Rethinking the Past, Rerouting the Future
(June 30, 2021)

When the nightly news and partisan standoffs get too discouraging, I turn to light reading. But not only light. All play and no stretching make this senior a dull boy. Agile Aging is engaged aging. Here’s a sample of serious recent reading I’d like to share with you and recommend.

Isabel Wilkerson: CASTE: The Origins of Our Discontents

            Perhaps the most outstanding feature of this thought-provoking book is the quality and clarity of its writing. In a sense, Isabel Wilkerson has devoted 40 years to honing these skills. A Journalism major and Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper at Howard University, she landed internships with the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post while still an undergraduate. Climbing through New York Times ranks to be appointed Chicago Bureau Chief, she was the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Journalism. Her first book, The Warmth of Other Suns, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Non-fiction. Caste reached #1 on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. This writer has all the tools: a probing intellect, research diligence and a cogent, convincing narrative style.

Her Project and Perspective

            Wilkerson’s new subject is the systemic American subjugation of Blacks by Whites: where it originated, why it evolved, how it persists. For a fresh look, she adopts caste as a metric and metaphor. On the reasonable assumption that most American readers will be far less familiar with caste than with race or racism, the author leads off with an extended orientation. Three quotes capture her argument and her voice:

 A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract that are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant cast whose forebears designed it. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places….

 In the American system, what people look like, or, rather, the race they have been assigned or are perceived to belong to, is the visible cue to their caste. It is the historic flash card to the public of how they are to be treated, where they are expected to live, what kinds of positions they are expected to hold, whether they belong to this section of town or that seat in a boardroom, whether they should be expected to speak with authority on this or that subject, whether they will be administered pain relief in a hospital, whether their neighborhood is likely to adjoin a toxic waste site or to have contaminated water flowing from their taps, whether they are more or less likely to survive childbirth in the most advanced nation in the world, whether they may be shot by authorities with impunity….

 Caste and race are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive. They can and do exist in the same culture and serve to reinforce each other. Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin. Race is what we can see, the physical traits that have been given arbitrary meaning and become shorthand for who a person is. Caste is the powerful infrastructure that holds each group in its place.

            Wilkerson next anchors her analysis by comparing the American caste system to two foreign precedents: India’s ancient varnas and Nazi persecution of the Jews. She sets out a framework of structural pillars supporting and defining the three studied systems:

  1. “Divine Will” and the Laws of Nature
  2. Heritability
  3. Endogamy and the Control of Marriage and Mating
  4. Purity versus Pollution
  5. Occupational Hierarchy
  6. Dehumanization and Stigma
  7. Terror as Enforcement, Cruelty as a Means of Control
  8. Inherent Superiority versus Inherent Inferiority.

            In examining the first pillar, for example, she traces the origins of Hindu castes to ancient religious scriptures. In parallel, she reviews how Christian slaveholders in America defended their capture and brutalization of African tribespeople by interpreting an Old Testament “curse of Ham and Canaan” as justifying light people’s domination over dark.

            Defining endogamy as restricting marriage to people within the same caste, Wilkerson explains that the purpose was to “seal off the bloodlines of those assigned to the upper rung.” In the States, this separation was brutally enforced through miscegenation laws, not overturned by the Supreme Court until 1967. In unsparing terms, she condemns these prohibitions as “controlled breeding” and “social engineering.”

            She finds that all three systems were obsessed by a fundamental belief in the purity of the dominant caste and by fear of pollution from the castes deemed beneath it. The Indian system, in its strictest form, prohibited low-caste persons from touching their “superiors,” even their shadows. The Nazis forced Jews to give way by stepping from sidewalks into the streets. American segregation extended from schools and housing to transport facilities, restrooms and public swimming pools. Wide-ranging immigration restrictions further reduced inter-ethnic contact. And many Southern jurisdictions reinforced biological separation by defining Blacks as anyone having 1/64 or more Black ancestry.

            Wilkerson devotes considerable time to the Occupational Hierarchy pillar. The key here was relegating the lowest castes to menial labor. This not only assured an available labor pool to do the dirty work; it also justified discriminating against them because they were resultantly dirtied. In India, low-caste obligations included cleaning latrines and tending cremation byres. In the States, Black slaves were limited to fieldwork and kitchens. After Abolition and well into the 20th century, most worked as manual laborers, domestic help, drivers and janitors. Even exceptional Black ministers, teachers and small-business owners catered primarily to their own communities. For White entertainment, minority employment opportunities were gradually expanded to show-business and sports.

