In her recent bestseller Caste, Isabel Wilkerson thoughtfully, movingly and eloquently seeks to elucidate the nature of White Supremacist, (or simply racist) ideology in the United States. I will propose here that while Wilkerson recognizes two tiers of such ideology, she fails to recognize a crucial 3rd tier, even though a number of the well selected true stories she tells bear witness to the existence of the third tier.
Racist ideology rationalizes racist policies and behaviors that implement the policies. What motivates the policies and behaviors? There are any number of answers: desires for wealth, for power, for status, for self-esteem, for protecting or bolstering one’s group identity, even for the sadistic pleasure of inflicting pain. Any of these can be the motives for subscribing to the racist claims that do the rationalizing. My concern here, though, is not mainly to investigate these motives. My chief aim is rather to examine the kinds of ideology that have been found necessary to rationalize often atrocious racist policies and behaviors. The ideology does not motivate the policies and behaviors, but it permits them and even valorizes them and hence makes them more likely to happen and to persist. Ideology is influential. People live by ideology, and they sometimes die for it or because of it.
I propose that racist ideology has at least 3 significant tiers. I am open to the existence of others. Tier one consists primarily of a vast array of false claims that have been promulgated and widely subscribed to for hundreds of years to the effect that the characteristics of White people and the characteristics of non-White people make the White “race” superior to the others. Perhaps the biggest false claim is that there is even any such thing as a racial group: false because race is a social construct, not a biological reality. Since the superiority/inferiority thesis that is essential to this tier rests primarily on faulty empirical information, I will, for short, call this tier “disinformation.” The category of disinformation includes everything from garden variety stereotypical claims like “Black people are lazy” and “White people are highly intelligent” to elaborate scientific (or pseudoscientific) theories about the “innate” characteristics of hierarchically arranged “races.” Ibram X. Kendi’s book Stamped from the Beginning, provides an impressively informative chronological guide to the most influential of the racist claims that have disfigured American thinking about “race.”
Another kind of false claim also belongs to the disinformation tier. “The United States is a land of equal opportunity” is one such claim. Ostensibly racially neutral, this claim nevertheless has racist implications. Obviously, Black people are not faring as well economically or in a host of other ways as White people in this country. But if opportunity is equal, then there must be something wrong with Black people (innate qualities, cultural norms, or whatever) that explains their failure to thrive. It is worth noting that this false claim, or myth, about “America” is one of many that racist ideology shares with capitalist ideology. (A mere coincidence?)
Our portrayal of racist ideology will be seriously, and even dangerously, incomplete unless we recognize a third tier, which I am calling nullification.
Casteism is the second tier of racist ideology. Although Wilkerson focuses primarily on this tier, she does implicitly recognize my first tier. At one point she seeks to differentiate between racism and casteism:
Any action or institution that mocks, harms, assumes or attaches inferiority or stereotype on the basis of the social construct of race can be considered racism. Any action or structure that seeks to limit, hold back, or put someone in a defined ranking, seeks to keep someone in their place by elevating or denigrating that person on the basis of their perceived category, can be seen as casteism.
It seems odd to me not to consider racial casteism (for there are other kinds, too, of course) part of racism. I suggest that we consider casteism a component, or tier, of racism. What Wilkerson characterizes as racism in the above passage can then be considered another component, namely the tier that I am calling disinformation. So what is the difference between tier one and tier two? Tier one is about characteristics; tier two is about place. Disinformation makes false claims that attribute better and worse characteristics to people of different racialized groups. Casteism assigns to people of different racialized groups higher and lower positions in a hierarchy.
In a rough sort of way, casteism is based on disinformation. The two, however, are by no means entirely in synch. If they were, there would be a much stronger correlation between personal characteristics and status in White Supremacist society than there is. What casteism gives whites is membership in a kind of club, a club that grants its members status and many privileges. And the beauty of it is that as long as you are White, you don��thaveto qualify for membership. No matter what your characteristics are, you are automatically included. And of course, Black people, no matter what their characteristics—no matter how intelligent they are or whatever--can’t qualify and therefore are not entitled to the status or privileges. They are automatically excluded.
I will argue now that our portrayal of racist ideology will be seriously, and even dangerously, incomplete unless we recognize a third tier, which I am calling nullification.
