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“Caste” and the Deepening Polarization of America


In grappling with Isabel Wilkerson’s best-selling, new book, Caste (subtitle: The Origins of Our Discontents), we are reminded how Jesus was himself–in his life, his teachings, and his ministry–a leader who broke with the entrenched caste system of his time.  In every era of human history, caste is a stumbling block; and for Christians, it is a stumbling block to the advent of the Kingdom of God, announced by Jesus.  This Kingdom ushers in a new ordering of the world, a reprioritizing of social, economic, and political values.

Polarization in America.  Caste offers a fresh explanation for the rising polarization in America in recent years–particularly since the ascendance of Barack Obama to the Presidency of the United States twelve years ago.  According to Caste, the backlash to the “Obama phenomenon” became visibly more strident and pointed after Donald Trump entered the White House.

Part of the backlash is related to the symbolism of the year 2042 for white America.  2042 is the year after which the majority of Americans will be non-white.  In order to grasp the meaning of this for the role of caste in America, let’s look at Wilkerson’s understanding of caste.

Caste and race.  Caste is a more inclusive category than race.  Wilkerson says they are “neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive.”  She goes on to describe how they coexist and serve to reinforce each other.  While race is more visible, caste remains an unseen force, lying beneath the surface of our common awareness.  More precisely, race is what we see–the physical characteristics of people, to which we attach arbitrary meanings that become what Wilkerson calls “shorthand for who a person is.”  Meanwhile caste is the “powerful infrastructure that holds each group in its place.”

In the caste system of America, there is a hierarchy of humanity, global in nature.  In this hierarchy, the upper-rung are the descendants from Europe, with English Protestants at the very top.  The ranking continues downward, through Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans, down to the very bottom–Africans brought over to build the New World.

Wilkerson goes on to note how “Caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.”  Critical to the reality of caste is the maintenance of your own ranking by making sure those beneath you in the hierarchy are “kept in their place.”

In our current circumstances in the United States, the perceived loss of status–the fear of losing one’s place in the world–can cause deep resentment and anger.  The caste system, upon which whites–particularly poorer and more uneducated whites–depended for self-esteem and for a sense of their own security as human beings was being overthrown.  What would they do?  What they would do is listen to Fox News and other, even more right-wing news outlets, and line up to attend Trump rallies.

The Obama factor.  For over four hundred years, the script of caste in America was settled.  Every racial group had their ranking in the caste; everyone “knew their place.”  Then, one day–some fourteen years ago–Barack Obama, a black man, decided he was going to run for President.  Early on, the uniqueness of the Obama story drew people in.

Here he was:

  • A Harvard educated, trained lawyer, an expert in Constitutional Law.
  • A man from a mixed marriage, a white mother from Kansas and an African father from Kenya; thus his past did not share the burden and many of the rough edges of the African-American experience.
  • A man of extraordinary charisma and skill as an orator whose goal was to bring people together and to offer hope to people on both sides.
  • And then, here was his wife, also a Harvard educated lawyer and as much a star as he was.  Along with his adorable young daughters, the Obamas painted a glowing picture of the ideal American family.

Still, how could a black man ascend to the presidency of the United States?  Sounded crazy; seemed unimaginable.  Then, it happened; and, gradually, in the aftermath, millions upon millions of white people, mostly men, freaked out.  They woke up one day to an African-American president and to a world where blacks were rising up and browns were coming in.  The demographic shift, along with the reminder of what 2042 symbolized, sent deep fissures of anxiety and distrust across huge swaths of white America.

We’ve been dealing with the consequences ever since.  Indeed, caste explains “these origins of our discontents.”  To millions of white people, Obama’s election symbolized  that blacks, increasingly, no longer knew their place.  With a black man in the White House, the historical caste system that had defined America for over 400 years was in turmoil.

Dozens of millions of white people did not want to live in a world where blacks and browns were threatening to rise above them; where their secure place in the caste hierarchy was upended; where blacks might soon be looking down on them, relegating them to a lower rung in the caste hierarchy.

This was a nightmare that had to be resisted with great power.  All of this “brought to the fore, for many whites, a sense of commonality, attachment, and solidarity with their racial group,” a sense of needing to band together to protect their place in the hierarchy.

The way forward–amidst conspiracy theories, fake news, and the alternate universe of the Trump era.  The reality of “caste” helps explain the contradictory and mind-boggling popularity in recent years of conspiracy theories, fake news, and the alternative universe of the Trump era.

Part of the danger of Donald Trump and right wing media is the way they use lies and misinformation as a messaging strategy.  Their approach is to repeat the lies–over and over and over–until eventually the lies and misinformation begin to sound like the truth.  Their listeners have heard the falsehoods so much, they start to think there must be something to them.  In this alternate universe–replete with one conspiracy theory after another–bolstered on all sides by bucket loads of fake news (i.e., lies and falsehoods), millions upon millions of whites are able to live in denial of the cosmic shifts in the American caste system that have shattered their world.

With this shift in the tectonic plates of caste in full force, this led, eventually, to the calls to take our country back after 2008 and to make America great again in Trump’s 2016 campaign.  On the underside of this was the high approval ratings of Obama’s presidency which–we soon discovered–masked an undercurrent of anxiety about our changing nation.  As Wilkerson notes, “It hid a swell of resistance to multiculturalism and a growing backlash to immigration.”

Caste helps us come to grips with the upheaval and rising polarization in American culture.  As Christians, it helps us understand the urgency of the Kingdom of God, of the reordering of our social, economic, and political values that Jesus announced.  Again, like Christmas, the Kingdom of God is always coming.  It is always on the horizon.  Let it come, O God, let it come!


The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Frantz is a retired church pastor who began his ministry in the Baptist tradition before becoming a minister in the United Church of Christ. He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Pacific School of Religion. He is the author of The Bible You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In and his just published book: The God You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In. Dr. Frantz and his wife, Yvette, are now retired and living in Boynton Beach, Florida.


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