Michael Romain’s column, “What rights?” [News, Oct. 21] reports a decision by Devon Horton, superintendent of Evanston/Skokie School District 65, “to give students from marginalized groups first priority for seats in in-person learning and all other students would be taught remotely.” Horton received harsh reactions and threats for this decision.

The column got me thinking more broadly about the subject of human rights and how it seems to be so difficult to think at all objectively about our rights. How do we achieve balance between one person’s or group’s rights and those of another? The subject seems to raise emotions to the boiling level. In the abstract, a liberal thinker can see the fairness in measures designed to correct the serious inequities in our society, but a concrete proposal such as Supt. Horton’s gets strong opposition. My questions: What is the threat? What is the fear? 

I have learned a lot from Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents.

Wilkerson defines a caste system as “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.” She distinguishes caste from class. Class is a measure of one’s standing marked by education, income, occupation, taste and manners. 

She states: “If you can act your way out of it, then it is class, not caste.” Caste systems run deeper than class, or race, or gender, or other “isms.” The caste system is pervasive in society, expressed at levels ranging from the most extreme forms of oppression to more subtle forms of discrimination.

Wilkerson makes the important point that lower-caste achievement and success disrupts the social order and is seen as a threat to some upper-caste members. She gives many examples of lower-caste groups rising up in achievement in education and economic prosperity, only to be met by extreme oppression by the dominant upper caste. 

We see this dramatically as we study the caste system of American slavery. As our nation undergoes a “reckoning” with the history of slavery and the long-lasting effects that remain with us, we find countless examples of the progress of the Black community, followed by destructive, intimidating violence by the more privileged majority.

What is it about seeing another person, or another group, get ahead that evokes such an anxious reaction? I believe we need to understand the deep, instinctual roots of caste behavior, be it racism, sexism, or any other “ism,” if we are to make progress toward the more equitable, humanistic, sane society that we long for.

Stephanie Ferrera

Faculty, Center for Family Consultation

Join the discussion on social media!

2 replies on “Thoughts on class vs. caste”