            In all three systems but especially in America, Wilkerson emphasizes that caste superiority and inferiority had to be learned and obeyed. Deference was drilled — in posture and speech, in clothes, but most of all in knowing one’s place and not crossing the line. In summation, she quotes scholar Gerald Berreman: “The human meaning of caste for those who live it is power and vulnerability, privilege and oppression, honor and denigration, plenty and want, reward and deprivation, security and anxiety.”

            I would like to register one caveat regarding Wilkerson’s three-system comparison. Although she emphasizes their “parallels, overlaps and commonalities,” her claiming close equivalency is a bit of a stretch. The Indian caste system has survived for 3,500 years; the Nazis’ lasted only for 12. The Indian system was inclusionary. It assigned and fixed occupational roles from top to bottom: priests, rulers and warriors, merchants and traders, servants, and scut-workers. The Nazi scheme was deliberately exclusionary, scapegoating and exterminating Jews, gypsies and homosexuals to blame them for Germany’s humiliating World War I defeat and crushing reparations. As still another variation, the American caste system originated as a mechanism for controlling large crews of malaria-resistant African slaves forcibly imported to work on Southern cotton, rice and tobacco plantations. In her defense, the author’s main point remains valid: caste can offer a useful lens for perceiving the roots and scope of American racial discrimination; and reference to foreign precedents can clarify the complexity, destructiveness and resilience of that subjugation.

Applying the Template

            Having framed caste structures and dynamics, Wilkerson next traces the American system’s evolution through three historical phases: from the first arrival of slaves in 1619 to the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation and three post-Civil War Amendments to the US Constitution (1868-70); from the end of Reconstruction (1877) to passage of the federal Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act (1964-65.) And from that legislative breakthrough to the present time.

            In the first phase, caste operated mainly in the South, to control slave labor. In the middle phase, Jim Crow legislation, Klan terrorism and lynchings reversed Blacks’ brief Reconstruction gains and neutralized legal consequences of Civil War defeat. Although the caste system was again most active in Southern states during this period, incidents like the 1921 Tulsa Massacre and decades of reactionary US Senate filibusters and Supreme Court decisions are reminders that the subjugation had nationwide power and scope. In the “modern” period, despite alleged legal guarantees of equal rights, Wilkerson emphasizes the continuing discriminatory impact of de facto housing segregation, resulting imbalances in public education, biased criminal law enforcement and incarceration, disproportionate poverty, unequal health care, and employment constraints.

            Drawing this historical summary to a close, she examines in detail Trump’s unexpected victory in the 2016 election. Contrary to liberal expectations, she finds stark confirmation of the caste system’s resilience and power in the disaggregated results. (58% of all Whites and 64% of Whites without college degrees voted for Trump):

Caste gives insights into the Democrats’ wistful yearning for white working-class voters that they believe should respond in higher numbers to their kitchen table appeals. Why, some people on the left kept asking, why, oh, why, were these people voting against their own interests. The questioners were unseeing and yet so certain. What they had not considered was that the people voting this way were, in fact, voting their interests. Maintaining the caste system as it had always been was in their interest. And some were willing to accept short-term discomfort, forgo health insurance, risk contamination of the water and air, and even die to protect their long-term interest in the hierarchy as they had known it.

When you are caught in a caste system, you will likely do whatever it takes to survive in it. If you are insecurely situated somewhere in the middle – below the very top but above the very bottom – you may distance yourself from the bottom and hold up barriers against those you see as below you to protect your own position. You will emphasize the inherited characteristics that rank higher on the caste scale.

            Shifting focus from the 2016 election to 2020, some of those same “left-leaning questioners” might take comfort in Biden’s victory. I was surprised, however, to learn that 56% of all White voters and 63% of White working-class voters again voted for Trump. These stubborn preferences are particularly disheartening when one considers that Whites accounted for 72% of total votes cast. Their electoral domination remains overwhelming.

