Sundin column: Caste in the United States
As I See It
Mention the word “caste” in the United States, and what immediately comes to mind is India, with its five major castes: Brahmins (the hierarchy), Kshatryas (warriors and rulers), Vaishyas (tradesmen), Shadras (workers), and Dalits (untouchables, who were made to keep even their shadows from falling on anyone in the other castes).
The caste system in India was not nearly as rigid before Great Britain took over from the British East India Company in the mid-19th century and enforced it to control the population. Since India gained its independence after World War II, the caste system has been greatly relaxed, with a Dalit-caste member elected president in 1997.
It may come as a surprise that the U.S. also has a well-established dual caste system, one based on wealth, and the other based on race. The wealth castes are the elite wealthy class, the upper middle class, the lower middle class, and the poor. Over the past 40 years the wealthy class and upper middle class have grown much wealthier, while the lower middle class and the poor have been losing ground.
This redistribution of wealth is tearing our society apart, resulting in the bitter dissension which boiled to the surface in the 2020 election process. For the survival of our democracy, the wealthy class (especially corporate executives) need to recognize that proper management of a corporation means sharing the wealth they produce with the workers who play a critical role in creating that wealth, instead of hogging it all for the stockholders and themselves.
Then we come to the racial classes, readily recognizable by the color of their skin – white, yellow, tan and black. The yellow (oriental) class, largely Chinese, who were prohibited from immigrating into the U.S. by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act — until it was repealed in 1943. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, over 100,000 Japanese Americans were separated from their homes, mostly in California (but interestingly not in Hawaii), and incarcerated for the duration of the war.
The large Hispanic class is also easily identified by their tan skin and dark hair and eyes but have been better able to assimilate into American Society. Unfortunately, they are often faced with resentment largely related to competition for employment.
Black or African Americans, our “untouchable” caste, bear the stigma of 250 years of slavery — the darkest era in our history. In 1787, the framers of our Constitution legitimized that status by restricting voting rights to white, property-owning or tax-paying males, and to appease the Southern States, declared slaves to be property and counted as three-fifths of a person in the census for determining the number of representatives each state gets.
About 80 years later, after a devastating Civil War, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments gave the slaves their freedom, citizenship and voting rights. But the former slave-owners got around that by keeping them on as share-croppers, passing Jim Crow Laws and imposing voting restrictions like literacy, poll taxes and threats.
In the South, Blacks were treated like “untouchables,” expected to step off the sidewalk when they met a white person. Schools, libraries, parks, restaurants, transportation facilities and lodgings were segregated (or unavailable).
Between 1955 and 1965, Black Americans finally acquired their rights as U.S. citizens. School segregation was outlawed, civil rights laws were adopted, and a Voting Rights Act banning literacy tests were passed.
This progress did not come without a cost. Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated, 34 people died in the Watts, LA rioting, and 17 were hospitalized on “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama.
The greatest progress in integration has been in politics and sports. After token representation in the late 1800s, no Black Americans were elected to Congress until 1929-48, when there was just one Black representative. There are now 59 Black Senators and Representatives. The real breakthrough was the election of Barack Obama as our 44th President in 2008.
In professional football, the Canton Bulldogs was the first to break the color barrier, from 1920 until 1932. Then, in 1946 the Los Angeles Rams hired two Black players. Currently, Blacks make up about two-thirds of NFL players.
The most famous color barrier to be broken was in Major League Baseball when Branch Rickey hired Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. After peaking at 25% in 1975, Blacks are now less than 10%. But in the National Basketball Association three-quarters of the players are Black Americans.
“As I See It” appears on occasion in the Post Independent and at postindependent.com. Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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