Friday, October 23, 2020

"Caste" by Isabel Wilkerson - "The Origins of Our Discontents"


Isabel Wilkerson established herself as a writer of significant influence with the publication of her landmark work, "The Warmth of Other Suns." This seminal work chronicles the Great Migration of post-Civil War blacks northward to the industrial centers of Chicago, Detroit, New York, et al. In her most recent book, she examines racism in the light of the concept of caste. The subtitle of "Caste" is "The Origin of Our Discontents."

Wilkerson examines three caste systems: India, Nazi Germany, and the United States. Linking these three societies together is not something I would have been able to do on my own, with the author leading the way toward new levels of awareness with her insights and anecdotes. I had chills when I read that when the Nazis came to power in Germany, they wondered how to cement their cultural views of racial purity into a well synchronized legal system They turned to the Jim Crow laws of the post-Civil War South as their template:

"By the time that Hitler rose to power, the United States 'was not just a country with racism,' Whitman, the Yale legal scholar wrote, 'it was the leading racial jurisdiction - so much so that even Nazi Germany looked to America for inspiration.' The Nazis recognized the parallels even if many Americans did not." (p.81)

The author does an excellent job of making her case for racism being a form of caste by sharing the Eight Pillars of Caste that can be found in the three societies examined in this book.

Pillar Number One: Divine Will and the Laws of Nature

Pilar Number Two: Heritability

Pillar Number Three: Endogamy and the Control of Marriage and Mating

Pillar Number Four: Purity versus Pollution

Pillar Number Five: Occupational Hierarchy

Pillar Number Six: Dehumanization and Stigma

Pillar Number Seven: Terror as Enforcement, Cruelty as a Means of Control

Pillar Number Eight: Inherent Superiority versus  Inherent Inferiority

The author spends the remaining 200 plus pages offering specific examples of how these eight pillars have undergirded the particular caste systems in India, Nazi Germany, and the U.S. In a very moving Epilogue, Wilkerson shares how Albert Einstein served as a bridge between the caste systems of Germany and the U.S. After fleeing the antisemitism of Nazi German's caste system, Einstein settled in Princeton, New Jersey. He was shocked to find that he had not completely escaped the depredations of caste:

"In America, Einstein was astonished to discover that he had landed in yet another caste system, one with a different scapegoat caste and different methods, but with embedded hatreds that were not so unlike the one he had fled"

'The worst disease is the treatment of the Negro,' he wrote in 1946. . . . He could 'hardly believe that a reasonable man can cling so tenaciously to such prejudice.'"(p. 378)

When Einstein and his wife learned that acclaimed opera singer Marian Anderson was denied lodging at the local Nassau Inn, they welcomed her to stay in their home, beginning a friendship that endured until Einstein's death. His awareness of the parallel between the oppression of Jews in Germany and blacks in America awakened in him a strong sense of responsibility to act.

"And so he did. He co-chaired a committee to end lynching. He joined the NAACP. He spoke out on behalf of civil rights activists, lent his fame to their causes." (p. 379)

The parallel to our day is striking. As the Black Lives Matter movement has grown in the wake of countless examples of death and injury from police brutality, like Einstein in post WWII America, leading lights in academia, sports, the arts, and politics are using the bully pulpits afforded them by their fame to speak and act against the invidious aspects of racism that persist to our day.



"Born A Crime" by Trevor Noah - A Moving Memoir of an Early Life under Apartheid


I have enjoyed Trevor Noah's comedy and commentary for several years. I was aware that he was South African by birth, but knew very little of the story of his early life. "Born A Crime" is a wonderfully realized memoir that offers a vulnerable and self-effacing window into what it was like to survive as a mixed race young man in the harsh days under Apartheid.

Noah's mother is black; his father is a white Swedish ex-pat living in South Africa. Under the laws of Apartheid, any kind of miscegenation was against the law, so Noah's parents had to keep their relationship under the radar of government and nosy neighbors. It took great effort for Trevor to have any kind of a relationship with his father, who lived in another community from where he and his mother resided.

The author is very transparent about how challenging it was for his mother to raise a rambunctious and rebellious young man. Noah lived on the borders of several worlds - never completely fitting in. He did not neatly fall into any of the legal racial categories, and he had to work hard at creating a place for himself among Blacks, Whites, and Coloreds. He reveals that his mastery of several languages became the skeleton key that opened doors for him to relationships with virtually every segment of South African society. The fact that he became a popular DJ whose services were in demand also opened doors for him.

A vivid memory that the author shares reveals how his natural curiosity led to disastrous consequences. He loved to experiment with how a magnifying glass could concentrate the rays of the sun to heat up a variety of objects. One day he was visiting the home of a white friend, and after showing his friend the trick with the magnifying glass, Trevor and his host went off to explore other adventures. They left the magnifying glass where it was, and unbeknownst to Trevor, the magnifying glass heated an object which eventually ignited the garage, and ultimately the entire house. This misadventure of burning down a house owned by Whites was only one of the many reasons that Trevor and his mother needed to keep a low profile.

Noah credits his mother's strict discipline with laying a foundation that has led to his subsequent success in life. She was able to do this despite facing many obstacles - financial, legal, and relational. The author leaves an indelible impression of how his mother's second husband became increasing more abusive as his alcoholism and paranoia escalated. The dysfunctional relationship climaxed in the stepfather shooting Noah's mother in a fit of jealous rage. She somehow survived being shot in the face.

Prior to reading this moving memoir, my knowledge of Apartheid was on a macro level - being repulsed by the inhumanity of the policy. The book offered me a micro look at how its laws and practices dramatically impacted the life of one young man and those within his orbit. The book is a welcome gift to anyone who seeks to understand how someone who falls between the cracks can learn to navigate the world and achieve fame. Noah uses his fame as a platform to educate and illuminate - a magnifying glass, if you will, that heats up our appreciation of the intricacies of life under Apartheid.