Does America Have a Caste Problem? (What the heck is “Caste!”)

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Most in the U.S. don’t know what “caste” means, probably because very few believe “caste” even exists in the U.S. Let’s get first things done: what is “caste?”

Caste: A caste system is a class structure that is determined by birth. Loosely, it means that in some societies, if your parents are poor, you’re going to be poor, too. And there is NO way for anyone to break-out and change their own caste.

The discussion of a “not-yet-confirmed” American caste system has been brought to light recently in dramatic fashion. The African American billionaire, Oprah Winfree, pointed to an author of a book Oprah is touting as “the greatest book I have ever read.” Isabell Wilkerson wrote that book titled simply, “Caste.” Oprah has made it a best seller with her promotion. Wilkerson is a well-known author and Pulitzer Prize winner who formerly worked at the New York Times.

In promotion material, a writer described Wilkerson’s writing on a caste system with this: “While at New York Times, Wilkerson reported on a range of topics whose underlying themes of race, class, and citizenship in the U.S. and beyond would be echoed in Caste, a book that puts the U.S.’s caste system in conversation with India’s and Nazi Germany’s.”

We won’t today dive into her book, but we WILL dive into the “caste system.” We’ll start with a few words from another writer who happens to be a professor of English at the University of Hawaii: Subramanian Shankar. He shared some poignant perspectives on the REAL caste system on Earth: that in India. He is a native Indian who describes what a caste system has been for centuries in his country.

The original caste system appeared centuries ago in India. People’s entire life was determined at their birth: if born into a wealthy or politically well-connected family, that baby would grow knowing from birth he/she would have the same privileges as did their fathers. Caste was determined for them. They retained it forever.

For those who were born into poor or impoverished families, nothing they could ever do in their lives would enable them to break out of that place in India’s caste system just because of their caste at birth.

Both Ms. Wilkerson and Mr. Shankar are confident the U.S. contains a caste system and always has. With that comes an automatic that cannot ever be changed: “you are and will always be in whatever financial and political class in America into which you were birthed.

Let’s look at what Mr. Shankar said:

Subramanian Shankar

Many Americans would be appalled to think that anything like caste could exist in a country allegedly founded on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. After all, India’s atrocious caste system determines social status by birth, compels marriage within a community, and restricts job opportunities.

But is the U.S. so different?

What is caste?

I first realized that caste could shed new light on American inequality in 2016 when I was a scholar-in-residence at the Center for Critical Race Studies at the University of Houston-Downtown. There, I found that my public presentations on caste resonated deeply with students, who were mostly working-class, black, and Latino. I believe that’s because two key characteristics differentiate caste from race and class:

First, caste cannot be transcended. Unlike class, people of the “low” caste cannot educate or earn their way out of being “low.” No matter how elite their college or how lucrative their careers, those born into a low caste remain stigmatized for life.

  • Caste is also always hierarchical: As long as it exists, so does the division of people into “high” and “low.”
  • What distinguishes it from race, is that people in a caste system cannot dream of equality.

Caste, in other words, is societal difference made timeless, inevitable, and cureless. Caste says to its subjects, “You all are different and unequal and fated to remain so.” Neither race nor class nor race and class combined can so efficiently encapsulate the kind of social hierarchy, prejudice, and inequality that marginalized Americans experience.

In Houston, that sense of profound exclusion emerged in most post-presentation discussions about caste.

As children, the students there noted, they had grown up in segregated urban neighborhoods – a geographic exclusion that was federal policy for most of the 20th century. Many took on unpayable student loan debt for college, then struggled to stay in school while juggling work and family pressures, often without a support system.

Several students also contrasted their cramped downtown campus – with its parking problems, limited dining options, and lack of after-hours cultural life – with the university’s swankier main digs. Others would point out the jail across from the University of Houston-Downtown with bleak humor, invoking the school-to-prison pipeline.

Both the faculty and the students knew the power of social networks that are essential to professional success. Yet even with a college degree, evidence shows, Americans who grow up poor are almost guaranteed to earn less.

The above is the opinion of a native-born scholar from India who lives and teaches in the United States. His perspective is one that obviously is drawn from both his early life in India (where caste classification actually began for the entirety of Planet Earth). That perspective compares life under a true caste system in India and makes comparisons.

In doing so, he draws broad assumptions and makes assertions as fact that are nothing more than his opinions, which he certainly is entitled to share. But often what we think — especially if taken out of context — prove to be untrue. In this case, he cannot truthfully assume that he knows how being born in the United States is different from those born into India’s TRUE caste system. He makes assumptions to support his theory about a U.S. caste system and does so based on NO logical fact.

