Who’s the Boss of Bella?
When our granddaughter was small, she often stayed with us while Mom was a work. At that time, we got our Vizsla puppy, Bella. Our granddaughter and Bella grew up together and remain best of friends ten years later.
One day, we discussed hierarchy and lines of authority in the house. Our granddaughter quickly understood that Grandma and Papa were the bosses of her. Then we asked her who she was the boss of. “Nobody!” was her toddler reply. “Is that right?” Grandma asked. “Who are you the boss of?”
Our granddaughter puzzled for a bit on that one. Grandma asked again, “Who are you the boss of?” In a flash of delighted insight, our granddaughter declared, “I’m the boss of…Bella!” So it has been ever since.
We humans gravitate toward hierarches. We want to know who’s up, who’s down, and who’s in the middle. We attach status and power and resources to those places in the hierarchy. If one doesn’t exist, we’ll create one just to make sure we all know up from down. We can use the flimsiest of facts to create such hierarchies. But once in place, human pecking orders are damnably hard to dismantle.
In her book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson offers this description:
“A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places” (page 17).
Wilkerson describes and assesses three caste systems in her work. She studies the “original” caste system in India, the racial hierarchy established in Nazi Germany, and the racial hierarchy that exists in the United States. It’s helpful to see the concept of caste in a system which is not race-based, as in India, in order to see the underlying human realities of this systemic element of our sin.
“The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality,” Wilkerson observes. “It is about power—which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources—which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is,” she continues, “about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence—who is accorded these and who is not” (page 17).
Our public discourse is drowning in debates about caste. We continue to tie ourselves in cultural, political, economic, and moral knots as we duel over the realities of racism and White Supremacy in this country. But we also struggle with a deeply entrenched economic caste system that creates a tightly regimented pyramid of a few “have-a-lots” and many “don’t-have-enoughs.” We continue to compensate men more than women for the same work. We have hierarchies in educational systems, in our sex and gender politics, and (gasp) in the Christian churches.
Can there be a more topical text for us than this? I don’t think so.
The disciples are flummoxed about Jesus’ dire predictions of his impending demise. So, they return to their favorite topic – who was greater? I know the NRSV (with good justification) translates the phrase as “who was the greatest.” But the Greek word is a comparative, not a superlative. I think we should take that seriously in this instance. I suspect they were clear that Jesus was “the greatest.” They were debating about who fit where in the hierarchy of their little community.
A hierarchy doesn’t of necessity make me the greatest or the best. But it can make me “more than” or “better than” someone else. I think a preacher could use an old joke at this point to good effect.
“Two men are hiking in the woods, and they see a bear. The bear is really mad, so they start running to get away. The first man says, ‘how are we going to outrun this bear?’ and the other guy goes, ‘I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.’”
This is how the caste system of White Supremacy has worked in the United States since before there was a United States. “The American caste system began in the years after the arrival of the first Africans to Virginia colony in the summer of 1619,” Wilkerson notes, “as the colony sought to refine the distinctions of who could be enslaved for life and who could not. Over time, colonial laws granted English and Irish indentured servants greater privileges than the Africans who worked alongside them,” she continues, “and the Europeans were fused into a new identity, that of being categorized as white, the polar opposite of black” (page 29).
In the American caste system, you don’t have to outrun the bear of hierarchy. You just have to come equipped with the proper melanin content in your skin. This system was first codified into law in Virginia in 1662, with the statute that declared a child’s racial status was tied to “the condition of the mother,” not the father. This was, as Emmanuel Acho notes, “another way of saying that white men fornicating with or raping their slaves couldn’t produce freedom for their offspring” (page 147).
Writing a racial hierarchy into civil and criminal law is, by the way, one of the definitions of systemic racism. The Virginia statute was blatant in its White Supremacist intent. Current legislation to restrict voter access, for example, is not as blatant. It is, however, no less White Supremacist in its impact.
Why does human hierarchy work? What are the rewards of such a system? It is better to be “better than” rather than “worse than.” I may not have everything, but at least I have more than you. Absolute possession does not create nearly as much satisfaction as does a positive comparison. And nothing can make one more miserable than a negative comparison.
Who hasn’t had this experience? You purchase a new pair of shoes (insert whatever commodity you wish), and you’re perfectly happy with your purchase. Happy, that is, until you see that someone else has gotten a “better” pair. Suddenly, your quite satisfactory purchase becomes a terrible mistake, and you plunge into an abyss of buyer’s remorse.
I exaggerate only mildly. “Comparison,” the proverb says, “is the thief of joy.” Researchers suggest that we spend more than ten percent of our daily thoughts comparing our situations to those of others. Such comparisons tend to bias our thinking. We are sure we have less, get less, and are less than others. If we focus enough on such comparisons, we may find life less meaningful and less worth living.
Wilkerson discusses the sociological reality of “dominant group status threat” in this context. This is more than merely looking down on some other group as “inferior.” It is, rather, a sense that some other group is doing too well and may indeed climb above “our” group in the hierarchy. She suggests that this is precisely what lower-caste White Americans have been experiencing since the middle of the twentieth century.
It was W.E.B. DuBois who identified the reality of and coined the term “the white wage.” He observed that lower-caste White Americans had embraced the social compensation of at least being “better than” Black people. “They had accepted the rough uncertainties of laboring class life,” Wilkerson argues, “in exchange for the caste system’s guarantee that, no matter what befell them, they would never be on the very bottom” (page 181).
“Those in the dominant caste who found themselves lagging behind those seen as inherently inferior potentially faced an epic existential crisis,” Wilkerson continues. “To stand on the same rung as those perceived to be of a lower caste is seen as lowering one’s status. In the zero-sum stakes of a caste system upheld by perceived scarcity, if a lower-caste person goes up a rung, an upper-caste person comes down. The elevation of others amounts to a demotion of oneself,” she concludes, “thus equality feels like a demotion” (page 183).
This “epic existential crisis” helps us to understand so much about our current cultural conundrums. It’s obvious that Donald Trump and his ilk exploit this crisis for cynical and sinister ends. It’s clear that the rage expressed in events like the “Unite the Right” riot and the January 6 Insurrection have roots in this crisis. It’s obvious that the rejection of the Black Lives Matter movement by many White people is a response to this crisis.
If you take away my “better than,” there’s no telling how violent my response might be.
But here’s one of the problems, as Wilkerson puts it. “Thus, a caste system makes a captive of everyone within it. Just as the assumptions of inferiority weigh on those assigned to the bottom of the caste system,” she argues, “the assumptions of superiority can burden those at the top with unsustainable expectations of needing to be several rungs above, in charge at all times, at the center of things, to police those who might cut ahead of them, to resent the idea of undeserving lower castes jumping the line and getting in front of those born to lead” (page 183).
The solution is not a Better Caste System. The solution is to dismantle caste systems altogether. Enter a little child, who is the boss of no one.
References and Resources
Acho, Emmanuel. Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man. Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.
Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.