In a caste system, individuals have an ascribed status, given at birth by virtue of one’s parents. Caste systems have a rigid social hierarchy. Occupations are part of each caste.
Apartheid in South Africa 1950–1991was an example of a racial caste system, as was the American South before civil-rights laws began a slow erosion.
Indian Caste System
The classic example of a traditional caste system is India. The caste system began ~1500 bce, with the arrival of fair-skinned Aryans in India from southern Europe and northern Asia. Disregarding local cultures, the Aryan conquered regions throughout north India.
The Aryans organized themselves into 3 groups: warriors (Rajayana, later Kshatriya), priests (Brahmans), and workers: farmers and craftsmen (Vaishyas). At the bottom of the heap were subdued locals, who were low-status servants.
Within a few hundred years, the caste system had been set and ossified. Skin color was significant in determining caste.
The Hindu religion incorporated the caste system in its stories, with tales of wars between light-skinned Aryans and dark demons. Deceptive seduction of Aryan men by dark-skinned demon women was another common theme.
The Aryans invented reincarnation in order to justify the caste system and prevent revolt against it. Reincarnation explained why Brahmins were born into social privilege. It also deflected hopes for social progress through the veiled promise of a better next life by being virtuous this time round.
Around the 6th century, lower castes, fed up with brutal suppression, turned to Buddhism, which offered the prospect of individual release. Buddha, born into the warrior caste, was a severe critic of the caste system.
The 19th-century British Raj ended up diminishing the rigidity of the caste system, much to the outrage of the upper castes. But this was well after the British used the caste system to attain societal control by allying themselves with the Brahmins, the alpha caste.
When India became a republic in 1947, the new government instituted laws to assist the lower castes, including a quota system for education access and government jobs.
The Indian caste system is no longer mandated, but it remains in effect. In 2007 the Indian Supreme Court ruled that caste is inherited and cannot be changed.