May 1 | Psychiatric News


Black People in U.S. Have Been Victims of ‘Caste’ System for Centuries, Says Pulitzer Prize–Winning Author

By Mark Moran

Political upheaval, racial strife, and health disparities are the predictable results of a long history of hierarchy—a caste system based on race, said Pulitzer prize–winner Isabel Wilkerson at the Opening Session of APA’s online 2021 virtual Annual Meeting. Her keynote presentation was titled “Our Racial Moment of Truth.”

She is the author most recently of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Wilkerson won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for her work as Chicago Bureau chief of The New York Times, making her the first Black woman in the history of American journalism to win a Pulitzer Prize and the first African American to win for individual reporting in the history of American journalism. She is also the author of The New York Times bestseller The Warmth of Other Suns in which she chronicles the great migration of Black descendants of enslaved people from the South to other parts of the country in the early part of the 20th century.

Wilkerson said Caste was a book “that demanded to be written because of the times in which we live.”

She continued, “We are gathered in tumultuous times with multiple mass shootings and videos of American citizens of color in particular being attacked or killed at the hands of authorities—and all in the midst of a global pandemic and the political upheavals of the last two years. Sometimes it’s not unusual to hear people say ‘I don’t recognize my country’ or ‘this is not my country’ or ‘this is not what America stands for.’ Whenever I hear that, I’m reminded of the fact that not enough of us know our country’s history.”

That history is indelibly affected by the artificial caste structure created in colonial times using race as the metric for domination and submission. “Today, under the weight of these manufactured divisions, we are now entering the second year of this global pandemic, and we are having to come to terms as Americans with the consequences of hierarchy and caste” made visible by the inequities in health care access that have resulted in the disproportionate deaths of Black people.

“The word ‘caste’ is not often applied to the United States; it’s language we might apply when we think of India or feudal Europe,” Wilkerson said. But she recalled a visit by the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to India in 1959 to meet Mahatma Gandhi, the inspiration for nonviolent resistance. While there, King traveled to a southern region of India to meet Indians then known as “untouchables” (now known as Dalits; they are the lowest class in the traditional Hindu class system).

While there, King was introduced to a group of students from that social class as a “fellow untouchable.” King bristled at first, offended to hear the term applied to him. “But Dr. King thought about the reality of life for Black people at that time, and he thought to himself, ‘I am an untouchable, and every Black person in the United states is an untouchable.’ In that moment King came to the recognition that that there was in fact a hierarchy [in the United States] that had similarities and points of intersection with the caste system that he was being exposed to during that visit.”

Wilkerson cited the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol and the widely publicized image of a man walking through the Rotunda carrying a Confederate flag as a stark and vivid revelation about the continuing consequences of decades of hierarchy based on race. On that day, members of the crowd that stormed the Capitol walked out free—something that would have been unimaginable had they been people of color, she said.

Later, after the rioters had been cleared out of the Capitol, there was a very different videotaped scene—a crew of janitors brought in to clean up after the rampage. “They labored in their uniforms, bent over with mops and brooms and with masks over their faces. They were all, to a person, Black. I saw instantly the people subordinated, consigned to their historic role of serving.”

Wilkerson closed by comparing the urgency of the moment around racial reckoning to the urgency of responding to climate change. “The scenes of siege in our nation’s capital may have looked like another country—what we saw may have looked like a different century,” she said. “But it is our country, our century—it is our time, and it is our moment.

“Everything is dependent on the decisions we make going forward.” ■