Isabel Wilkerson’s new book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” paints a devastating picture of how good the U.S. is at building constructs around skin color.
Wilkerson includes the historical picture. She writes about the commonality of torture inflicted on people of color. For example, in 1919 roughly 15,000 people arrived in Omaha to riot and be part of the brutal torture of Will Brown, who was accused — wrongly, historians believe — of harassing a white woman. The rope used to hang him was cut up and sold as souvenirs. As was common, photographers created postcards of people standing next to his dead body to mail to friends.
In fact, the U.S. was so recognized for its ability to make racism an effortless part of society that the Nazi party studied how we legally enacted it. Nazis considered Americans to have a “knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death.”
Adolf Hitler wrote a personal note of gratitude to an American author for his book about cleansing the gene pool of undesirables, indicating, “The book is my Bible.” He praised the near genocide of Native Americans. A book published by a New England eugenicist became a standard text about white supremacy in German school curriculum.
Wilkerson points out that it does not need to be majority rule for racism to flourish. Hitler had 38 percent of the vote when he came to power, with a mission to “exploit methods of democracy to destroy democracy.”
As a cult figure, rallies of a man who had never before held public office stoked resentments and grievances that enabled extremism to draw artificial lines between human beings.
In regards to contemporary society, Wilkerson writes:
“What people look like … is the visible cue to their caste. It is the historic flash card to the public of how they are to be treated, where they are expected to live, what kinds of positions they are expected to hold, whether they belong in this section of town or that seat in a boardroom, whether they should be expected to speak with authority on this or that subject, whether they will be administered pain relief in a hospital, whether their neighborhood is likely to adjoin a toxic waste site or to have contaminated water flowing from their taps, whether they are more or less likely to survive childbirth in the most advanced nation in the world, whether they may be shot by authorities with impunity.”
She tells the story of the manager of a large retail store she was scheduled to interview as a national correspondent for The New York Times. The manager arrived to his store late and rushed, telling her he could not talk to her because he had a big interview coming up for The Times. Wilkerson reassured him several times that she was the reporter, and showed him her driver’s license when he requested identification. Even that did not convince him. He could not imagine that a writer for The Times was Black. He asked her to leave so he could get ready for his appointment.
The Value of Vote
Joan Growe’s new memoir, written with Lori Sturdevant, “Turnout: Making Minnesota the State that Votes,” points out the role that electoral politics can play in reducing extremism.
Growe was mother of three children when she left an abusive husband in 1960 and spent a year on welfare. Eventually, she served as Minnesota’s Secretary of State for 24 years, until 1999, overseeing the development of the state’s consistently nation-leading high rates of voter turnout in clean, open election.
As she writes in the introduction, “When people vote in large numbers, their governments have a credibility that governments in low-voting states lack. Regular voters … accept government as a useful and often uniquely effective tool for solving shared problems and achieving shared goals. They feel empowered to hold their government to account. … In addition, when large numbers of people vote, political parties are less prone to being controlled by partisan zealots with extreme ideas. Those elected are beholden to true majorities, not to narrow segments of the electorate.”
The book details her rise in the 1970s into elected office — raising money through bake sales and pass-the-hat coffee parties, and with a wide team of volunteers that enabled multiple visits to every house in the district. Many people assumed she was campaigning for her husband or asked who would take care of her children if she won.
Growe points out what the woman involved in her 1972 campaign went on to do as lawyers and activists in education, reproductive rights, and criminal justice. She said some people wonder why women’s right to vote 100 years ago took another 50 years to seed more women into politics. To that she replies: “Change sprang from the encouragement we gave each other. We saw talent in each other and said so. We set ambitious goals and assured each other we could meet them. We picked each other up day after day by saying, ‘We can do this. We can organize, because that’s what women do best. We know how to do two things at once — it’s what we always do.”
Voting as a Right, Not a Privilege
As “Turnout” points out, Election Day registration increases turnout, more reliably even than early voting. Twenty states allow Election Day registration, and consistently outperform other states in turnout.
Tactics to reduce the numbers of people who can vote include: erroneously claiming voter fraud is widespread, requiring government-issued photo identification cards, purging voters from registration rolls aggressively (such as for failing to vote in two consecutive elections or not responding to a mailed postcard), and refusing to process voter registrations.
She points out that Minnesota restricts the voting rights of people who have been incarcerated until after he or she has also completed probation, parole, or supervised release. Minnesota has one of the highest probation rates in the country — 2,450 per 100,000 adults, and 1 in 5 of those for more than five years — and these people can be imprisoned with a felony for voting. Growe says that when a former offender wants to vote, “he or she should be congratulated, not slapped with more jail time.”
Growe has long suggested automatic voter registration, which is enacted in 16 states. Instead of opting-in to vote, registration would be done automatically when people register for license fees, unless the person opts out. It would lead to more complete and up-to-date voter rolls. Opponents to the measure, she says, object because it makes it “too easy” to vote.
Growe also supports offering preregistration to high school students over the age of 16, that automatically would make them eligible voters at 18. This would help address the issue that voters between age 18 and 24 are least likely to vote.