PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Nearly every American has seen pictures and videos from the afternoon of Jan. 6, 2021, when a crowd of Donald Trump supporters stormed the United States Capitol in an attempt to stop lawmakers from certifying President Joe Biden’s election win. Among the throngs, national media outlets noted, were avowed Nazi sympathizers, white supremacists and white nationalists.
Fewer people saw the quiet scene in the Capitol’s halls later that evening. A crew of janitors arrived to clean up the shattered glass, tidy the fallen bookshelves and carry away broken furniture. They labored in their uniforms and masks, holding mops and brooms. Every one of them was Black.
This succession of events, as told by author Isabel Wilkerson in a Thursday, April 1, event at Brown, offers a painful example of the American caste system at work.
“I saw instantly the people assigned to the subordinated caste for 400 years, still consigned to their historic role of serving, cleaning up after those programmed to see themselves as dominant, superior, supreme,” Wilkerson said. “What we saw may have looked like a different century, but it is ours.”
In a virtual discussion with University students, faculty and staff, as well as members of the greater community, Wilkerson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” emphasized that recent incidents of racial violence and unrest in the U.S. point to a moment of crisis that has been hundreds of years in the making — a crisis that calls for society’s most powerful to take collective action.
The conversation was part of the Lemley Family Leadership Lecture Series, established this year to invite accomplished scholars, thought leaders, policymakers and practitioners to speak about some of the world’s most challenging issues. Wilkerson was joined by Amanda Anderson, director of Brown’s Cogut Institute for the Humanities and a professor of humanities and English.
Most associate the term “caste” with India, where for generations people have been sorted into subordinate or dominant social positions at birth, and where upward mobility is next to impossible. But Wilkerson said the U.S., too, has a caste system: Its white citizens are dominant, its Black citizens subordinate, its opportunities for upward mobility slim.
“Caste, essentially, is an artificial, arbitrary, graded ranking of human value in a society,” she said. “It is what determines one’s standing, respect, benefit of the doubt, access to resources, assumptions of competence, intelligence, worthiness... beauty, even. And [it is] due to no action on the part of the individual who is being accorded or withheld... entitlement in a society. These are the result of having been born to a group that has a location within the hierarchy that… dates back to the origins of that society.”
The American caste system, Wilkerson said, is older than the nation itself: It was established with the beginning of slavery, an institution whose premise was that people of one skin color were superior to people of another.
“No one was held to account for those 246 years of slavery, or for the rupture of secession and the Civil War,” Wilkerson said. “Instead, there are monuments to these men” — evidence that the caste system remains firmly in place today.