Caste Away

by Susan Starr Sered 

I first met Elizabeth at a drop-in center for poor and homeless women shortly after she was released from prison. Elizabeth’s father was a firefighter. Her mother worked for years at a stable job in a factory. Her parents owned their home in a working-class white community in a Boston suburb, and raised their children with aspirations of college and a middle-class life. By the time Elizabeth came of age America’s economic landscape had changed. Secure jobs that pay good wages were scarce and even though Elizabeth earned an associate’s degree she wasn’t able to do better than a series of unreliable jobs in food service. When a family tragedy (her sister’s illness and eventual death) made her too sad to smile at restaurant patrons she was fired. Broke and depressed, she lost her apartment, began to drink excessively, suffered several assaults, and was arrested and incarcerated on charges of creating a public disturbance and shoplifting. “Free” now for more than five years, she is stigmatized, unemployable, and sick.

As wealth and income gaps in the United States have dramatically widened over the past decades, the life paths of rich and poor Americans have diverged to the point in which, I believe, we should consider using the language of “caste” to describe American society. Caste arises when social differences become so significant that individual personalities, preferences, talents and weaknesses become subsumed to stereotypical images of the characteristics of a community or group as a whole – what we often call profiling. Groups are identified in terms of physical differences (real or imagined), inter-group interactions become formalized and limited, group characteristics become infused with moral meanings which justify and enforce differential access to valued resources and occupations, and group characteristics come to be seen as inherent and unchangeable.

Elizabeth has helped me understand the workings of caste. She experiences geographic segregation, whether in jail, in homeless shelters or in public housing. She has been arrested for trespassing simply for sitting down and relaxing in neighborhoods not assigned to, in her words, “people like me.” Elizabeth recognizes that there are structural barriers to changing her status, but most days she attributes her position to classic caste-like physical traits: a genetic tendency for alcohol abuse or to PTSD that has “rewired my brain.”

Having been raised in a working-class community, Elizabeth is aware of how differently she is treated now that she has lost some of her teeth and acquired the clothes and mannerisms of the untouchable caste. She once told me that people don’t like to sit next to her on public transportation. “They look at me like I smell bad even though I shower every day.” The only non-poor people she has contact with these days are service providers such as therapists and doctors, or law enforcement agents. Her caseworkers berate her for being involved with men who are, as she puts it, “messed up.” But, Elizabeth explains, “no man who is any good is going to want a woman like me.”

In the twenty-first century health and wealth are tightly correlated. Poor Americans are sick because the housing they can afford is clustered in environmentally unsound neighborhoods; the jobs they can get involve debilitating physical labor, ongoing exposure to toxic chemicals, or harassment by bosses or customers; the food they can afford is nutritionally unsound; and access to consistent health care (especially dental care) is limited. In a cyclical manner, poor health, and especially visually obvious signs such as rotting teeth, limits the ability to get the kinds of jobs that pay living wages.

For Elizabeth, as for many Americans, a prison record sealed her caste membership. She is not alone. By age 23, 49% percent of black men and 16% of black women, 44% of Hispanic men and 18% of Hispanic women, and 38% percent of white men and 20% of white women have been arrested. Poor and low-income Americans are far more likely to be arrested and incarcerated than better off Americans. Over half of the incarcerated population has been diagnosed with a mental health issue and at least 40% suffer from chronic illness. Unhealthy prison conditions partly explain the substandard health profile of Americans involved with the correctional system. But the fact is that people entering prison are already sicker and poorer than other Americans.

Elizabeth often says that before her life fell apart she didn’t even know that there are people who live the way she lives now. But of course, caste is not a new phenomenon. In the United States racial categories traditionally have constituted a caste system and African Americans have long experienced segregation, barriers to occupational advancement, and ascription of morally suspect traits and behaviors such as mental illness, cognitive impairment, infectious diseases, hypersexuality, promiscuity, drug use, defective parenting, and childlike dependence on public assistance. The news, then, is not that America is a caste society. Rather, it’s how easy it has become to join the ranks of the caste of the ill, impoverished and criminalized.

Susan Starr Sered is Professor of Sociology and Senior Researcher at the Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights at Suffolk University in Boston. She is the co-author of Can’t Catch A Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility with Maureen Norton-Hawk.

Read Susan’s blog.