“The coronavirus does not care about nationality or skin color, but it is the countries with the highest hierarchical division in society that are leading in deaths and cases,” says American author Isabel Wilkerson, citing the three world leaders in Covid-19 deaths: United States, Brazil and India.
These divisions, she argues, make some groups feel less responsible for the lives of others. “This has an impact on our societies,” says the author of “Casta: As Origens do Nosso Mal-Estar”, arrived in Brazil at the end of April by the publisher Zahar.
In the bestseller, the Pulitzer winner defends the thesis that the United States is more than a racist country. They are, like India, a caste society, in which race is only the visible element of social division.
Wilkerson told Folha that caution should be exercised in releasing case videos with that of George Floyd, a black man murdered by a police officer in 2020, whose death has generated global unrest. “This unrestricted access to black death and abuse videos can have the unintended consequence of numbing people, contributing to the dehumanization of black people,” he says.
She argues that one way to combat the notion of an ingrained hierarchy in society is to know your own history and the process that led to this hierarchy, and cites similarities to Nazi Germany and the path of reconstruction taken in the country. European and ignored in the United States, post-slavery Brazil.
Mrs. argues that American society is more than racist, it is a caste society. How did you start to develop this thesis? It comes from my first book, “The heat of other suns” [o calor de outros sóis], which deals with the migration of six million blacks from the southern United States, fleeing the Jim Crow regime [conjunto de leis segregacionistas estabelecidas no sul dos EUA após o fim da escravidão]. I started looking at anthropologists who studied this topic at the time, and they used the word “caste” because it wasn’t just about hatred for a group, it was the maintenance of a division structure in which everything a person could or could not do was based on their position in a hierarchy. And this position was based only on his appearance.
Then, in 2012, there was the Trayvon Martin case, in which a black teenager was killed by a man who thought he looked like he didn’t belong there. From then on, I started to think about how the notion of caste still affects us, how it is still present and it was not just in the days of Jim Crow.
Mrs. has already stated that the dominant caste acts more when it feels threatened. Is this the case with Black Lives Matter and recent cases of black abuse? Yes, in American history any breach in the caste system is seen as a threat to social order. If you look at the post-Civil War period, for 12 years, the so-called reconstruction, in which the ex-slaves had access to education, building institutions for themselves. It generated a huge rebound and the federal government stopped helping. From then on, these people were sent back to the base of the caste system and the Jim Crow Laws, which lasted almost 90 years, were instituted. So you have a short period of black people being free, and that led to generations and generations of brutal rule. This idea that black people can be in society is very new; most of American history has been one of exclusion.
Mrs. Do you think social media is working positively for the current generation of black youth in the fight against this system? The ability to record abuse of black and brown people in the United States and around the world means that events that happened before now have millions of witnesses. The George Floyd affair, something that shouldn’t happen to any human being, has been observed around the world. How many George Floyds didn’t exist before? On the other hand, this unrestricted access to death and abuse videos against blacks can have the unintended consequence of numbing people, contributing to the dehumanization of blacks. We know about the lynchings that took place during Jim Crow because the people who carried them out took pictures and turned them into postcards to send to family, they were proud of them. Once 5,000, 10,000 people gathered to see an atrocity committed. Today, thanks to social networks, that number has grown to tens of millions. Also, it is deeply disturbing to think that when we watch one of these videos it is preceded by advertisements, that someone is making money out of it.
When mrs. decided to make a comparison between India, the United States and Nazi Germany? After the Trayvon Martin affair and those that happened afterwards, it was clear to me that there was something worth investigating. The first thing I did was look at the definition of “caste” and the oldest system in which it was applied, India.
Germany is less obvious, but in 2017 there was a Charlottesville protest [EUA] against the overthrow of the statues of Confederate generals. And the protesters themselves merged the symbols of Confederation with the Nazi icons, they saw that connection.
Mrs. he tells in the book that Martin Luther King Jr. went to India and there he was compared to the untouchables, the lowest caste. It is striking, given your thesis. Mrs. already knew this episode? I did not know. While researching his trip to India, I discovered a visit to a Dalit school. There, the principal introduced it to the students like this: “I want to introduce you to an untouchable colleague from the USA”. He was irritated to be called that, but he reflected and thought of the 20 million black Americans who at that time could not vote and concluded that, yes, he was an untouchable.
And that all black Americans were untouchable. When you run a long term project, you have milestones in the right direction, and that was definitely one of them.
And what similarities did you find between the three systems? It was shocking to see the number of intersections. I ended up listing eight pillars of the caste system and I would say that the most deeply rooted in the three societies is that of “purity”. In other words, in all three cases, the dominant castes were very careful to avoid contamination of their supposed purity by contact with those who were supposed to be dirty. In India, the lower caste is literally called untouchable because this purity would be compromised by touch. In the case of the Nazis, Jews were prohibited from using the same waters as “Aryans”, in the case of the United States, blacks could not use the same pools and beaches.
The notion of “purity” is what created the “drop of blood” rule in the United States. [leis que determinavam que qualquer ancestralidade negra, ainda que remota, é suficiente para que uma pessoa seja considerada negra]? Is this principle always taken into account? This notion has been around for so long that we still live in its shadow. If race is a social construct, how do you define who is or is not in a group? If you line up people based on their skin color, from darker to lightest, how do you create the cut note? It’s so arbitrary that every state had a rule.
In the United States, slavery was very lucrative and it was established that only blacks were enslaved. So a rule had to be created that would put as many people as possible under that umbrella.
And one of the pillars of caste is inbreeding, so you had to have very clear definitions of race in order to be able to know who could marry whom. This ended up generating families and lineages, as people mated with those who were more like them. It can be said that the American population has been “healed” by this type of law. And, even today, if your family is identified as belonging to any of the groups, no matter what they look like, you will be defined within it as well.
Is it possible to abolish the caste? As? In a room, the cast [em inglês, “cast”, similar a casta, “caste”] he knows his lines, he knows exactly what each person’s role is, and if someone leaves the script, everyone knows something is wrong. What you need to do first is for people to recognize that there is a script, and if it was written by humans, it can also be reimagined by humans. For this, it is necessary to know our history, to know the origin of what we are fighting for.
How to engage the dominant caste in its destruction? In Germany, they dealt with their own history. They insist that the children learn what happened, there are no monuments honoring the perpetrators of the horrors and the spaces of terror have been turned into spaces of learning. The company may not agree on everything, but they agree on a basic story. And this is not happening in several countries which face the past of another horror, that of slavery. It is not a “sad chapter” in the history of countries, it is something which is anchored in their society and which must be recognized as such. And finally, I think we have to admit that it hurts everyone. The pandemic clearly shows this. The coronavirus doesn’t care about nationality or skin color, but it is the countries with the highest hierarchical division in society that are at the peak of deaths and cases.
The countries that come to mind are the United States, which is number one in deaths, Brazil, which is second, and India, which is third. What do they have in common? Built-in hierarchies, whether they admit it or not. These divisions make groups feel that they have less responsibility for the lives of others, who have been told they are not so valuable. It has an impact on our societies.
Isabel Wilkerson, 60
American journalist graduated from Howard University, she is the author of the books “The Warmth of Other Suns”, on the mass migration of the black population towards the North of the United States at the time of Jim Crow, and “Caste: The Origin of Our Malaise ”, launched in Brazil by the publisher Zahar. In 1994, as the head of the Chicago branch of the New York Times, she became the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism.