Several years ago, I had the pleasure of working with a young veterinary student who harkened from the Midwest. He was in my lab for a training program for vet students where my job was to provide exposure to science training outside of the normal curriculum. At the time, we were trying to determine if genetic markers could be used to differentiate fecal contaminants in streams (e.g., people, cattle, horses, dogs, etc.). This student collected water samples in Stevens County and brought them back to the lab where he concentrated samples, extracted DNA, and ran assays to detect the markers.
A couple of unusual incidents happened that summer that have stuck with me. In one case, the student was walking on the sidewalk in a small town north of Spokane when a police officer went out of his way to ask if he needed any help? I have walked that same path many times and never attracted an officer’s “helpful” attention.
Another time, when the student was stopped for construction on Highway 195, south of Spokane. During the stop, the driver of a large RV came from behind my student’s vehicle and verbally berated him for driving a state vehicle that the RV driver was convinced had to be an error (this was during the weekday and during working hours).
In Pullman, the student received a moving citation for not turning directly into the closest west-bound lane at the intersection of Bishop and the Moscow-Pullman Highway in Pullman. You can see this happen just about every time you are at this intersection, but I’ve never observed a citation being issued.
The key difference between my student and much of the local population is that he had a dark complexion. Of Italian descent with black and very curly hair, he was a bright, articulate, charismatic and energetic young man who was raised on a small family farm. All of his positive characteristics mattered little to the police officers who clearly profiled him because of his skin color, or to the maniac RV driver (Caucasian, middle-aged male) who was incensed that a person of color was driving a state-owned vehicle.
These events have been described as “little pricks” – that is, constant digs at people who are viewed not by their accomplishments, contributions or humanity, but instead are judged by the amount of melanin in their skin.
The syndrome of “little pricks” highlights the compelling idea that author Isabel Wilkerson makes about racism being an outcome of caste. In her book, “Caste, The Origins of Our Discontent,” Wilkerson traces the history of caste in America, starting with slavery and vivid historical accounts of how Hitler marveled at the American “knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death” (lynching, in this case). Indeed, as one legal scholar wrote, “It was the leading racist jurisdiction — so much so that even Nazi Germany looked to America for inspiration.”
There are probably very few people in America who would call themselves “racist” — a term that is binary by definition, but people of lighter complexion have been steeped in a bath of subtle reinforcements about the caste social order. I am hopeful that all Americans will eventually understand and recognize this social construct for the injustice that it is and embrace human potential above all else.
Unfortunately, there are still many who have not figured it out and instead, consciously or not, view Blacks as properly placed at the bottom rung of the social ladder, those of other color placed the middle tier, and those of Caucasian heritage placed the top rung. Attempts to “rise above your station” are quickly slapped down.
This social order is what Trump is trying to reinforce this election, exemplified by trying to scare suburban homeowners about low-income families living in their neighborhood. The June 2019 issue of The Atlantic magazine published “An Oral History of Trump’s Bigotry,” which documents Trump’s long-standing and very public efforts to promote the caste social order in America. The authors have plenty of new material from just the past 14 months.
Doug Call is a microbiologist. He first discovered the Palouse 37 years ago.