The Caste System of Race in America: A DEI Discussion

The LWVBAE’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Team’s goal from its creation was to try to make the League a more diverse and inclusive organization and it is continuing to do just that. The team has been holding biweekly meetings where discussion topics range from how to make our events more inclusive to the way the idea of race governs our society.

Just this last Thursday, September 23, the DEI team met for the second of many book club meetings to discuss what had been read in the book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. The book by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Isabel Wilkerson, is about the tiered caste system of race in the United States. She discusses how there is a powerful caste system that governs all of our lives and makes comparisons to the caste systems of India and Nazi Germany.

In the discussion about the reading at the DEI team meeting, one of the points that was brought up was how the concept of race is something that was created by humans relatively recently. Race, as has been proven many times, in no way defines a significant biological or genetic difference between people. All humans, no matter the color of their skin, share 99.9% of their genetic makeup. Therefore, the major barrier separating us consists of the concepts we have created. There is a system of social programming and manipulation, Wilkerson discusses, that leads to internalizing biases that shape how we see ourselves and others. There were of course thoughts on this issue that were brought up during the meeting.

“We need to eventually get to this question of the undoing,” said Kandea Mosley.

The problem facing us now is that these systems have been in place for so long, they are now part of our society. To make improvements, we must try to find ways to be more inclusive and think about how our actions impact others and that is just what the DEI team is trying to do.

Another topic brought up surrounding the book was the use of the word “caste.” In the book, Wilkerson uses the word “caste” in three different ways. The first is a position in society. This is similar to the way it is used in India where it is referring to a tiered social system where some people are thought of as better than others for one reason or another. The second way she uses it is like the word “cast” or “cast in stone.” This is meant to mean that these divisions are concepts that are difficult to remove from the places where they are being used. The last way Wilkerson uses the word “caste” is similar to being cast in a play. She talks about how everyone has roles they are meant to fill and how caste systems promote these roles.

When talking about the idea of roles in a caste system, Swapan Gandhi said, “We cause harm to people around us not always because of malice, but because of the roles we’ve been given and expectations we’ve been taught in subtle and overt ways.”

The overarching idea during the discussion was that race only exists in context. As Kandea put it, “This thing [race] lives and breathes in a context and it only exists where people have different colors of skin in an age where something as superficial as skin or eye color has been assigned meaning. Across the Americas, race was a useful invention to justify rank dehumanization and unparalleled economic exploitation in the modern world.” In other words, race is about assigning value to human beings based on arbitrary things like skin color, and when there are no such differences, concepts like race begin to unravel, emphasizing the assertion that race is a human construct. It is not something that is a given, it is something that we can work to change about the way we think about ourselves and the world.

One way this is being done is through a project the League is currently working on that involves a proposed United States Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation (TRHT). This commission is meant to help bring about change by addressing racism’s historic and current effects in our country. It’s goal is to move us to a place beyond systematic racism, where our society is no longer distorted by racial hierarchy.

Just this month, the Greater Tucson Arizona League released a tool kit with help from the LWVBAE that includes background on what the commission is and some calls to action. Our DEI team will be reviewing it over the next month to determine the best ways to introduce and use it as an educational resource.

If you are ever interested in joining the DEI team for a reading discussion, to gain access to its toolkit/roadmap for your work, or want to learn more about what the team does, you can contact League President Kandea Mosley at for information about joining.

–Alec White

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