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Seeking Higher Ground: My role in the caste

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White/Caucasian, Asian/Pacific Islander, Latino, African-American or Decline to State? At first, I responded to my new optometrist’s medical history form by checking that familiar first box: White/Caucasian.

Moments later, that choice began to rankle. What relevance could one’s race have to double vision? 

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The issue wasn’t personal relevance. I suddenly wondered whether the checklist might be one of those pernicious, knee-jerk habits that enable systemic racism. I would have checked “white” without qualm had I not been reading Isabelle Wilkerson’s book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” 

Reading this book has completely altered my worldview.
In this deeply-researched work, Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize winner, paints a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon: how the U.S. has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy that leaves a painful imprint on people of color. 

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Whatever box I check won’t inconvenience me. I’m packaged like white on rice, at first glance an obvious member of the “dominant caste”. But anyone checking one of those OTHER boxes — especially an African-American — might well suspect that the categorization would lead to nothing but trouble.

There are some medical reasons for asking about biological background. Cystic-Fibrosis, Tay-Sachs disease and Sickle Cell Anemia show up statistically more often in folks whose ancestors came from specific parts of the world. 

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The risk of carrying a BRCA gene mutation that causes breast and ovarian cancer is 10 times greater for women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent than for the general population. A few years ago, a medical researcher was puzzled to find BRCA-1 mutations in clusters of breast cancer patients in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. The patients were Catholics, women from Latino families that settled in the San Luis Valley 8-10 generations ago. They were certain they had no Jewish ancestry. But digging back, the researcher found that their families had descended from conquistadors traveling with the de Oñate expedition of 1598. Jews — who had converted to Catholicism to save their lives at the time of the Spanish inquisition — had joined de Oñate’s expedition to get as far from Spain as humanly possible. They hid their Jewish roots even in the New World, even from their descendants.

While the odds of getting some diseases can correlate with biological inheritance, race has nothing to do with it. Last year, scientists with the Human Genome project released a position paper noting that all humans share 99.9 percent of their DNA. They stated, “Race does not provide an accurate representation of human biological variation… Instead, the Western concept of race must be understood as a classification system that emerged from, and in support of, European colonialism, oppression, and discrimination. It does not have its roots in biological reality…”

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In other words, it’s not race that determines U.S. health outcomes; it’s racism. For example, American Public Media’s research lab recently crunched numbers to discover that in Missouri, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., African-Americans are six times more likely to die of COVID-19 than whites. Blacks die three times more often than whites while giving birth. By contrast, a study of 1.8 million hospital births in Florida found that for an African-American mother, having a Black doctor cut the newborn mortality rate in half.

It’s not that white doctors are intentionally racist. These days, virtually no one admits to the Bull-Connor kind of racism, uses the N-word, or even espouses separate (but unequal) facilities. Doctors no longer believe that Black babies don’t feel pain. It’s been roughly 50 years since public outcry shut down the Tuskegee experiment, in which white doctors “scientifically studied” African-American men dying of syphilis while providing no treatment at all. 

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But given this country’s history, we’ve all grown up with an internalized ranking based on race, a caste system keyed to skin color. As Wilkerson explains, “As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance…” Caste “is about respect, authority and assumptions of competence — who is accorded these and who is not.” 

“Race, in the United States,” Wilkerson writes, “is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste.”

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Factually, I am not “Caucasian.” Visually, I’m not really white. My ancestors hailed mostly from the British Isles, not the Caucasus Mountains near Turkey. If I were a Sherwin-Williams paint chip, I’d be Pumpkin Pie Oh My! In printing terms, I’m Pantone #7508.

In this country, whiteness has been an evolving social construct, as a century-old Supreme Court case illustrates. In 1915, Japanese-born Takao Ozawa filed for U.S. citizenship under the Naturalization Act of 1906, which allowed “free white persons” to naturalize. Ozawa argued that because his skin was a whiter shade of pale than Pantone #7508 folks like me, Japanese people should be properly classified as “free white persons”. The Supreme Court turned thumbs down.

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Curiously, many of my ancestors were, for a time, not considered white. In the 1850’s, the Irish were considered “mulattos”.  The papers of Ben Franklin and other founding fathers draw a distinction between Germans and “whites”; before 1919, only Germans of Saxon lineage were considered white. 

I suspect that my grandfather Slusser, an attorney, the father of four and too old for the draft, enlisted to escape anti-immigrant sentiment at the start of WWI. He was the eighth generation of Slussers born on American soil. He spoke no German; his family had long since struck the bargain of dropping all traces of ethnicity to become “just white”.

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When asked about my own ethnicity, I have unthinkingly said, “I don’t have any. I’m just white.” 

What that answer really reflects is the bargain historically offered to light-skinned immigrants: assimilate, act like a WASP, and you can join the dominant caste.

On deeper reflection, that might be a deal with the devil. On moral grounds, I’d rather cast my lot with the human race — or at least “decline to state” participation in the evils of caste.

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