If you’re like me, you think you are not racist. Not in the least! You are open-minded. You have Black and Hispanic friends. You love Black and Hispanic entertainers and athletes. You recoil at the treatment of unarmed Black persons at the hands of white law enforcement. You readily acknowledge the inequity of the judicial system. You are not racist. Not by a long shot!
That’s what I thought about myself.
But lately I have come to see that my personal values, experiences and, certainly, my education were insufficient to understanding racism. I attended all-white elementary schools, an all-white high school, an all-white women’s Catholic college, and even graduate and post graduate studies in all-white environments in two major universities! My only exposure to African-Americans before I taught school was in a reclusive, extremely poor small black community in the back roads of our rural town in the late 1950’s. Many of us were trained, formed, educated as I was. Not until I began studying racism in America, for my students because of our increasingly blended enrollments, did I start becoming aware of the influence of this evil in society.
The recently published book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Pulitzer Prize winner, Isabel Wilkerson, has been helping me enlarge my understanding of racism and my personal need to see where it lurks in my soul. Kafka once wrote, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” This book is the axe cracking my lack of understanding of and education in racism which had frozen over what I thought was my openness and inclusivity.
I cannot review the book in this limited space and I am not finished with it yet, but Wilkerson’s premise is that a prevailing caste system is the underpinning of racism. Caste systems spawn racism.
Here are some thoughts to chew on: “Caste is fixed and rigid. Race is fluid and superficial.” “Caste and race are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive…they serve to reinforce each other.” “Geneticists and anthropologists have long seen race as a manmade invention with no basis in science or biology.” “DNA shows that race is not real.” “Race is a social concept,” said geneticist J.Craig Venter, “not a scientific one.” “Casteism,” says Wilkerson, “is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking.” Think about this. The caste system says you have to live in one side of town because you are not like me living in another side of town. You have to attend certain schools, not the ones I attend because you are not like me. According to Wilkerson, three major caste systems are historically recognized: the vanquished caste of Nazism; the millennia-long castes of India; and the raced-based pyramid of America. The next time you mark Caucasian for your race on a form, think of the origin of the word. The term Caucasian came from a German professor in 1795 who labeled a human skull Caucasian because it came from the Caucasus Mountains of Russia and was his idea of the perfect skull. Thus he attributed it to the European segment of the population from which he came. Later, a famed biologist said, “Never has a single head done more harm to science.”
Not only is the Good Samaritan a story of kindness and love for neighbor, but it is a story of a venal caste system at work. The passersby and the Samaritan were of the same race and religion. But Samaritans and Palestinian Jews were two different castes of Jews, the Samaritans being the lower, despicable ones for their different interpretation of their religion. The Palestinian Jews abhorred them. Thus, the Levite, a person knowledgeable in Jewish law, passed by the man who was beaten by robbers and left to die on the road. The priest, knowledgeable in the ways of God and the Torah, also passed by the poor man. Both were of the same race and probably the same race as the victim. But the Samaritan, the lower class Jew, also the same race of the other two men, extended charity to the victim. He broke the caste system and applied mercy.
Here is something you can do for Black History Month. You can learn more about the origins of racism which stems from our ignorance and our belief in a hierarchical caste system we may have never reckoned with. Read and reflect on this story again (Lk 10:25-36) and ask yourself where you can begin to excavate the prejudices within yourself taking the axe to open the ice that covers your perspective on caste and race. Resolve to learn more about this so you can understand more fully where you are in this glorious universe of many races and nationalities. God is wonderful!
I received so many personal emails about the conversation between Champ and Major that the First Dudes promised more conversations to come. I’ll keep them to their word!