Saturday, July 11, 2020


I just learned that the wood beam that gets secured along the foundation of a house is called a mudsill. Onto this mudsill is where additional beams get attached, allowing the entire framework and eventually the entire house to be constructed. Isabel Wilkerson provides this information in her essay (America's Enduring Caste System, NYTimes Magazine, July 1, 2020) to help us understand structural/systemic racism.

She reviews the traditions of India and its caste system and points out that it is one where people are born and ushered into a hierarchy where their destinies are predetermined by social status and perceived inherited purity. Why the caste system has endured is largely due to the religious/cultural belief that the only way to eventually move up via reincarnation is to adhere to the place in the caste that a person finds herself currently in. In order to one day do jobs other than clean and serve, a person on the lower level of a caste is taught that only by not resisting her lot in life will she eventually move up the system in a future life to perhaps do things other than clean and serve.

Says Wilkerson: "Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin." And because bones live under the skin, the structure of oppression isn't necessarily visible. Rather, it's understood, assumed, and breathed. Caste is.

Wilkerson shares a story about how years ago, she was on assignment as a reporter for The New York Times to do a Chicago-based story. She arrived early to interview a successful Chicago businessman that she had planned to feature in the story. Once the businessman arrived, he refused to believe that Wilkerson, a black woman, was the reporter. No matter how much she explained that she was, he refused. So Wilkerson left without an interview.

To live in the United States caste system means that black people are viewed to exist at the lowest rung and white people at the highest. Asians, Latinos, and other people who aren't black and who aren't white straddle in-between rungs with unease, "as they aspire to a higher rung."

Wilkerson explains that she never named or shamed the businessman from Chicago "because of our cultural tendency to believe that if we just identify the presumed-to-be offending outlier, we will have rooted out the problem. The problem could have happened anyplace, because the problem is, in fact at the root."

In other words, the caste is built into the structure, the mudsill. And like roots, the mudsill isn't visible. It is foundational.

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