that little in the US, and almost nothing about recent politics, can be understood except in the light of this caste system and its manifold effects.  In India, and in the US, much of the legal basis of the caste system has been removed, although voter suppression, implemented by various onerous restrictions on the vote, has become the most important part of the Republican Party's strategy.  The Supreme Court, by overthrowing a key provision of the Voting Rights act, has once again become a major promoter of racist voting discrimination.

A remark by Lyndon Johnson encapsulates the appeal of caste allegiance:  "If you tell the lowest white man that he his better than the highest black man, he will let you pick his pocket."  Social status is something humans care a lot about.  It is both a instinct and a practical calculation.  If you are used to the color of your skin giving you a leg up in the struggle for existence, a threat to that from blacks or immigrants is very real to you.

The past few decades have been tough for whites who lack a college degree.  They have seen their wages and health care devastate by the disappearance of good union jobs and competition from robots at home and low paid workers abroad.  College educations are increasingly unaffordable and affirmative action puts them behind in the queue for admissions.

Whites without college degrees were the core of Trump's support, and voted overwhelmingly for him.  Liberals have been puzzled by their apparent willingness to vote against their own apparent interests, but Wilkerson thinks she knows why: "...some were willing to accept short-term discomfort, forego health insurance, risk contamination of the water and air, and even die to protect the long-term interest in the hierarchy as they had known it."

Humans evolved to compete in groups against other groups. Psychological studies have shown that the badges of group membership can be arbitrary - skin color, town or neighborhood, even favorite sports team or color of the baseball cap you wear.  Race, especially if locked in by the mechanisms of caste, is a natural.

Donald Trump was a natural to capture their seething resentment.  Mocked for his vulgarity and braggadocio, and pilloried by Obama, he was perfectly poised to capture the angst and rage of those who found themselves on the losing end of society.

Biden defeated him, but as in Obama's victory 16 years ago, it took an unlikely alignment of the stars: monumental Presidential incompetence, and a once in a century devastating pandemic to do it. Biden narrowly captured the votes of white college graduate women, somewhat less narrowly lost college educated men, and overwhelmingly lost whites who were not college graduates.

It is hard to doubt that race is still a giant player in American politics.  


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