On Jan. 6, a large group of mostly white Trump loyalists stormed our nation’s Capitol, terrorizing our elected public officials, desecrating the people’s house with Confederate flags, causing considerable physical damage and stealing property. Five people died. After the mayhem, shattered glass was strewn across floors, doors were smashed and feces was smeared on the walls. Overall, a pretty sick display of what some people consider patriotism.
When it came time to clean up the mess, guess who came to work? As Pulitzer Prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson recently pointed out, the mess created by the privileged white insurrectionists was mostly cleaned up by people of color who were serving in custodial positions at the Capitol. The irony would probably be missed if it didn’t so clearly reflect the denegation that nonwhites face in this country every day. The last four years of the Trump administration coupled with the pandemic have brought these issues into sharp relief.
And, as Wilkerson points out, this isn’t about class warfare. Class is something you can escape. The color of your skin is inescapable, and that color defines your position in the American caste system.
With the American caste system, people of color can expect authorities to respond to peaceful protests with advance planning and force that far exceeds how the insurrectionists were greeted Jan. 6. As just one of innumerable examples, consider the federal attack on peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C. on June 1 so that Donald Trump could hold up a Bible prop as a symbol of white authority.
With the American caste system, Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police compared to white men (lifetime risk; Edwards et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2019). Black women (1.4 times), American Indian men (1.2 to 1.7 times), American Indian women (1.1 to 2.1 times) and Latino men (1.3 to 1.4 times) are more likely to be killed by police than their white peers. And while disparities in sentencing have been declining, in 2016 Blacks were five times more likely to be sent to state prisons for similar crimes as whites, and Blacks are spending longer sentences in prison than their white peers.
With the American caste system, economic prosperity is gamed in favor of whites. Even with recent improvements in median annual household income, Blacks ($46,073) and Hispanics ($56,113) remain considerably lower than whites ($76,057). Thus, Blacks represent 13.2 percent of the total U.S. population and 23.8 percent of the poverty population. Hispanics represent 18.7 percent of the U.S. population and 28.1 percent of the poverty population (U.S. Census Bureau, September 2020). Twenty-five percent of American Indian households live in poverty.
With that poverty comes healthcare disparities for which one metric is the uninsured rate that hovers close to 22 percent for American Indians, 19 percent for Hispanics, and 11.5 percent for Blacks compared with 7.5 percent for white peers (Kaiser Family Foundation, March 2020). The high degree of disparity that we see today is a significant improvement over several years ago, thanks to the Affordable Care Act that Republicans have tried so hard to kill. Rates of poverty correlate closely with the likelihood of death by COVID-19 (168/100,000 for American Indians and 136/100,000 for Black Americans compared with 97/100,000 for whites).
Farcical attempts to paint Black Lives Matter as a Marxist movement (columnist Dale Courtney, Daily News, Jan. 20) are dog whistles to the privileged class intended to divert people from meaningful discussion. Instead, we need to talk about how to make the American experiment responsive and fair to all Americans.
From a taxation and deficit perspective, we need everyone to pay their fair share, including Donald Trump who infamously paid no more than $750 in federal income tax for the past several years and companies like Amazon that infamously paid virtually nothing for years. From a growth perspective, we need equal economic opportunity for all, equal educational opportunity for all, affordable and comprehensive healthcare for all, the end of redlining and blacklists in housing, finance and insurance. We need a living minimum wage in all 50 states, and yes, we need comprehensive police reform.
If the American experiment is going to thrive, much less survive, we need an end to the American caste system.
Doug Call is a microbiologist and father of three.He first discovered the Palouse 37 years ago.