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Class, Caste and the End of the American Dream

What awaits the U.S. when the coronavirus is contained? Will America’s great ideological glue – the belief in social mobility – be finally exposed as a caste system?

Caste is a very old Indian tradition. Subramanian Shakar writes that caste differs from class in that it cannot be transcended and is always hierarchical; it differs from race “in that people in a caste system cannot dream of equality.” He argues, “caste … is societal difference made timeless, inevitable and cureless.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) offers an overview of caste, noting that “differences in status are traditionally justified by the religious doctrine of karma, a belief that one’s place in life is determined by one’s deeds in previous lifetimes.” It identifies “four principal varnas” or large caste categories — the Brahmins (priests and teachers); the Ksyatriyas (rulers and soldiers); the Vaisyas (merchants and traders); and the Shudras (laborers and artisans). It then points out: “A fifth category falls outside the varna system and consists of those known as ‘untouchables’ or Dalits; they are often assigned tasks too ritually polluting to merit inclusion within the traditional varna system.”

HRW points out that although “the imposition of social disabilities on persons by reason of birth into a particular caste” was formally abolished in 1950, caste persists. It persists with significant consequences in term of gender relations and sexual abuse, “debt bondage” and slavery, health care, literacy rates, education and other socio-economic disparities.

Shakar reminds readers that “casteist ideologies” are not limited to rural India. In the U.S. and the West, they involve “theories that produce a social hierarchy and then freeze it for time immemorial.” He identifies The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994) by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray as a prime example of such ideology. It, and similar works, hold that African Americans and poor people have a lower IQ, thus linking American inequality to genetic difference. Looking deeper, Shakar notes, “caste gives Americans a way to articulate their sense of persistent marginalization.”

***

“When the struggle momentarily is bottled up, the cork pops out of the fermenting cask of caste,” wrote Norman Daymond Humphrey in “The Growing Crisis in American Caste” in the July 1944 issue of The Crisis, a leading civil rights magazine. He continued: “… the social channel of what is often called ‘the class struggle’ has been slowed down and diverted momentarily, and in its place the ‘caste struggle’ between Negroes and whites is quickened and intensified.” He warned, “What passes for a ‘race problem’ in this country is actually a problem of caste relations, and ‘race riots’ are simply manifestations or the ferment occasioned by the breakdown of extent caste line.”

Humphrey was a sociologist at Wayne University and coauthor, with fellow sociologist Alfred McClung Lee, of Race Riot (1943), a study published in the wake of the 1943 riots in Detroit (June) and New York (August). Following the Great Migration, the Great Depression and WW-II, social – especially racial — tensions intensified leading to the cork popping. This was most evident the intensification of Jim Crow policies in the south, increasing number of lynchings of African Americans and attacks on returning black veterans.

Humphrey took seriously the alignment of race with caste. “The process is actually one of an attempt by the Negro to destroy, and by a large segment of the whites to preserve, the veritable fact of ‘racial’ castes in the United States,” he wrote. He added, “the enlightened Negro feels quite correctly that a caste society is inimical to legally defined democratic rights, and that it is altogether hostile to a functioning democracy.”

Oliver Cromwell Cox, a Marxist economist and author of Caste, Class, and Race (1948), strongly rejected the notion of caste to define American race relations. In an overview consideration of Cox’s work, Adolph Reed, Jr., points out that during the interwar years, “the metaphor of caste to describe racial stratification in the United States” had gained momentum. But the metaphor of caste “treated racial hierarchy as if it were a timeless, natural form of social organization.”

During the postwar era, the linking of race to caste disappeared. The civil-rights movement gained momentum as an expression of the “American Dream,” of the consumer revolution. Caste and class were replaced by social mobility.

The current Covid-19 epidemic is not only sickening and killing thousands but it’s ongoing or carrying costs will weigh down the nation for a generation. The U.S. is hurting – the medical system is a wreck; retail in moribund; the labor movement is decimated; the unemployment rate is staggering; inability to pay rent is fueling fears of evictions; and debt – state, federal and personal – is mounting. It’s making clear a sad truth – the belief in a social safety-net is so yesterday; under 21st-century neoliberal capitalism, you are on your own.

As the U.S. recovers from covid-19, one can only wonder whether the corporate capitalist state will become more “progressive” (e.g., adopting a national health system) or “regressive” (e.g., acceding to ever-greater privatization). In either direction, the post-coronavirus America may reveal that as upward mobility ceases, class and caste have begun to merge into a new social tryanny.

