When the insurrection on Capitol Hill was over, midlife Black men in navy blue custodial uniforms cleaned up the mess.
The viral video of the janitors sweeping debris from the hallway was as telling as any image of the day. It told a story beyond the photos of white people scaling the exterior walls of the Capitol, breaking windows to gain entry or the man lounging in the House speaker’s office chair with his feet propped upon her desk.
It was a resignation without a word spoken. As is often the case, Black people were left to clean up the mess, this time left by whites who stormed the Capitol in an attempt to force Congress to invalidate Black votes.
There is one thing on which most of us can agree regarding the insurrection. White rioters were treated differently than African Americans. Black men — and women — likely would have been shot down for taking over this sacred building, the preeminent symbol of American democracy.
But white people, for the most part, were allowed to roam freely. When one of the rioters was done breaking the law, an officer held her arm and assisted her down the Capitol steps.
We should consider it progress that so many white people realize that a much harsher system of justice is applied to African Americans. Or perhaps what is new is that some white people are now quicker to say it publicly.
But saying it out loud is not enough.
We must come together as a nation to force the justice system into balance. However, we cannot begin to figure out how to do that until we understand why it always has been so lopsided.
It is easy to attribute everything that happens unfairly to African Americans to racism. Racism has become a catchall phrase for anything in which the majority race receives unwarranted precedence over the minority race.
Often, it is indeed racism, but that is not always the entire story.
My friend Isabel Wilkerson, whom I met years ago when she was a national correspondent for The New York Times based in Chicago, suggests that the injustice we most often see is something more complex. It is the adherence to a caste system that is as much a part of America’s DNA as it was in Nazi Germany and today in India.
Her new book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” provides insight into the inner workings of America’s caste system. She challenges us to delve deeper into a concept that for most Americans is foreign, if not incomprehensible.
In her book, Wilkerson describes America’s caste system as a social hierarchy that was established centuries ago “based upon what people looked like, an internalized ranking, unspoken, unnamed, unacknowledged by everyday citizens even as they go about their lives adhering to it and acting upon it subconsciously to this day.”
Caste and race are interwoven in America, she explains, and it can be hard to separate the two. She distinguishes them this way:
“Any action or institution that mocks, harms, assumes, or attaches inferiority or stereotype on the basis of the social construct of race can be considered racism,” she writes.
“Any action or structure that seeks to limit, hold back, or put someone in a defined ranking, seeks to keep someone in their place by elevating or denigrating that person on the basis of their perceived category, can be seen as casteism.
“Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you.”
Caste is structure, she writes. Caste is ranking. Simply put, caste is about keeping “those on your disfavored rung from gaining on you.”
It should surprise no one that Black people rank lowest in the caste system and white people comprise the upper caste. So from their perch at the top of the hierarchy, white people are allowed to get away with things that Black people cannot. Their entitlement is widely recognized, even by some in law enforcement.
According to Wilkerson, casteism “may flare and reassert itself in times of upheaval and recede in times of relative calm,” but it is always there.
Let’s look at what happened last week through the lens of the caste system.
Swarms of white people descended upon Washington demanding that the government return something they believed had been stolen from them, in this case, an election. They had no proof to back it up. Caste does not require it.
“Caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy,” Wilkerson writes.
Caste reaffirms white people’s standing. Even whites at the bottom of the social economic scale could be assured that they held title to something that no one else did — that America has always belonged to them.
Finally, there was a president who understood the natural order, and his supporters would go to any lengths to keep him in office.
So they burst into the Capitol. It was not trespassing, because this building and everything inside belonged to them. They shouted, “Our house! Our house!”
Richard Barnett was photographed lounging in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. Another man smiled and waved at cameras as he walked through the rotunda carrying the House speaker’s lectern. And another took a seat in the Senate chair that moments before had been occupied by Vice President Mike Pence as he presided over the joint session to certify Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States.
Meanwhile, others swarmed the hallways wreaking havoc. When they were finished, most were allowed to walk away. It will take a long time for authorities to find all the offenders and charge them with crimes. Some likely will never be caught.
A caste system allows such a miscarriage of justice. It is not always intentional. It is simply inherent and most importantly, invisible. According to Wilkerson, its very invisibility is what gives it power and longevity.
Perhaps the most unseemly reward granted to those at the top of the hierarchy is entitlement. The caste structure sustains it and everyone, including some at the bottom, accepts it and sometimes, seemingly inexplicably, helps it to thrive.
It is common for those in the marginalized castes, Wilkerson writes, to “curry the favor and remain in the good graces of the dominant caste, all of which serves to keep the structure intact.”
That explains why an Afro Cuban might accept the leadership of the extremist group, the Proud Boys, and why a sprinkling of Black people always can be found among counterprotesters of Black Lives Matter. It is why a handful of Black people were among those who stormed the Capitol demanding that votes of other Black people in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Georgia be tossed out as illegitimate.
So when the cleaning crew arrived, it was expected that many would be African Americans. Though janitorial work is entirely respectable, certain jobs are reserved for those at the bottom of the hierarchy.
Their work at the end of the day was the continuum of the natural order. Cleaning up after those at the top reflects the internal ranking within America.
It is required under a system built on caste.
Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.