Caste and Class

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The terms caste and class are associated with an interpretation of American race relations that came to prominence in the late 1930s and was widely influential in both social scientific and applied social inquiry. Part of an older, historically-rooted trend toward more social scientific understandings of racial inequality, the caste and class school was nevertheless a product of Depression-era social thought and investigation. At a time rightly associated with deepening economic division and looming fear of "class warfare," the caste and class concept offered a powerful, if flawed, analysis of the depths and the consequences of racism in the United States.

The caste and class concept was first laid out in a brief 1936 essay by social anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner, and it was more fully developed in a series of community studies conducted in the Depression-era South. Warner, who started his anthropological career studying aboriginal tribes in Australia, was among the leaders of a broader trend towards applying anthropological techniques honed in observing "primitive" cultures to "typical" American communities. It was in this type of study that he and others developed the caste and class concept. Indeed, in important ways the concept emerged out of the contrast between industrial New England and the post-plantation agricultural South. While still engaged in an ambitious study of the substantially ethnic but predominantly white city of Newburyport, Massachusetts, Warner launched a parallel study in Natchez, Mississippi. In Newburyport, as Warner reported in his famous Yankee City series, social relations were organized around an elaborate status hierarchy based on class, upheld not only by differences of wealth and income, but even more importantly by class-coded behavior, attitudes, and cultural traits. In Natchez, however, the picture was more complicated. In Natchez, there was not one, but two separate class hierarchies, one black and one white. They in turn existed within a rigid and pervasive caste system—an all-encompassing economic, political, social, and cultural system of racial subordination that was aimed at maintaining white supremacy. While at times caste and class worked in tension with one another, the overwhelming weight of the system was devoted to keeping African Americans—and especially the small black middle- and upper-classes—"in their place." Conversely, no matter how low they were on the class hierarchy, whites always had the social, cultural, and psychological advantage over African Americans.

Although he was by no means the first to describe black/white relations as a caste system, Warner's framework proved more widely influential—reflecting his own status as a prominent white social scientist, as well as the landmark empirical studies conducted using the caste and class concept. Studies such as John Dollard's Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937), Hortense Powder-maker's After Freedom (1939), and Deep South (1941) by Warner students Allison Davis, Burleigh Gardner, and Mary Gardner elaborated the interlocking mechanisms of caste and class subordination in empirical detail. A series of studies commissioned by the American Council on Education investigated the impact of caste and class on black adolescent personality development. Important though they were in illuminating the structural and institutional dimensions of southern racism, what these studies shared—again reflecting a broader trend in contemporary social science—was a fascination with the cultural and psychological scars it left. African Americans in the South, or so the deeply flawed portrait that emerged from these studies suggested, had become "accommodated" to racial subordination in what threatened to become a self-perpetuating complex of repressed frustration, self-hatred, and, for the lower classes in particular, cultural "pathology."

Criticized at the time for its basically static, pessimistic vision of American race relations, the caste and class framework was nevertheless important for drawing attention to the enduring reality of racism as a key factor in the persistence of African-American poverty and economic subordination—during and beyond the depths of the Great Depression. Its central analysis, however, left an ambiguous legacy that also endures: on the one hand, an argument for attacking the roots of white racism; on the other, a distorted cultural and psychological imagery of the African-American lower class.



Davis, Allison; Burleigh B. Gardner; and Mary R. Gardner. Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class. 1941.

Davis, Allison, and John Dollard. Children of Bondage: The Personality Development of Negro Youth in the Urban South. 1940.

Dollard, John. Caste and Class in a Southern Town. 1937.

Powdermaker, Hortense. After Freedom: A Cultural Study in the Deep South. 1939.

Scott, Daryl Michael. Contempt and Pity: Social Policy and the Image of the Damaged Black Psyche, 1880–1996. 1997.

Warner, W. Lloyd. "American Caste and Class." American Journal of Sociology 42 (September 1936): 234–237.

Alice O'Connor