The 45th president?
Isabel Wilkerson’s book ‘Caste’ explains why this was possible.
Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash
I knew very little about US politics before President Obama was elected. My one real thought back in 2008 was what a great democracy to elect such a compelling man, a great orator to captivate the world not just Americans.
I learnt a lot more about US politics leading up to the 2016 election and like many was unable to ignore the antics of the 45th president during the last 4 years. Would he be enjoying another intolerable term if it hadn’t been for a global pandemic?
It’s a bitter sweet pill but The Guardian’s summary highlighted a stark reality in the United States.
“To a watching world, the absence of a fair, affordable US healthcare system, the cut-throat contest between American states for scarce medical supplies, the disproportionate death toll among ethnic minorities, chaotic social distancing rules and a lack of centralised coordination are reminiscent of a poor, developing country, not the most powerful, influential nation on earth”.
Out of control, out of his depth and dealing with something that couldn’t be shutdown, he was finally beaten.
Yet in the recent November 2020 election, 74,222,960 American citizens voted for that same President to have another go.
I was confused. I understand in two party politics there is a tendency towards close run contests. But here was a President who had already been impeached, was a blatant narcissist, encouraged division and could no longer look to the economy for salvation.
Isabel Wilkerson’s book reveals how America throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings. She relates the history of the United States to that of India.
“It’s as if they are operating from the same instruction manual, translated to fit their distinctive cultures”.
In both countries, the lowest caste were forced to toil for their masters. African- Americans in tobacco or cotton fields while Dalits plucked tea in Kerala. The laws that defined caste may have been abolished but both countries live with the residue of codes that prevailed for far longer than they’ve not.
Obama was a fluke
Obama’s first election victory should never have happened. He was an exceptional candidate who ran an almost flawless campaign. His wife, also a Harvard trained lawyer and their two children were the American dream family. His opponent was John McCain, a wise and moderate ageing war hero from Arizona. The unforeseen financial catastrophe in 2008 prior to the election, meant many American households saw losses to their pensions of up to 40% under a Republican administration. It served as a timely party political broadcast on behalf of the Democrat party. There was also a significant McCain error of judgement with the appointment of Sarah Palin as his running mate. Prone to serious gaffs she fast became a political liability. This all helped to tip the result. Ashley Jardina of Duke University wrote,
“The symbolism of Obama’s election was a profound loss to whites’ status”.
US census project the end of a white majority by 2042, so this unexpected, premature victory heralded an uncertain future for the white electorate. History has shown that there would be consequences.
The majority of white Americans did not vote for Obama. 43% in 2008, 39% in 2012.
The Republican party wasted no time thwarting Obama as much as possible. The Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell had one thing on his mind at the mid-term elections in 2010.
“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president”.
Republicans began changing election laws after Obama was confirmed for a second. Between 2014-2016, some states between them deleted almost 16 million people from voter registration lists.
Post-racial harmony was a joke
Contrary to optimistic predictions of post-racial harmony the number of hate groups in the US grew to more than 1,000 by 2010. A 2012 study found that anti-black attitudes and racial stereotyping rose rather than fell. By the second term of the Obama administration in 2015, police were killing five times as many unarmed African-Americans as white ones.
Obama’s presidency and high approval ratings hid a swell of resistance to mul- ticulturalism and a growing backlash to immigration.
White solidarity was never more clearly displayed than by the action of white women in the 2016 election. Over half, 53%, ignored the common needs of women, themselves and making history in favour of a candidate who appealed to the white side of their identities. This, despite everything that had already been revealed prior to the election about his attitude towards women.
To understand why, we need to look to history.
A historical parallel in the book is the rise and fall of Nazism. The Nazis studied American race laws in great detail in the 1930s in order to create legal definition for the categories of Jews and Aryans and prohibit intermarriage between the two.
They were fascinated with the American habit of assigning humans to categories by fractions of perceived ancestry.
The third reich (thousand year reich) as the Nazis preferred, lasted for 12 years. In Germany, the Nuremberg Trials followed soon after for those Nazis leaders still alive. German people who may privately mourn for family members lost in the war know they can never be publicly honoured. Displaying a swastika is punishable by up to three years in prison. Germany’s last war payment was made on 3rd October 2010. Restitution has been paid and continues to be paid to survivors of the Holocaust.
Contrast this with America where it was slaveholders who got restitution, not the people whose lives and wages were stolen for 12 generations. Even after the formal end of slavery, those who tortured and killed with thousands of onlookers aiding and abetting lynchings, not only went free, but became leading citizens, southern governors, senators and sheriffs.
Robert E. Lee the Confederate General and Virginia slaveholder who lost the civil war has 230 memorials dedicated to him. 8 states in the union have a county named after him and even a number of schools including one in Long Beach, another in San Diego? There are even 5 different stamps issued by the US Postal Service. Lee went on to become a college president, Washington and Lee University in Virginia.
From an outsider’s perspective, it’s difficult to know who won? But it starts to explain why such an extraordinary candidate, impeached twice now, continues to attract so many votes.
The American electorate is not personally responsible for history, but they are responsible for how they live their lives. We all are. Ignorance is not an excuse, seeking out the truth is everyones obligation.
The Dalit leader, Bhimrao Ambedkar has some wise words,
“Caste is not a physical object like a wall of bricks or a line of barbed wire. Caste is a notion; it is a state of mind.”