Published: April 01, 2012
IN the mid-1930s, a Yale anthropologist ventured to an unnamed town in the South to explore the feudal divisions of what we commonly call race but what he preferred to describe with the more layered language of caste. When he arrived - white, earnest and fresh from the North - white Southerners told him that a Northerner would soon enough "feel about Negroes as Southerners do." In making that prediction, the anthropologist John Dollard wrote in his seminal study "Caste and Class in a Southern Town," they are saying "that he joins the white caste. The solicitation is extremely active, though informal, and one must stand by one's caste to survive."
Americans tend to think of the rigid stratification of caste as a distant notion from feudal Europe or Victorian India. But caste is alive and well in this country, where a still unsettled multiracial society is emerging from the starkly drawn social order that Dollard described. Assumptions about one's place in this new social order have become a muddying subtext in the case of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager slain at the hands of an overzealous neighborhood watch captain, who is the son of a white father and a Peruvian mother.
We do not know what George Zimmerman was thinking as he watched Mr. Martin from afar, told a 911 dispatcher that he looked suspicious and ultimately shot him. But we do know that it happened in central Florida, a region whose demographic landscape is rapidly changing, where unprecedented numbers of Latino immigrants have arrived at a place still scarred by the history of a vigilante-enforced caste system and the stereotypes that linger from it. In this context, newcomers - like previous waves of immigrants in the past - may feel pressed to identify with the dominant caste and distance themselves from blacks, in order to survive.
A study released in 2006 by Duke University on attitudes on race in Durham, N.C., a city with one of the fastest-growing Latino populations in the country, found that an overwhelming majority of Latinos - 78 percent - felt they had the most in common with whites, while 53 percent of them felt they had the least in common with blacks. So it would make sense for those respondents to act with the same assumptions about blacks that they perceive are held by native whites. In fact the Latino respondents, many of them immigrants from Mexico and Central America, actually reported higher negative feelings toward blacks than most native-born whites. Nearly 60 percent reported feeling that few or almost no blacks were hard-working or could be trusted, while only 10 percent of whites held that view.
On the other hand, almost three-quarters of blacks felt that Latinos were hard-working or could be trusted. Black Americans appear to view Latinos as more like themselves. "Blacks are not as negative toward Latinos as Latinos are toward blacks because blacks see them as another nonwhite group that will be treated as they have been," said Paula D. McClain, the lead author on the study. Even as blacks worry about losing jobs to new immigrants, they are less supportive of harsh anti-immigration laws, she said, "because they know what laws have done to them."
But shared hardships don't necessarily make allies. "As linked fate rises, so does competition," said Michael Jones-Correa, a professor of government at Cornell who specializes in immigration and interethnic relations. "It's like a sibling rivalry," he said. "This is not a painless relationship." And, of course, Latino immigrants don't just enter a pre-existing racial hierarchy; they bring with them their own assumptions based on the hierarchies in their home countries. "When we come to the U.S.," Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a professor of sociology at Duke, who is Puerto Rican, said, "we immediately recognize whites on top and blacks on the bottom and say, 'My job is to be anything but black.' "
This uneasy coexistence has had tragic consequences in the past. A series of riots broke out in Miami in the 1980s after several black men were shot dead by Latino police officers who claimed self-defense and were later acquitted. In 1982 in Miami, a 20-year-old black man named Nevell Johnson Jr. was killed at a video arcade by a white, Cuban-born police officer. Seven years later, after a routine traffic stop in that same Miami neighborhood, a black man riding a motorcycle, Clement Anthony Lloyd, was shot dead by a Colombian-born police officer. The motorcycle then crashed; another black man who was riding on the back died the next day.
Just last year in California, a gang of 51 people, mostly Latinos, were indicted in the San Gabriel Valley, east of Los Angeles, after a 15-year campaign of assaults and firebombings of African-American residents, whom they were trying to force out of the neighborhood.
In this atmosphere, blacks are the target of the highest number of hate crimes in the United States, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation - higher by a wide margin than any another group of Americans by race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or disability. While blacks make up 12.6 percent of the country's population, they were 70 percent of the victims of racial hate crimes in 2010.
WHATEVER role caste may have played in the Trayvon Martin case is unknowable, and it is far too early to tell whether Mr. Zimmerman will be arrested, tried or convicted. But that encounter unfolded in Seminole County, where Latinos have overtaken African-Americans as the dominant minority group, rising to 17 percent from 11 percent in the last decade. Blacks now make up 11 percent and whites, 66 percent. The area had a history of vigilante justice long before the new arrivals, dating back to 1920, when blacks in the nearby town of Ocoee were burned out of their homes after two black men tried to vote.
Despite all that has gone before, there is reason for optimism. One of the great tragedies of the last century was the pitting of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe against African-Americans who had migrated from the rural South to the industrial North. Both groups were seeking the same thing and were pretty much the same people - people of the land trying to make a way for their families in forbidding and alien places. Fear, suspicion and uneven access to unions, jobs and housing kept them apart. Firebombings and white flight followed, and we are still living with the aftereffects of those divisions.
The arrival of a new kind of immigrant to a country that has endured so much discord offers a chance for re-examination and redemption. Indeed, one of the most encouraging signs noted by Mr. Jones-Correa is that Latinos are maintaining a distinct identity and are increasingly choosing to be identified as "other" rather than black or white. "We have a history of immigrants coming to America and proving themselves as American by identifying as white," he said. "Latinos see themselves as a third category. I think they will continue as a third position beyond the black and white rhetoric."
John Dollard was told time and again that he would come to see the lowest caste of the South the same way that those who had devised the caste system did. He resisted that impulse and instead chose to lay bare the divisions in a hope that they one day might end. Now, 75 years later, a death in Florida gives all of us the chance to reflect on the meaning of that choice.
Isabel Wilkerson is a former national correspondent and bureau chief for The New York Times and the author of "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration."