With dozens of College students, faculty and staff in attendance, Dr. Generals, Community College of Philadelphia’s president, held his annual Black History Month fireside chat on February 17. The event began as a rigorous examination of race and social stratification in the United States and eventually lead to a lively and multifaceted group conversation.
Dr. Generals based the conversation around the book Caste: The Origins of our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson, the first Black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism.
Given the long legacy of white supremacy in the United States, "Wilkerson makes the case for the idea that Americans really live in a caste society, not a class society,” Dr. Generals began. What a caste society means is that “if you're in certain a caste, in the eyes of [white supremacist society] you never move out of that caste, you're always who you are.” In other words, even though Black Americans can move through different economic classes, they will still be subject to societal forces that (often violently) codify their place in a subjugated social group. According to Wilkinson, other caste societies in history have included India and Nazi Germany.
Dr. Generals discussed each of the “eight pillars” that characterize the caste society according to Wilkinson. The pillars are: Divine will, heritability, endogamy, purity and pollution, occupational hierarchy, dehumanization and stigma, terror and cruelty, and inherent superiority and inferiority of castes. The first two of these have to do with the use of religious text to justify castes and the inevitable inheritance of caste at birth, respectively.
The third pillar, endogamy, is a feature in caste societies that prohibits interracial marriage, described Dr. Generals. “There were laws right up to the year 2000, Alabama was the last state to [nullify] those laws. Those laws were prevalent throughout the south, through the 19th century, and in the 20th century, where Blacks and whites could not marry one another.” The rationale for endogamy in caste societies can be explained through the fourth pillar, purity and pollution, which implies that lower castes “pollute the purity” of higher castes. Social segregation is another example of the pervasive nature of this logic in American society.
“The fifth pillar, economic hierarchy...that's the idea that in societies that have a caste, culture and system, the group that holds up the basic economics of the society... basically, the service industry, those jobs are typically held by what you might refer to the lower caste of people,” Dr. Generals told the audience. Evidence of this in our society can be found in the wealth gap in America, where the wealth of the average white family is statistically almost ten times greater than that of the average Black family.
The sixth and seventh pillars, dehumanization and stigma, have a long and cruel history in the United States. “There is a long history of dehumanizing Blacks that, you know, pretty, it's pretty self-explanatory even to this day,” said Dr. Generals. “And there is this issue of dehumanization and stigma to stigmatization terror as enforcement. The Ku Klux Klan, they were terrorists. That's the model for the types of terrorism that are occurring today.”
The eighth and last feature of caste societies, inherent superiority and inferiority of castes, speaks for itself. Although caste cultures all have different histories and iterations of this type of social stratification, comparison through the frame of these eight pillars can be an extremely useful tool in understanding the systems that have historically held back people of color.
By the end of Dr. Generals’ presentation, many members of the audience were eager to comment. Offering different perspectives on possible solutions to these issues, one audience member pointed out, “One thing [is] for sure, America stands on something called the U.S. Constitution... they wrote a very clear, legally binding document to benefit those that were in power. It's not meant for me, it's just not... so should we start there?”
With Dr. Generals’ most recent Black History Month Fireside Chat, we learned that understanding the eight foundational pillars of a caste society can be an extremely useful way to dissect the mechanisms by which people are marginalized both in the United States and abroad. The critically acclaimed text Caste: The Origins of our Discontent brought new research and perspective into our community and helped Dr. Generals create a space where concerns and voices of people of color were brought to attention.