No Time to Waste

COVID-19 lit up America’s caste system and the fatal divisions it sows

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did the research and delivered a conclusion, “Persons from racial and ethnic minority groups are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, including experiencing increased risk for infection, hospitalization, and death.1

It’s an alarming statement. Definitely upsetting. But not surprising, says Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson, author of The New York Times best-sellers The Warmth of Other Suns and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.

So began the 2021 American Psychiatric Association virtual Annual Meeting’s opening session, Our Racial Moment of Truth, with Wilkerson delivering the keynote address. During the next 30 minutes, Wilkerson described how casteism long ago reached pandemic proportions in the U.S. and left the door wide open for the COVID-19 pandemic to take more than half a million American lives.

“The United States, the richest and most technologically advanced nation in the world, lost more than 500,000 people to COVID-19. There are many reasons why we find ourselves in this crisis, but our caste system and the division it sows are largely a part of how we got here,” Wilkerson said. “The caste system in the United States is literally costing lives, both in the dramatic ways we’ve seen during the pandemic and in the everyday ways individual people can see their health harmed as a result of the divisions they face.”

Taking a breath, she cautions Opening Session attendees, “We have less in common now with our peer nations and more in common with developing nations. We have to confront what that means as a society.”

Confronting – and ending – America’s caste system begins by knowing our true history, Wilkerson said. “Too many of us speak of slavery as a sad, dark chapter in our history. In fact, it is the foundation of our political, economic, and social order. We need to first learn our history in order to address it. You cannot fix what you do not know; you cannot repair what you cannot name.”

Examining Our Roots

Wilkerson defines a caste system as the social controls, economic restrictions, and stigmatization that determine who does or does not get respect, status, benefit of the doubt, access to resources, and assumptions of competence, intelligence, and worthiness. “A caste system programs people to believe that they have no stake in the wellbeing of their fellow citizens – and especially those they may have been told are beneath them. It affects how people vote, where and how people invest in our country, and it affects the health of every American. COVID-19 made that alarmingly clear.”

The story of casteism in the United States began before there was even a United States, Wilkerson explained. “The early colonists divided people to determine who would be a slave or free, who would have rights or no rights, who could own property and who would be property. It was an arbitrary metric that we now use to define race – and it was part of the process to ultimately create the new world – the United States.”

Slavery continued until 1863 – beginning with General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in April and then with the 13th Amendment being officially ratified on December 6. At least that’s what’s in the books, Wilkerson reminded everyone. “We never addressed, much let’s reconciled, slavery in our nation. No one was held to account for those 246 years of slavery, for the rupture of succession, and a civil war. Last January, when our Capitol was attacked, we saw the confederate flag delivered farther than Robert E. Lee himself ever went.”

Wilkerson shared a story that illustrates just how strong America’s caste system was in 1959, 96 years after slavery “ended.” The tale begins with Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic visit to India – more specifically to Kerala – and visiting with the citizens regarded as “untouchables,” now known as Dalits. Dr. King was introduced to an audience “as a fellow untouchable” from the United States of America.

“Dr. King bristled at that designation. He did not see himself as at the bottom of a hierarchy,” Wilkerson said. “But then Dr. King thought to himself, ‘I am an untouchable, and every black person in the United States is an untouchable too.’ In that moment, Dr. King saw how racism shared similarities with a caste system. Those who knew best what a caste system instantly saw that connection.”

Fast forward 60 or so years and it’s status quo, Wilkerson said. And that explains why COVID-19 mental and physical care is fraught with divisions that define who fits where and who gets care, with those at the bottom of the hierarchy routinely receiving little to no care.

Just look at the seemingly endless videos attached to senseless Black American deaths, Wilkerson said. “One of the things we very rarely see in any of these videos is the basic connection and compassion for a human being obviously stricken and perhaps in the last moments of their life. These are examples of what happens when a caste system dehumanizes people.”  

What we see in these videos makes it wrenchingly clear that the caste system Dr. King acknowledged still has America by the throat. “It will be up to all of us to first recognize our true history and then do everything we can to repair these ruptures, transcend these artificial boundaries, recognize that these were made by human beings, and thus they can just be dismantled by human beings. Every single thing is depending upon it, and we have no time to waste.”

 

  1. Romano SD, Blackstock AJ, Taylor EV, et al. Trends in Racial and Ethnic Disparities in COVID-19 Hospitalizations, by Region — United States, March–December 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2021;70:560–565. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm7015e2external icon