Looking Ahead

            One way to appreciate Isobel Wilkerson’s revisionist history of American race relations is as a centrist’s double-barreled rebuttal. She passionately rejects any racist claim that Blacks’ persistent disadvantages can be attributed to their own genetic or cultural inferiority. But she equally dismisses some progressives’ charge that pervasive White racism is the chief source of those same disparities. By invoking and dissecting caste, she may be issuing a wake-up call to simplistic zealots on both extremes of this debate.

            For this history, Wilkerson’s focus is appropriately retrospective, from past to present. She concludes her narrative with a wistful observation of how liberating it would be to live in a “world without caste.”  However, as a near-octogenarian and retired public-policy advisor, I’m determined to look ahead. For me, even more important than how we Americans got ourselves into this discriminatory mess is how we’re going to get out of it. And as Wilkerson’s penetrating analysis confirms, that climb-out will be wrenching and protracted. Caste is as much a prison as it is a lens:

  • The American version is systemic and structural, imposing and enforcing disparities and deprivation even if overt racism is not widespread.
  • It is multifaceted, attitudinal and partly invisible, much harder to detect, punish and prohibit than explicit segregation or discrimination. Even additional Constitutional amendments and Civil Rights legislation would not suffice.
  • It has obvious winners as well as losers. So the caste system’s dilution or dismantling would require not merely a massive reallocation of developmental resources to the lowest caste but also voluntary or mandatory surrender of privilege and advantage by the highest.

            Equal Opportunity initiatives will not close yawning gaps, merely stanch their widening. As a group, American Blacks still lag far behind Whites in core socioeconomic indices including education, health and life expectancy, wealth and income, and housing. And currently championed initiatives that can shrink these gaps — like Biden equity expenditures, Affirmative Action, targeted affordable-housing construction, college-admission relaxations, police and prison reforms, redistributive tax reforms, direct safety-net subsidies and even reparations — are all costly, complicated and controversial.

            No realist would expect White beneficiaries of the existing system, whether all-powerful oligarchs or aggrieved Trump faithful, to relinquish their perches and perks without a struggle. To the contrary, Wilkerson would doubtless agree that the Big Lie, state legislatures’ voter-suppression initiatives, Trump-stacked federal courts and a stonewalling Republican Senate caucus together offer stark evidence of White conservatives’ increasingly desperate resistance. They’re pulling out all stops to delay and derail perceived power shifts. We can all recognize the growing list of sabotage strategies and tactics: gerrymandering district borders, selectively narrowing voter access, reassigning elections authority from civil servants to partisan politicians, contesting and overturning unfavorable results. And while Wilkerson repeatedly cites the year 2042 as the game-changer when combined US minorities will finally become a governing majority, tipping demographics will not guarantee a democratic destiny if reactionary Whites still control and manipulate the levers.

            With committed leadership, citizen insistence and sustained resources, historical wrongs can be righted. Racial equity can be achieved. But not by Blacks or Whites alone, much less working at cross-purposes. We’ll need a shared vision, a strategic plan and never-give-up implementation. Volume II, Professor Wilkerson?

James Banner, Jr.: THE EVER-CHANGING PAST: Why All History is Revisionist History

            I came across Isabel Wilkerson’s and James Banner’s books independently, but they offer a synergistic pairing. Wilkerson is a journalist advocating a revisionist history of American race relations. Banner is a professional historian writing a defense of revisionist history in general. Her stated objective is to shake readers into acknowledging the cumulative and continuing damage inflicted on Blacks by Whites. His is to persuade readers that principled revisionism is not effete squabbling within the historians’ guild but necessary, legitimate and sequential truth-seeking.

            Unsurprisingly for someone who taught at Princeton for over 50 years, Banner takes a long view. His frame of reference encompasses Western history and historians from Herodotus and Thucydides to our present era. Along the way, he highlights the early Christian period, the Italian Renaissance, the French Revolution and World War II. The author welcomes historians’ often heated revisionist debates, explaining that changing interpretations of the past are appropriate and inevitable. New evidence is constantly being discovered, especially in the form of source materials from the period in question. As that period recedes in time, scholarly detachment can displace participants’ passions and bias. Historians being human, individual values, disciplines and contexts can encourage fresh perceptions, priorities and opinions. Despite professional restraint, all historical accounts and interpretations are subjective. That said, Banner unsparingly disparages politicians and other ideologues who cherry-pick and spin the historical record for partisan advantage.

