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Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste (Random House, 2020) includes lots of ugly specific detail. A slave receiving 400 lashes. Slave workdays of 14-15 hours. Later, lynchings and postcards with photos of lynchings. Blacks not allowed into public pools even on separate days or hours because whites “would not go into water that had touched black skin.” Carnivals where customers hurled baseballs or other projectiles at blacks. The intentional hiring of less competent teachers to work at blacks-only schools.
Wilkerson takes that raw material and connects it to two other regimes based on oppression: the Third Reich, which thankfully lasted only 12 years out of the 1,000 Adolf Hitler said it would, and Hindu India, which has lasted far longer. Nazis looked to Jim Crow laws for ways to institutionalize racism: They discussed adopting the American “one drop of blood” rule in assigning people to the despised minority, but didn’t go as far.
Hindus kept low-caste members from pursuing high-caste occupations, and bigots for centuries made moneylending the only wealth-making opportunity open to Jews, and then attacked Jews for knowing the ins and outs of money. American racists consigned most blacks to “the lowliest, dirtiest jobs” and then saw them as lowly and dirty: “Their degraded station justified their degradation.” Physical appearance and modes of speaking are important to caste maintenance: “If you can act your way out, it’s class, not caste.”
I’d differ with Wilkerson in a few places, but overall her research looks good and her writing is excellent. She accurately describes how slavery supporters used the Bible to support their ideology, but doesn’t point out that they were Scripture-twisting. Plantations were not gas-chambered concentration camps. Some German Christians helped and eventually hid Jews, and some Southern whites within their Jim Crow society treated blacks humanely. Still, Jews such as Albert Einstein, who escaped Germany, saw similarities: W.E.B. Du Bois wrote of him, “He hates race prejudice because as a Jew he knows what it is.”
Wilkerson gives so many examples of racism overt and subtle that by her conclusion I wondered whether she saw any hope anywhere. Then she tells of a white handyman who wore a MAGA cap, “smelled of beer and tobacco,” and, apparently because of her skin color, said the sump pump needed cleaning but did nothing to clean it. Wilkerson: “Since he wasn’t helping, I felt I had nothing to lose. … ‘My mother just died last week,’ I told him. ‘Is your mother still alive?’ He looked down at the wet floor. ‘No … no, she isn’t.’”
A conversation began. Soon “he went over to the sump pump, bent down, and reached into it. A minute or two later, he stood up. ‘Okay, sump pump’s cleared out.’” But once they had a personal connection, he didn’t stop there but did detective work to point out another problem and save her some money—and some stereotyping.
The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans (Riverhead, 2020) is a collection of history-haunted short stories that show how racial biases make personal connection difficult. The stories show a pharmacist accusing a black customer of using a fake ID, a white mom pulling away her daughter from a black playmate, a white college student’s life changing after a boyfriend gives her a Confederate-flag bikini. Positives: Great dialogue, compelling characters, witty empathy. Negative: Use of F-bombs.
The Oxford University Press reprint of My Bondage and My Freedom, the 1855 autobiography of escaped slave Frederick Douglass, also spotlights up-close-and-personal prejudice. Douglass saw in his owner, Master Thomas, “all the cruelty and meanness, after his conversion, which he had exhibited before he made a profession of religion.” Later, Douglass attended a Methodist church in Massachusetts with segregated seating and communion where the minister said, “God is no respecter of persons.” —M.O.
—This story appears in the Feb. 13, 2021, issue under the headline “Overt and subtle.”