Disparity in jobs goes deeper than racism

In ‘Caste’, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson writes that the ‘image of servitude’ has followed Black Americans into the workplace


JOBS are on everyone’s mind. The economic and health crisis brought on by the coronavirus has left more than 16 million Americans out of work, pushing up the unemployment rate, at one point, to the highest since the Great Depression.

As bad as that is, it’s been worse for Black Americans, who have an unemployment rate of 15% compared to 9% for White Americans. Almost half of all Black-owned businesses folded during Covid-19 shutdowns; one study showed that they closed at double the rates of enterprises run by White entrepreneurs.

The Black Americans who remain in the workforce are more likely to hold what have been designated “essential” jobs — higher- risk, lower-paid positions such as fast-food workers and grocery store cashiers. According to a report from the Economic Policy Institute, they make up 17% of these frontline employees despite being 11% of the total labour force. On the flip side, a mere five Black executives run S&P 500 companies.

These current-day disparities in Black workers’ access to well-paying and stable jobs is exactly how America’s society and economy were designed to work, according to Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson’s latest book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” (US$32 or RM134; Penguin Random House).

After George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May, executives in the highest ranks of corporate America began to realise they hadn’t done the best job of hiring, promoting and supporting Black colleagues. But Wilkerson argues that the answer lies deeper than racism and requires an examination of our country’s less- discussed caste system.

A caste society, most often associated with India, can be a foreign concept to American readers who’ve grown up believing in the idea of “upward mobility”. But Black readers will recognise it. It’s a system that predetermines which positions people should hold in society based on arbitrary traits such as race.

At the lowest rung in the American caste, Wilkerson writes, sit Black people, who were placed there by European colonisers after the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in 1619. The structure has survived the end of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement of the mid- 20th century and the Black Lives Matter movement of the 21st century, even while Black Americans have fought to reach full equality at each step.

Wilkerson leans on analogies to make her case. In one instance, she writes that “America is an old house” and that, “like other old houses, America has an unseen skeleton, a caste system that is as central to its operation as are the studs and joists that we cannot see in the physical buildings we call home”. At other times, she compares the caste system to a play, in which everyone already knows the role they’re assigned to act.

A parallel that drove it home for me was the description of caste as “a corporation that seeks to sustain itself at all costs”. Companies succeed with organisational hierarchies: There’s a C-suite that rank-and-file employees acknowledge as the decision-makers and whatever work they contribute fuels the mission set by those in authority. In the US, the business of caste keeps the dominant group — White people — in charge.

The workplace is one arena where all Americans are well-versed in the hierarchy of caste. Historically, African Americans were “relegated to the dirtiest, most demeaning and least desirable jobs”, Wilkerson writes. This was often manual labour, even after chattel slavery was abolished.

For freedmen and descendants of the formerly enslaved who wanted to pursue professional careers, state laws and steep licence fees — which were not applicable to White people — kept Black talent from rising too high. During the Great Depression, just 5% of Black employees were listed as white-collar workers.

These divisions remain today. Black people “were punished for being in the condition that they were forced to endure”, Wilkerson writes. “And the image of servitude shadowed them into freedom.”

Centuries of subjugation created an American psyche in which the reflex is to view Black people in subservient roles. Picture a janitor, then think of a CEO. What do you see?

Even in the realm of entertainment, where African Americans have succeeded disproportionately to their overall population, Wilkerson ties the gains of Black people to the long tradition of the enslaved who were forced to perform on command, often for slaveholders.

In that view, the careers of Black entertainers she mentions, as diverse as Louis Armstrong, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan, can be read as a fulfilment of prescribed roles. It’s not just the coincidence of against-all-odds success stories we’ve come to believe, but that Black Americans with their talent came to dominate the realm they were forced into.

And when Black people hold jobs that society doesn’t expect them to have — tech entrepreneur, engineer, or a New York Times national correspondent, as Wilkerson was — the dominant caste pushes back. The book is filled with moments that Black communities have to process, from the embarrassing (being mistaken for the help) to the truly terrifying (being kidnapped and lynched). On each level, Wilkerson catalogues a resulting lack of productivity and missed opportunities.

This 476-page book builds on the author’s landmark “The Warmth of Other Suns”, which detailed how the fabric of the country was altered by the migration of more than six million Black Americans. They fled the land of their ancestors in the South for more safety and prosperity in the North during the 20th century, and they didn’t necessarily find it.

In “Caste”, likewise, there are few moments for hope that the system can be changed. But the analogies help. Plays can be rewritten.

Houses can be torn down and rebuilt. And corporations can collapse if its employees don’t buy into the hierarchies that have been set up.

Given the turmoil in the American economy, Wilkerson’s book arrives at a key inflection point, an opening for us to imagine, and then create, a system that’s better than the one we’ve inherited. — Bloomberg