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Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
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In this 'Oprah's Book Club' pick, Isabel Wilkerson presents a compelling argument for shifting the language used to describe how black Americans are treated by their country. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning author tells NPR, 'racism' is an insufficient term for the country's ingrained inequality. A more accurate characterization is 'caste system' - a phrase that better encapsulates the hierarchical nature of American society.
Drawing parallels between the United States, India and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson identifies the eight pillars that uphold caste systems: Among others, the list includes divine will, heredity, dehumanization, terror-derived enforcement and occupational hierarchies. Dividing people into categories ensures that those in the middle rung have an 'inferior' group to compare themselves to, the author writes, and maintains a status quo with tangible ramifications for public health, culture and politics. "The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality," Wilkerson explains. "It is about power - which groups have it and which do not."
As US president in the 1830s, Andrew Jackson was a feverish advocate of Indian removal, the banishing of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands and relocation on desolate reservations. It was Jackson who oversaw the infamous 'Trail of Tears', the forced migration on which more than 20% of the Cherokee people perished. History has been kind to Jackson; it remembers him as Old Hickory, a nation-builder who drove America's westward expansion and honours him by placing his image on the $20 bill. It doesn't remember him as the enslaver of 161 people or as a man who went horseback riding with reins carved from the flesh of indigenous Americans. And this is precisely how caste works, according to Isabel Wilkerson: it elevates and empowers members of a dominant caste at the perpetual expense of a subordinate caste.
The full pageantry of American cruelty is on display in Caste, an expansive interrogation of racism, institutionalised inequality and injustice. It was while working on her sweeping, Pulitzer prize-winning first book, The Warmth of Other Suns, a history of African Americans' great migration out of the South, that Wilkerson realised she was studying a deeply ingrained caste system that had been in place longer than the nation itself had existed, dating back to colonial Virginia. In Caste, Wilkerson sets out to understand American hierarchy, which she compares with two of the best known caste systems in the world: that of India, the very birthplace of caste, and of Nazi Germany, where caste as a modern experiment in barbarism was ultimately vanquished.
BR Ambedkar, the Indian social reformer who fought the scourge of caste all his life, called it 'graded inequality'. Caste is a complex system of infinite hierarchy; in Indian society, it divides humans according to varnas, or classes - Brahmins, or priests; warriors; traders; and labourers. Dalits are considered so low that they stand outside the varnas. Caste in India is a fraught and ugly thing, degrading everything in its path.
Wilkerson's is essentially a two-tier caste system - dominant or white and subordinate or non-white. The signal of rank in the American hierarchy is caste's 'faithful servant', race. Caste and race continually bleed into each other; Wilkerson defines a racist as someone who harms, mocks or institutionalises inferiority on the basis of race. A casteist is someone who upholds or benefits from an ingrained system of hierarchy, never challenging its assumptions. Wilkerson's choice of examining caste rather than race is a valuable one; this book is not about biology, social history or science, but about structural power. Caste is a 'hologram', she explains, an insidious force that operates outside of hatred or intolerance, animated by practice and reflex. It's not just the far right or trigger-happy cops; even the 'good' can be casteists - such as the guest at a Tina Brown book party who asked the then state senator Barack Obama to get them a drink.
Since its inception, the American caste system has reinvented itself in terrifying and hideous ways. "Before there was a United States of America," Wilkerson writes, "there was enslavement. Theirs was a living death passed down for twelve generations." Caste is a dark history of the inexhaustible scope of human violence. Enslaved Africans were seen as incapable of injury, worked to the bone and starved, and routinely subjected to torture and rape. The American caste system, like India or Germany's, was constructed and practised openly; it did not hide its savagery. Even Hitler recorded his admiration for the uniquely American "knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death". Wilkerson reminds us that the Nazis, though inspired by America's race laws, ultimately thought they went too far.
Writing of the South, where the purest form of American caste is practised, Wilkerson threads microhistories into the larger, horrendous tapestry. She describes local lynching trees, schools letting out early so children could accompany their parents to watch murder, advertised by newspapers as though they were sporting events. Photographers brought portable printing presses to sell photos of the hanged men as souvenirs. Lynching postcards were a thriving industry at the turn of the 20th century, wish-you-were-here's of the severed, half-burned head of Will James, lynched in Illinois in 1909 or of burned torsos from Waco. "This is the barbeque we had last night," a Texan wrote to his mother on the back on one such card.
Wilkerson writes about a country trembling with indignation when asked to simply acknowledge that black lives matter. Congress has steadfastly refused even to debate reparations for the descendants of the people they enslaved, refusing for 30 years to pass HR 40, a bill that would do nothing more than table a discussion on the matter. The author unearths much disquieting material in Caste. We know that during the Jim Crow era, black Americans were forced to drink from separate water fountains, but before they were given fountains, Wilkerson writes, they had to drink from horse troughs.
