1860 - Boston Brahmins create a caste system
1860, American writer and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., whose son would go on to be an influential Supreme Court justice, wrote a piece for The Atlantic Monthly called “The Brahmin Caste of New England,” which celebrated the way that some well-to-do Americans had adopted aspects of India’s thousands-of-years-old caste system. Born into wealth in Cambridge, just steps from Harvard Yard, Holmes, by way of his essay, seemed well aware that he had inherited certain privileges in the world. But he also justified those privileges, claiming that families like his possessed innate qualities that made them entitled to power over others. “Our scholars,” he wrote, “come chiefly from a privileged order, just as our best fruits come from well-known grafts.”
The next year, the essay was included in one of Holmes’s novels, Elsie Venner, and before long a group of wealthy, educated white elites in Boston began referring to themselves as “Boston Brahmins.” They were mostly descendantsof early settlers, and also believed they were predisposed to leading the United States. These white Protestant families were attached to esteemed institutions like Harvard, preferred to intermarry, and maintained their own distinct accent for decades. More than a hundred years later, the progeny of Boston Brahmins have remained in positions of power in the U.S. — former secretary of state John Kerry is a descendant — and their vision of an American aristocracy continues to have a lasting, telling influence.
Though the name of their group came from India, the fact that white men like Holmes were attracted to a hierarchical conception of humanity in the 1800s was no accident. After all, while they were thinking about caste in Boston, the United States was on the precipice of a civil war over the right to enslave black people, had yet to allow any woman the right to vote, and was charging headfirst toward another wave of xenophobia. In Betty Farrell’s Elite Families: Class and Power in Nineteenth-Century Boston, she writes, “Visiting Boston for the first time in the 1830s, Harriet Martineau noted that it was ‘perhaps as aristocratic, vain, and vulgar a city, as described by its own “first people,” as any in the world.’” Holmes felt the elites of New England were independent of the “feudal aristocracies of the Old World,” but many of the customs he pointed to as defining the Boston Brahmin resembled those of the British gentry, like requiring women to attend “finishing schools” and to marry into respectable white families, which often directly descended from those same British landowners. In other words, wealth or knowledge alone didn’t guarantee one entry into Holmes’s circle; a true Brahmin needed the right blood, or, as the writer put it, had to be attached to a “race of scholars” with a particularly virtuous nature.
However much the Boston Brahmins perceived themselves to have the moral high ground, they simultaneously built a reputation for being xenophobic. As Andy Bowers at Slateexplains, they had a “hostility to the Irish and other immigrants.” Bowers also notes that Boston Brahmin Henry Cabot Lodge, a congressman from Massachusetts, introduced a bill in 1891 “that would have required new immigrants to pass a literacy test before entering the country.” And while some of Holmes’s friends were abolitionists, including those who started The Atlantic Monthly, many in his so-called caste profited from the enslavement of black people and had ties to the imperialist British East India Company (not to mention the genocide perpetrated against indigenous peoples).
During the same era as Martineau’s visit to Boston, the British Raj was actively reorganizing life in India around the idea of caste. As Shashi Tharoor writes, the empire was helping to “solidify and perpetuate the inequities of the caste system.” In a recent interview with Timeline, Nico Slate, a history professor at Carnegie Mellon and author of Colored Cosmopolitan: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India, said that “Holmes was part of a generation of American intellectuals who shared a fascination with India in general and caste in particular.” He added that, “from the early 19th century until well into the 20th century, most Americans […] followed the British in seeing caste as a rigid, unchanging system driven by ritual considerations, rather than a diverse and contested series of overlapping hierarchies shaped by economic inequality.”
Despite the fascination with India’s caste system, Holmes described his version as less “odious” and saw it as a simple delineation between “country boys” and those men who were naturally more suited to intellectual pursuits. Not surprisingly, some leaders would use similar ideas to exclude South Asian immigrants from entering the country a few years later, regardless of their stated caste affiliation. By 1917, echoing the sentiments of so-called Brahmins like Henry Cabot Lodge, there had been riots pushing Sikh Americans out of the Pacific Northwest, and Congress had banned immigration from almost the entirety of Asia.
But there were still South Asians living in the country, many of whom had immigrated from India before the 1917 Immigration Act, having renounced allegiance to the British in order to become naturalized in the U.S. These men and a handful of women “were left stateless.” To survive in this climate, some of these immigrants — who were often generally referred to as “Hindus,” even though most were Sikh or Muslim — would intentionally emphasize their “high caste” in hopes of avoiding discrimination or exclusion. In 1923, Bhagat Singh Thind famously tried to use his caste status to argue in the Supreme Court for his whiteness, and thus his eligibility for citizenship. The Supreme Court rejected Thind’s idea, ruling that despite their caste, Indian men like Thind were still very much not white, and therefore not American.
As Deepa Iyer recently observed at Scroll, “a nuanced historic understanding of the desperate political circumstances that Thind and other Asian immigrants faced in the 1920s may provide some balance to the legitimate critiques we can make today about his reliance on caste and colour arguments.” In 2018, groups like Equality Labs are exploring how the South Asian community continues to deal with “living under white supremacy while replicating Caste, anti-Dalitness, and anti-Blackness.”
The United States itself remains a stratified society, built along lines that include but go beyond ideas of class, race, and gender. In an essay for CityLabtitled “Does America Have a Caste System?,” Subramanian Shankar explainsthat “caste … is societal difference made timeless, inevitable and cureless. Caste says to its subjects, ‘You all are different and unequal and fated to remain so.’” Which is precisely why famed Dalit leader B. R. Ambedkar, author of Annihilation of Caste, saw a similarity between the position of the Dalits and that of black Americans. Contrary to the myth of meritocracy, the U.S. has never been a land of endless opportunity, but always one designed to maintain hierarchies of power.
Professor Slate, whose book Lord Cornwallis Is Dead: The Struggle for Democracy in the United States and India, is forthcoming, offers that “the very idea of democracy has itself become a convenient shield that hides the reality of injustice and inequality in both places.” In other words, in a country where a wealthy white supremacist misogynist was recently elected to the highest office in the land, Oliver Wendell Holmes’s dream of a caste-based American society would seem to be very much alive and well.