Here in Chapter 2, the author starts to define the caste system.
A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places.
The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources—which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence—who is accorded these and who is not.
Race is what we can see, the physical traits that have been given arbitrary meaning and become shorthand for who a person is. Caste is the powerful infrastructure that holds each group in its place.
HOW has the concept of caste remain suppressed the US? Americans understand it existed in India and Germany (the master race) but have no idea a caste system also exists in America (while taking pride in our freedoms)?
WHY has the concept of caste remain suppressed in America?
Thank you for pulling out valuable portions and raising interesting questions, LanDroid. This discussion is benefiting from your leadership.
I feel as though I am settling in to the real work of thinking about this stuff. I feel there is a certain arbitrariness about the distinction between racism and caste, but I take the main points as correct.
What I want to mull over is the fluidity of caste in America. For example, I can remember when "Catholic" carried a certain stigma, and some European ethnic backgrounds were looked down on (though not subject to, say, lynching because of it.) Polish, Greek, to some extent anything that goes with "Orthodox" such as Armenian or Syrian, all had some vulnerability and disparagement. Yet today there would be very little stereotyping and, at least in areas where I have lived, no suspicion about marriage or hiring or living next door.
The status and opportunities of women have changed drastically since the 70s. Yes, there is still prejudice, harassment, stereotyping and subtle discrimination, but women are conscious of opportunities that RBG was probably thrilled to see, after what her generation of highly capable women had to go through.
Racism has been more persistent, although I can point to tremendous progress in my area. There is still steering by real estate agents, of Blacks and of Hispanics. But individuals prepared to endure a certain amount of loneliness can get past the steering and live wherever they want. Interracial couples are everywhere, including on TV, and the kids I teach are conscious of race but also conscious of considerable fluidity around it. They have some stereotypes, but they treat them as overgeneralizations, reflexively. There is some occupational segmentation, but no enforcement of it that I am aware of.
Essentially, the caste system has broken down considerably, even around race. Wilkerson is in the uncomfortable position of wanting to underline the persistence of caste, and the subtle enforcement of caste, even while many people can observe its breakdown going on around them. We saw a display of the contradiction in the more civil of the Presidential debates. Trump was bemoaning the threat to "your beautiful suburbs" (a dog whistle to enforce caste structures) and Biden countered that the suburbs are already integrated (part truth and part wishful thinking).
I'm not sure how this is related to American suppression of knowledge of caste. We Americans tend to try to put a brave face on anything, and this easily shades over into denial. I wonder if a lot of the persistence, and a lot of the breakdown, are going on in a subterranean, subconscious mental field that we put forward a certain amount of unconscious effort to ignore.