***

The coronavirus has exposed the profound racial and class disparities in society. This is especially evident in the reported identities of those who’ve reported being sickened and/or killed by Corvis-19. The US Surgeon General, Jerome Adams, recently admitted, “I and many black Americans are at higher risk for COVID. That’s why we need everyone to do their part to slow the spread.” He identified a host of factors contributing to this situation including preexisting conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease as well as the lack of access to health care.

This demographic aspect of the virus is evident in recent report from states and cities throughout the country. In New York State, 18 percent of deaths have been black people, despite being only 9 percent of the population; in New York City, with 65 percent reporting, 28 percent of deaths have been of black people, while the city’s population is 22 percent black. Hispanics made up the highest death rates in both the state and the city, 14 percent and 34 percent, respectively, despite being 11 percent of the state population and 29 percent of the city’s population. (As of April 10th.)

Illinois and Chicago mirror the New York experience. African Americans make up 14.6 percent of the state’s population but 42 percent of fatalities; in Chicago, black people make up 30 percent of the city’s population but 68 percent of city fatalities. A similar pattern is evident in other states. In Louisiana, black people accounted for more than 70 percent of deaths but about 33 percent of the state’s population; and in Michigan, African Americans make up 14 percent of the state’s population but one-third of the coronavirus cases and 40 percent of deaths.

The suffering experienced by people-of-color is but the tip of the iceberg of the mounting social crisis that Covid-19 is setting in motion. However, the tip of one pyramid is also the bottom-of-the-caste pyramid. Harvard’s Raj Chetty, of the Opportunities Insights group, recently wrote, “children’s chances of earning more than their parents have been declining. 90% of children born in 1940 grew up to earn more than their parents. Today, only half of all children earn more than their parents did.”

The Hill recently reported, “the coronavirus has revealed the vulnerability of millions of American workers, leaving them without that much-needed next paycheck, and with no guarantees of a future gig.” It documents that the positive job reports that defined the “recovery” of the Great Recession decade was a mirage. It points out that about four services jobs were created for each individual manufacturing job added since 2010. “Here’s the problem,” it asserts. “Many of those services jobs are in the industries most vulnerable to economic downturn.” In a follow-up essay, it goes on: “Those with the lowest paying jobs and the fewest financial resources are most vulnerable to infection and most susceptible to the adverse economic effects of the pandemic.”

A year ago, few anticipated how the U.S., let alone the rest of the world, would be shaken by an uncontrollable virus. In a March 2019 column in Forbes, Dana Brownlee wrote, “in many ways, I think the corporate ‘caste system’ is a byproduct of the broader tacit societal ‘caste system.’” She added, “of course, American society steeped in democratic and capitalistic principles outwardly rejects the ‘caste system’ concept, but most of us are fully aware that glaring inequities in treatment and opportunities often persist.”

Taking on the form and structure of the classic Indian caste system outlined by HRW, a new era of the capitalist social structure may be taking shape, one linking class to caste. As painfully revealed by the coronavirus casualties, at the bottom of the caste pyramid are the American Dalits, our “untouchable,” including African Americas, nondocumented immigrants and other people-of-color as well the white rural poor. Moving up the pyramid are the Shudras, laborers, shop clerks and gig workers; the Vaisyas, merchants, traders and “professionals” like teachers, accountants and lawyers; the Ksyatriyas, bank and corporate managers, top-tier government functionaries; and the Brahmins, the true ruling elite. (This is a suggestive categorization.)

“Every human society must justify its inequalities: unless reasons for them are found, the whole political and social edifice stands in danger of collapse.”  So opens Thomas Piketty’s recent study, Capital and Ideology.

The coronavirus is stripping away much of the magic associated with the belief in upward mobility. The myth was simple: Work hard, tow the line … and consume; people could live a materially – and personally – better life.

The belief in upward mobility was a reality for a quarter century, from the end of WW-II through the mid-70s oil crisis; it started to stagnate during the fin de siècle decades, culminating with the 2010 Great Recession. Over the last decade, U.S. neoliberal capitalism — especially the financial sector — has become increasingly more powerful while the nation as a whole was weakened. This structural weakness is playing out in the failed federal response to coronavirus pandemic. Without the popular belief and possibilities of mass social upward mobility, can – will – Americans endure the suffering and social stagnation that will likely mark the painful recovery that lies ahead?

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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