Re-interpreting the Civil War

            His case study that I found most intriguing and relevant to current race-relations skirmishes examined evolving historical analyses of the causes of the American Civil War. In Banner’s recap:

  • The earliest interpretations published during and just after the conflict by journalists, military brass and politicians were stakeholders’ talking points. Northern, largely Republican commentators described the War as the forced defense of the Union against succession. “The War of the Rebellion.” Southern apologists emphasized the forced succession of sovereign States from an intolerable federal compact. “The War of Northern Aggression.” Interestingly, both interpretations were Constitutional. And both downplayed the significance of slavery.
  • By the post-Reconstruction 1880s, historians in both the North and the South were trying to put the War behind them. They resurrected reputations of Southern leaders like General Robert E. Lee and wrote of “honorable men in a dishonorable cause.”
  • In the 1890s, Frederick Jackson Turner led a new revision. His “frontier thesis” emphasized the pressures (and temptations) on both Civil War factions imposed by America’s expanding Western boundaries and the question of whether these new territories would be slave or free.
  • After 1912, Progressive historians focused on economic reforms reinterpreted the Civil War as a clash of economic systems, with the industrial and commercial North crushing the traditional agrarian South.
  • Up through the 1930s and beyond, resurgent racism promoted “Lost Cause” romanticism, the erection of Confederate statues, and popular revisionist entertainment including the Klan-glorifying Birth of a Nation and the scorched-earth-shaming Gone with the Wind.
  • As generic anti-war sentiment in America surged just before and then after World War II, Southern historians in particular blamed Lincoln for having promoted an unnecessary Civil War, provoking an unnecessary confrontation at Fort Sumter.
  • In the decades after World War II, historians in all regions at last began to “upgrade” slavery as the Civil War’s core cause. But most of these revisions did not emphasize any moral repugnance by the North, still consigning militant Abolitionists to the narrative margins. Instead, they homed in on slavery as one component within an economic-development context. Some writers revived the modernization analysis of an industrializing, wage-labor region overwhelming its neo-feudal, agrarian and bound-labor competitor. To this economic narrative was sometimes added a cultural assessment that the South had also been fighting to defend a patriarchal, segregated social hierarchy. A more recent variation has claimed that both Northern and Southern economies were modern, capitalistic and commercial, fighting a trade war contesting for foreign as well as domestic markets.
  • Writing in 2020, Banner concluded that no complete consensus on the Civil War’s causes has emerged among professional historians, even after 150 years of revisionary study and analysis. He accepted this rolling divergence as inevitable and even admirable. He counselled historians and readers to pursue increasing knowledge of the past, accept legitimate differences of opinion, and learn from both.

Revisionist History as Breaking News

            As a postscript, I’ve been noticing how historical revisionism has jumped from niche academic journals to font-page news. The American Historical Association has just joined other leading scholarly and educational organizations in condemning Trump-inspired state legislation outlawing classroom discussion of race, racism or other “divisive concepts.” Flagged as the most prominent taboo topics are critical race theory and the 1619 Project, both reassessing the history and residual impact of slavery. Simultaneously, the federal government has officially recognized Juneteenth as a national holiday, belatedly commemorating the end of slavery on the ground.

            At worst, racial-history revisionism can be simplistic and adversarial, provoking pay-back intimidation in the classroom and substituting one zero-sum orthodoxy for another. At best, it can be healing, enhancing present empathy by reexamining the inescapably complex past from additional, discerning perspectives.

Elizabeth Kolbert: UNDER A WHITE SKY: The Nature of the Future

            Turning from history to science, UNDER A WHITE SKY is a book within a book. At its core is a current take on technical responses to climate change: what are leading scientists doing to mitigate global warming and how are those interventions working out? Wrapped around that focus for precedent and context is a more generic examination of “people trying to solve problems created by people.”

            Elizabeth Kolbert is well-qualified to conduct and report this intensive survey. Her job description is “scientific journalist”, but I think of her as a cross-cultural interpreter. She interviews scientists and environmental engineers, asks probing questions to confirm her grasp, then translates the specialists’ technical jargon and coded shorthand into lucid syntheses for lay readers. Her New Yorker staff position and Pulitzer Prize gain her access to key experts’ current experiments, not merely by phone and email but face-to-face in their field labs, no matter how remote. Add a story-telling gift and a quirky wit, and it’s no wonder this author is a go-to environmental commentator.