Remember that ideology has purpose. The main purpose of White Supremacist racist ideology is to rationalize and support racist policies and practices. I contend that tiers one and two of racist ideology are not themselves, even in combination, sufficient to this task. The “problem” is that they are simply not sufficiently evil to rationalize the most heinous and unspeakably cruel of racist policies and practices. Another tier, nullification, which harbors more vicious false claims even than the first two, has therefore been needed and has in fact been an essential part of racist thinking for centuries.
Let us go back to slavery. We know that apologists for slavery relied a great deal on slanderous disinformation about Blacks along with unrealistically positive disinformation about Whites. That’s tier one. We know, too, that these apologists used Great Chain of Being thinking to place Blacks on a lower level on the human hierarchy than Whites. That is tier two, casteism. It is a commonplace, too, that the enslaved were regarded as mere tools or implements—sentient tools, speaking tools, but still tools. Is this just a further expression of casteism? It is a mistake to see it this way. To see human beings as mere objects is far worse than to assign them an inferior position in a hierarchy. It is to nullify them; it is to reduce their standing within the realm of human connections to precisely nothing.
To look further into the difference between tier two (casteism) and tier three (nullification) let us move to a useful passage from Caste:
It was in 1913 that a prominent southern educator, Thomas Pearce Bailey, took it upon himself to assemble what he called the racial creed of the South. It amounted to the central tenets of the caste system. One of the tenets was “Let the lowest white man count for more than the highest negro.”(25)
Bailey’s tenet is indeed a clear expression of casteism as I understand it. Notice that in Bailey’s formulation, any Black person ”counts” less than any white person, but the Black person does still “count” to some degree. To put it in contemporary terms, White lives matter more than Black lives, but Black lives do matter to some extent. White lives occupy the highest level of the hierarchy of worth and Black lives the lowest, but Black lives are still in the hierarchy. But if Black people are nothing but tools or implements, then they do not belong to the hierarchy at all. And that is precisely what is claimed by nullification: Blacks may be sentient, speaking beings, but they have no moral standing whatsoever. They have zero intrinsic worth and nothing at all in the way of rights. As Frank Wilderson points out in Afropessimism, “[T]he term slave rights is an oxymoron.”
In another useful passage, Wilkerson recounts an instance in which “[an] order from the justices went out in New Hanover County, North Carolina, in the search of a runaway named London, granting that “ ‘any person may KILL and DESTROY the said slave by such means as he or they think fit’.” (153) Now this is not casteist thinking but nullifying thinking. Wilkerson is certainly very aware of this vicious kind of thinking, but she does not distinguish it from casteist thinking. I think it is important that the distinction be made. It is easy to conflate the two, because they both hold that White people are superior to Black people and both have been used to rationalize slavery and other racist policies, practices and institutions. In that sense, they are complementary, with one just enhancing the other. But in another way, they are contradictory. Casteism says Black life has some intrinsic value. Nullification says that while Black life may have plenty of instrumental value, it has no intrinsic value.
The horrifying implication of this tier three position is that Whites can do anything they want to Blacks with complete moral impunity. And indeed, what they did want to do during the time of slavery was horrifying beyond words. Isabel Wilkerson is completely aware of this.
(Nothing I say here is intended to imply that she is any less aware than she should be of the horrors of American racial violence either during slavery or afterwards. It is not the violence she has missed but the additional tier of ideology that has condoned it.) Accordingly, she rightly tells us that the American slave economy (for it was an economy in which both the North and the South were entwined) was a system based on torture:
Enslavers bore down on their hostages to extract the most profit, whipping those who fell short of impossible targets, and whipping all the harder those who exceeded them to wring more from their exhausted bodies. (46)
These whippings, as Edward Baptist tells us in The Half Has Not Been Told, were administered with vicious, flesh tearing southwestern bull whips. My point here is that it is only from the point of view of nullification that the overseer need have no moral compunction whatsoever about inflicting this kind of agony. He need not even evoke that sanctified capitalistic rationale, the profit motive. If he likes, he can inflict his brutality for the sheer sadistic joy of it. Wilkerson is aware that this happened often, and she quotes Baptist to that effect: “ ‘Whipping was a gateway form of violence that led to bizarrely creative levels of sadism.’ Enslavers used ‘every modern method of torture,’ he observed, from mutilation to waterboarding.” (46) Accountability is nowhere to be seen. The same can be said with respect to the staggering level of sexual violence involved in slavery.“[T]he Slave’s relationship to violence,” as Frank Wilderson puts it in Afropessimism,” is open-ended, gratuitous, without reason or constraint . . . .” (216) This relationship to violence is underwritten, in my view, not by casteism but by the harsher third tier of racist ideology.
