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While the antecedents of class -- less a system than an outcome of circumstances -- created conditions that some might categorize as similar to a caste system, the two are vastly different. The continuing existence of ethnic minority underclasses can be directly linked to histories of slavery and institutionalized racism, such as existed in the United States for almost two hundred years. In that respect, the distinction between class and caste can be blurred. The crucial difference, however, lies in the extent to which a caste system institutionalizes class differences. In other words, in the United States, representatives of historically economically underserved minorities can and do aspire to higher socioeconomic status. And, since the civil rights changes of the 1960s, they are much more free to do so, evidenced in the constantly growing African-American middle class, as well as in the growth of African American representation in elected offices.
A caste system, in contrast, condemns those born to the lower strata of society to a lifetime of economic destitution. More than class in a free market democratic society like the United States, a caste system such as exists in India, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia is based on factors like clan, tribal and ethnic traditions (for example, arranged marriages within one's socioeconomic class) and hereditary factors. One is expected to remain in one's class by virtue of genetics and tradition. Caste systems, depending upon the country, can be rigidly enforced through laws designed to limit mixing of classes or, absent law, by tribal or clan customs that prohibit such interactions, often punishing transgressions with violent punishments.
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