Preliminary Bouts

            WHITE SKY’s layered structure enables Kolbert to integrate superficially disparate components. Several of these case-studies originally appeared as stand-alone New Yorker articles. Five studies introduce her broader corrective-interventions theme, all laying groundwork for her core global-warming analysis:

  • She reviews the history of mid-’60s importation of Asian carp into Midwestern rivers as a biological control of aquatic weeds and algae blooms. The newcomers quickly established themselves as apex predators of everything that swam, forcing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to lead a costly, desperate series of counter-measures to block the carp’s ascent into the Great Lakes.
  • Decades of New Orleans flood-control interventions, also by the Corps, have produced catastrophic unintended consequences including urban subsidence and interception of silt deposits that had been postponing coastal collapse.
  • A quixotic but passionate campaign to save the world’s rarest fish from extinction has promoted construction of an imitation mini-oasis in the draught-parched Nevada desert.
  • Gene-splicing is the latest in a 50-year sequence of remedies to stem the destructive spread of monster cane toads across and around Australia. The toads had been introduced in 1935 to devour beetle grubs that were themselves devouring newly planted sugar cane.
  • As a bridge between these intervention precedents and global-warming mitigations, Kolbert takes us along to Australia’s dying Great Barrier Reef, where marine biologists are attempting “assisted evolution,” cross-breeding stress-resistant corals to help them survive oceans’ rising temperatures and acidification.

            All these interventions are throw-the-dice crisis managements. Fixing a fix can add insult to injury.

The Main Event

            With her context-setting preview concluded, Kolbert homes in on her core global-warming focus. Listen to her distinctive voice distilling a complex problem:

The switchover [from control of climate by nature to control by humans] only really started in the late-eighteenth century, after the Scottish engineer James Watt designed a new kind of steam engine. Watt’s engine, it’s often said, anachronistically, “kick-started” the Industrial Revolution. As water power gave way to steam power, CO2 emissions began to rise, at first slowly, then vertiginously. In 1776, the first year Watt marketed his invention, humans emitted some fifteen million tons of CO2. By 1800, that figure had risen to thirty million tons. By 1850 it had increased to two hundred million tons a year and by 1900 to almost two billion. Now, the figure is close to forty billion tons annually. So much have we altered the atmosphere that one out of every three molecules of CO2 in the air today was put there by people.

Thanks to this intervention, average global temperatures have, since Watt’s day, risen by 1.1 degree Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit). This has led to a variety of increasingly unhappy consequences. Droughts are growing deeper, storms fiercer, heat waves deadlier. Wildfire season is getting longer, and the fires more intense. The rate of sea-level rise is accelerating. A recent study in the journal Nature reported that, since the 1990s, melt off of Antarctic has increased threefold. Another recent study predicted that most atolls will, in another few decades, become uninhabitable; this includes entire nations, like the Maldives and the Marshall Islands…Men make their own climate, but they do not make it just as they please.

         The author reviews three clusters of scientific and engineering responses being advocated to mitigate the existential global-warming threat:

  • Curbing heat-trapping greenhouse-gas emissions is downplayed. Experts’ prevailing but not always publicized consensus is that this remedy is too little, too late. In rich countries, consumers and politicians lack the will to drastically curb their fossil-fuel addiction. In poor countries, catch-up “equity” demands will deter energy conversions or conservation.
  • Carbon capture, the removal and underground storage of atmospheric carbon, is investigated by the author at Climeworks’ Iceland facility. Remove enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and “negative emissions” might conceivably counter-balance the positive variety. But the necessary scale reads like science-fiction.
  • Solar geo-engineering, consisting essentially of sowing reflective particles in the stratosphere to block heat from the sun and thereby lower Earth’s surface temperatures, is examined largely through a series of American academics’ self-confident proposals. Garage-tinkering explosions can be contained. But these experiments’ unintended consequences could alter our entire airspace.

            Where the author emerges from her globe-trotting examination is hardly cheery. Kolbert summarizes her overarching topic as “a world spinning out of control.” And she labels the persistent dedication of scientists championing these experiments as “less techno-optimism than techno-fatalism.”

            I came away from her articulate survey with reduced ignorance but alarm bells clanging.

COMING JULY 31: Paths Not Taken
(Agile Aging contributors reminisce and reflect)



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