As we all know, when slavery was officially abolished (except for incarcerated persons), open-ended, gratuitous, unconstrained violence against black people did not cease. Public, carnival lynchings were perhaps the most hideously extreme example. No doubt there were a number of layers of motivation for these ghoulish practices. In part, no doubt, as Wilkerson points out, they were intended to terrorize black people into submission to the caste system. Wilkerson’s descriptions of the almost euphoric responses to these events of many of those who attended them also suggest communally sadistic motivations. Whatever the motives, the ideological rationalizations for these atrocities could not have been mere casteist claims. More utterly dehumanizing, tier three nullifying claims were surely needed. One does not rationalize participation in such orgies of violence simply by claiming that the victims were lower on the human hierarchy than the perpetrators. Instead the victims must be seen as having no place at all in the human hierarchy.
As we all know, when slavery was officially abolished (except for incarcerated persons), open-ended, gratuitous, unconstrained violence against black people did not cease.
Perhaps the most infamous official U.S. government espousal of anti-Black nullification is to be found in the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott Decision of 1857 in which Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, made the blanket declaration that “the Negro has no rights that a white man is bound to respect.” No rights! None whatsoever! The implication, as James Cone points out in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, is “[T]hat to be black meant that whites could do anything to you and your people, and that neither you nor anyone else could do anything about it.”( 7 ) The implication, in keeping with the nullification tier of racist ideology is not just that Black lives matter less than White lives but rather that Black lives don’t matter at all.
Although the Dred Scott Decision was supposedly voided by the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Black Americans, tragically have had many, many reasons over the years to suppose that Taney’s horrifying pronouncement is still the law of the land. Nowhere is this more evident than with respect to the criminal (in)justice system, including the police, the courts, and the system of jails and prisons.
In Minneapolis, when Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, he seemed to many, including myself, to be enjoying what he was doing, and he seemed to feel no compunction in doing so. He seemed to believe that George Floyd’s humanity proposed no moral argument whatsoever against torturing him to the eventual outcome of death. It seems that Derek Chauvin, as an individual, had a nullifying view of his Black victim. It could be claimed that Chauvin’s conviction in court showed that American society rejects this view. And yet, Philip M. Stinson, in an article entitled “This Case Is an Outlier,” points out that “Less than 2 percent of the on-duty police officers who kill someone are ever charged with a crime and held accountable in courts of law.” Considering that black people are disproportionately the ones killed, this statistic comes pretty close to indicating that where police violence is concerned, Black people still have “no rights that a White man is bound to respect.” Here, as was the case during slavery time, there is impunity for the perpetrators of extreme levels of violence, even murder, when the victim is Black. Nullifying views of Black people apparently continue to function as a very disturbingly influential tier of racist ideology in the United States.
I hope to have established that if tiers one and two of racist ideology—disinformation and casteism—played roles in rationalizing American slavery, so too, did tier three—nullification. Moreover, nullification, it seems to me, far from being just an add-on to the other two, was the most powerful of the three, the one that most essentially defined the dreadful ethos of the slave holding culture. Unless we understand this, and unless we understand that nullification remains a powerful player in American “race” relations up to the present day, we are likely to make some of the following errors (no doubt, among many others). We are likely
- to underestimate the full horror of slavery
- to underestimate the extent to which, in a very real sense, slavery still exists
- to underestimate the moral strength of the call for reparations
- to underestimate the dangers to which Black people are subject in their daily lives
- to underestimate the sheer mean-spiritedness and desire to humiliate that characterizes much of police interaction with black youth
- to underestimate the probability that black people in jails or prisons will be subjected to torture (which includes solitary confinement)
- to underestimate the probability that Black people in jails or prisons will be subjected to sexual abuse by guards
- to underestimate the moral necessity of dismantling police unions, which seem bent on securing for police officers a level of impunity for violence against Black people that rivals that of Southern slave holders
- to underestimate the moral strength of the overall call to abolish our present criminal justice system and replace it with something qualitatively different and infinitely better
- to underestimate the prevalence and malevolence of organized hate groups
- to underestimate the sheer indifference of many White Americans toward Black suffering
This list, of course, is far from complete.
Nullification is a particularly deadly strain of the virus of racist ideology. It is more dangerous than casteism. If we identify and acknowledge it, we will have a better chance of defeating it.