Caste Aspersions

You might think that Isabel Wilkerson’s best-selling book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents might be timely because Kamala Harris is descended both from a high-caste Brahmin mother and a Jamaican father from that island’s “middle-class brown” caste.

Harris’ father, a retired Stanford economics professor, appears to be a product of the careful breeding regimen that author Malcolm Gladwell describes in his writings about how his Jamaican mother’s ancestors kept themselves distinct from the black masses. An affluent Jamaican once told me with bemusement: “Everybody calls me black in the United States and white in Jamaica.”

Americans, with our traditional one-drop rule for lumping people into either black or white, don’t understand Caribbean and Latin American gradients, which go back to Spanish times. For example, on Kamala’s birth certificate, Professor Harris entered as his race “Jamaican,” which strikes me as a sensible way around the problem of Americans lacking a vocabulary to describe in-between people like himself. Blackout: How Black Am... Owens, Candace Buy New $16.73 (as of 06:22 EDT - Details)

All over the world, there are caste-like arrangements like this. Another widespread pattern is occupational castes, such as blacksmiths in Africa.

We also see hereditary despised scapegoat groups, such as the Burakumin of Japan, the now-vanished Cagot of France and Spain, and the descendants of Igbo slaves in contemporary Nigeria.

On the other hand, it could be argued that the only real system of caste in the world is found among the Hindus of South Asia, Bali, and Silicon Valley, with their thousands of endogamous groups and endless proliferation of rules. Everybody else’s caste system is just a weak-tea metaphor for the Indian straight stuff.

The South Asian caste system is a colossal work of social construction. Yet it turns out to have genetic ramifications as well. Harvard geneticist David Reich’s 2018 book Who We Are and How We Got Here explains:

The Han Chinese are truly a large population. They have been mixing freely for thousands of years. In contrast, there are few if any Indian groups that are demographically very large, and the degree of genetic differentiation among Indian jati groups living side by side in the same village is typically two to three times higher than the genetic differentiation between northern and southern Europeans. The truth is that India is composed of a large number of small populations.

Shop4ever Re-Elect Tru... Buy New $14.99 (as of 06:22 EDT - Details) Harris’ mother was a Tamil Brahmin.

We often think of caste as a pointless division of people into arbitrary groups with no regard to merit. And yet…the Tamil Brahmins are quite high-achieving for a relatively small group of about 2 million in India and 50,000 in the U.S., producing the legendary math genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, two Nobel laureates, and the CEOs of Google and Pepsi. Nature? Nurture? Both?

Indeed, Kamala, with her degrees from black Howard U. and plebeian Hastings law school, is likely the least intelligent member of her family, trailing her lawyer sister (Berkeley and Stanford Law), cancer-researcher mother, and economist father. In contrast to her meritocrat family members, Kamala launched her San Francisco political career the old-fashioned way: by having sex with Mayor Willie Brown, who in return gave her a BMW and two taxpayer-funded sinecures.

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