Castes of the United States

It’s always fun to rethink the world by redefining our terminology. But the brain can only stand so much of this. The cerebrum boils, releasing green gas. The cortex starts to blacken and fray. A shocking, foreign pain arises between the ears. It will not go away.

So it’s a relief when there’s a backup word, which already has exactly the right meaning, but is disused and carries no (or at least few) political and emotional associations. This word is “caste.” The word it replaces is so encrusted in historical nonsense that I won’t even say it.

Of course the word “caste” is generally associated with India. The US is not India. So if we meant “caste” in the precise Hindu sense of the word (varna), there are no castes in the US, except perhaps among some Indian immigrants.

Some redefinition, therefore, is necessary. Let’s define a “caste” as a social group with its own internal status system. All hominids crave status and will exchange almost anything for it, but different castes assign status in very different ways—as we’ll see.

Here’s my taxonomy of American castes. I’ve picked names from various historical cultures, hopefully without strong emotional associations for modern readers, for these castes. The implicit analogies these names create should be roughly accurate, but certainly not precise. I have ordered them alphabetically to avoid any implicit ranking.

In the Brahmin caste, status among both men and women is defined by scholarly achievement, success in an intellectual profession, or position of civic responsibility. The highest-status Brahmins are artists and scientists, but Brahmins can also be doctors or lawyers, although it is much better to be a doctor than a lawyer, and much better to be a lawyer than a dentist (a trade which was perhaps once Brahmin, but is now definitely Vaisya). Ideally, as a Brahmin, if you are a doctor you should be primarily concerned with caring for the poor; if you are a lawyer, your practice should focus on civil liberties and social justice—cardiology and corporate law are slightly de trop. An increasing number of young Brahmins consider themselves “activists” and work for “nonprofits” or “NGOs,” lending some credence to the theory that the Brahmins are our ruling or governing caste. Entry into the Brahmin caste is conferred almost entirely by first-tier university admissions, although getting into Harvard doesn’t mean you don’t still need to make something of yourself.

In the Dalit caste, status among men is defined by power, wealth and sexual success, among women by attractiveness and popularity. The favored occupation of Dalit men is crime, preferably of the organized variety. However, Dalit criminals are not generally psychopathic; they perceive crime as guerrilla warfare against an unjust society. Dalit women may support themselves by crime, welfare (which they consider a right), or payments from men. Both male and female Dalits may occasionally support themselves by conventional employment, but this is usually in jobs that other castes (except Helots) would consider demeaning, and Dalits share this association. The Dalit caste is not monolithic; it is divided into a number of ethnic subcastes, such as African-American, Mexican, etc. A few white Dalits exist, notably in the Appalachians. There is little or no solidarity between the various Dalit ethnicities.

The Helot caste is an imported peasant caste, originating primarily in rural Central America. Status among Helot men is conferred primarily by hard work, money and power. Status among Helot women is conferred by attractiveness, motherhood, and association with successful men. The Helot value system does not seem to be sustainable in the US, and the children of Helots tend to grow up as Dalits. New Helots, however, can always be imported to replace them.

The Optimate caste has to be mentioned, because it was until quite recently the US’s ruling caste. It is not clear, however, that the Optimate value system still exists in any meaningful sense, and if it does it is decaying rapidly, with most young Optimates becoming Brahmins. However, status among any men and women who do still follow the Optimate way is conferred by birth, breeding and personal character, with wealth serving as a prerequisite but not a mark of actual distinction. The Bible of the Optimate caste is, of course, the Social Register.

The Vaisya caste is the most difficult to define. It’s tempting to say that a Vaisya is anyone who is not a Brahmin, Dalit, Helot or Optimate. Status among Vaisya men is conferred by productive employment, generally defined in monetary terms; by a successful family life; and by participation in church or other formal social groups. Status among Vaisya women is conferred by attractiveness, motherhood, and social participation, with an increasing number of Vaisya women entering the labor force, typically in unintellectual white-collar jobs.

(Update: please see the comment by “smb,” whose perspective of the present-day Optimate caste is much sharper and clearer than my definition—which on reflection is too antiquated.)