So what about America?

Casteist ideologies in America

In the United States, we have a quasi-caste system, a welfare system, which incentivizes people to remain poor by staying on welfare and supporting the politicians who further their benefits. Star Parker, a former welfare single mom who worked her way out of the system, later founding Urban Cure, states, “It is no accident that the most loyal Democratic Party supporters are those most dependent on the government.” Democratic politicians mainly trade “free stuff” for votes, which keeps the poor in poverty and the elitist politicians in power. Sadly, many of its recipients have bought into the lie that welfare is good for them when, in reality, it’s only good for the politicians who exploit them.

In addition to the $1 trillion spent yearly by federal, state, and local government funding of roughly 80 welfare programs, the welfare-caste system incentivizes people to stay poor, rather than encouraging them to seek opportunity, take responsibility for their behavior, and care for their families. While the massive national debt incurred by welfare programs should greatly concern us, our greater concern should be for the victims of these programs. The system rewards broken families and penalizes in-tact ones. It encourages failure and creates a multigenerational group of people who don’t believe that they can achieve because the system has taught them that “not achieving” is its own achievement. This must change.

As a culture, we must champion the cause of the poor by empowering them to break free from the bondage of poverty. True compassion sees the value and dignity of each human being and helps them to achieve their potential. This occurs not through spending more government money but by incentivizing work, family, and responsibility. Gov. Sam Brownback’s reforms in Kansas illustrate just that. Brownback instituted both work requirements and time limits for welfare eligibility. Since then, able-bodied adults on food stamps (without dependents) dropped 75%.

Additionally, 60% of those who left welfare found employment within the first year. Their incomes increased by 127%. These people found opportunity. They found dignity. Most importantly, they found hope.

The state of Maine also reinstated the work requirement for able-bodied adults who saw their incomes increase by 114% in the first year, as they left welfare for a job. In addition to increasing their income, this good policy helped set free those souls trapped in the hopelessness of poverty, putting them instead on course to live a life of hope and dignity. All Americans should have an equal opportunity to build a life for themselves and their families, like those in Maine and Kansas.

The incredible story of Dr. Ben Carson recounted in the book “Gifted Hands” and the film of the same name, tells the story of a young boy raised in urban Detroit who ultimately becomes a world-renowned neurosurgeon. Later, of course, we know that he ran for president and now serves as the secretary of Housing and Urban Development. His story exemplifies the power of opportunity, hard work, and determination.

As a nation, we must pursue welfare reform that ends the politically created, socially stratifying welfare caste system. We must pursue welfare reform that gives all Americans access to the path of freedom and prosperity. We must remember our shared humanity and reject the caste system with its predetermined order and social stratification. If we truly believe in the value and dignity of the individual, and if we create our policies to encourage responsibility and hard work, we will see our brothers and sisters break free from generational poverty. We will show the poor that America is with them and for them. We will show them that the American Dream of self-sufficiency and self-reliance is not just for some but for all.

Summary

I’m tired of “outside” identification assignment! There are far too many people who today, for some reason, feel entitled to stick a label on anyone they bump into. They do that based on what?

Often when a person with whom they interact does or says something, these elitists just hang a tag on that person that says, “racist,” “bigot,” “homophobe,” “xenophobe,” or some other “phobia” that they can conjure up. If you want to call that a caste system, feel free to do so.

But what all this means to me is today in the United States there IS a group of people who are entitled to do such things. And their entitlement is real, and it comes from other Americans!

Think about it: we glorify professional athletes, professional singers and actors, politicians, and tycoons of business. In doing so, we actually create a caste of elite Americans. The style of caste in the U.S. IS slightly different from that in India. Those in India are generational and are based on nothing more than who are the parents of a newborn child. No person in India can change whatever caste they enter at birth.

That’s not the same as in the U.S. — thankfully. Because our country allows each to achieve and become whoever they desire, entering and leaving any caste system here is not solely based on a biological last name. It is based on just what price every American is willing to pay to achieve whatever caste membership they desire.

“But not everyone can be the President of the United States!”

That’s true — there have been only 45. But who on this Earth has the right to tell you that you cannot be the President! What determines that is almost solely on the shoulders of whoever is willing to pay the price to get there. It’s certainly not a role that anyone deserves just because of their last name.

I’ll leave you with a piece of advice: Don’t let WHERE you are in your life determine WHO you are. WHERE you are is just one stop on the road to WHERE you are going. YOU determine WHO you or — no one else.

 


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