Caste as a concept can be dizzying, but Wilkerson makes plain the deeply embedded infrastructure of American hierarchy. Caste is why Robert E Lee, the Confederate general who went to war against his own country for the right to enslave other humans can be honoured by 230 memorials across the land. It is why Alabama was the last state in the union to throw out its law banning interracial marriage, which it did in 2000, 36 years after the Civil Rights Act ended segregation. And it is why Lyndon B Johnson, who signed that act into law, was the last Democrat ever to win the presidency with the majority of the white electorate.
Wilkerson ends the book by holding up Nazi Germany as a caste system successfully dismantled. But if Germany is an example of how caste can be ended then India is the understressed counterpoint: the nightmare of how caste can thrive and become more monstrous if casteists are put in charge. There is no mention of the spate of bloody lynchings that has gripped India since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014; no mention of Modi himself, a disciple of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a crypto-fascist casteist organisation allegedly inspired by nazism. This blind spot would not be worth mentioning if it were not for the author's stated intention to examine India, and the fact that the book is based on a distinctly Indian idea, one that has grown more visible and gruesome in recent years.
This is an American reckoning and so it should be. Wilkerson has a deft narrative touch and she activates the history in her pages, bringing all its horror and possibility to light, illuminating both the bygone and the present. Caste joins the New York Times' 1619 Project in exposing the edifice of white platinum privilege and exploding how we understand American power and supremacy. It is a painfully resonant book and could not have come at a more urgent time.
A critic shouldn't often deal in superlatives. He or she is here to explicate, to expand context and to make fine distinctions. But sometimes a reviewer will shout as if into a mountaintop megaphone. I recently came upon William Kennedy's review of 'One Hundred Years of Solitude,' which he called "the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race." Kennedy wasn't far off.
I had these thoughts while reading Isabel Wilkerson's new book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. It's an extraordinary document, one that strikes me as an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far. It made the back of my neck prickle from its first pages, and that feeling never went away.
I told more than one person, as I moved through my days this past week, that I was reading one of the most powerful nonfiction books I'd ever encountered.
Wilkerson's book is about how brutal misperceptions about race have disfigured the American experiment. This is a topic that major historians and novelists have examined from many angles, with care, anger, deep feeling and sometimes simmering wit.
Wilkerson's book is a work of synthesis. She borrows from all that has come before, and her book stands on many shoulders. 'Caste' lands so firmly because the historian, the sociologist and the reporter are not at war with the essayist and the critic inside her. This book has the reverberating and patriotic slap of the best American prose writing.
This is a complicated book that does a simple thing. Wilkerson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting while at The New York Times and whose previous book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, won the National Book Critics Circle Award, avoids words like 'white' and 'race' and 'racism' in favor of terms like 'dominant caste,' 'favored caste,' 'upper caste' and 'lower caste.'
Some will quibble with her conflation of race and caste. (Social class is a separate matter, which Wilkerson addresses only rarely.) She does not argue that the words are synonyms. She argues that they can and do coexist in the same culture and serve to reinforce each other. Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin. The reader does not have to follow her all the way on this point to find her book a fascinating thought experiment. She persuasively pushes the two notions together while addressing the internal wounds that, in America, have failed to clot.
A caste system, she writes, is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning.
As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance, Wilkerson writes. She observes that caste is about respect, authority and assumptions of competence - who is accorded these and who is not.
Wilkerson's usages neatly lift the mind out of old ruts. They enable her to make unsettling comparisons between India's treatment of its untouchables, or Dalits, Nazi Germany's treatment of Jews and America's treatment of African-Americans. Each country relied on stigmatizing those deemed inferior to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement.
Wilkerson does not shy from the brutality that has gone hand in hand with this kind of dehumanization. As if pulling from a deep reservoir, she always has a prime example at hand. It takes resolve and a strong stomach to stare at the particulars, rather than the generalities, of lives under slavery and Jim Crow and recent American experience. To feel the heat of the furnace of individual experience. It's the kind of resolve Americans will require more of.
'Caste' gets off to an uncertain start. Its first pages summon, in dystopian-novel fashion, the results of the 2016 election alongside anthrax trapped in the permafrost being released into the atmosphere because of global warming. Wilkerson is making a point about old poisons returning to haunt us. But by pulling in global warming (a subject she never returns to in any real fashion) so early in her book, you wonder if 'Caste' will be a mere grab bag of nightmare impressions.
Her consideration of the 2016 election, and American politics in general, is sobering. To anyone who imagined that the election of Barack Obama was a sign that America had begun to enter a post-racial era, she reminds us that the majority of whites did not vote for him.
She poses the question so many intellectuals and pundits on the left have posed, with increasing befuddlement: Why do the white working classes in America vote against their economic interests?
She runs further with the notion of white resentment than many commentators have been willing to, and the juices of her argument follow the course of her knife. What these pundits had not considered, Wilkerson writes, was that the people voting this way were, in fact, voting their interests. Maintaining the caste system as it had always been was in their interest. And some were willing to accept short-term discomfort, forgo health insurance, risk contamination of the water and air, and even die to protect their long-term interest in the hierarchy as they had known it.
In her novel 'Americanah,' Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie suggested that maybe it's time to just scrap the word 'racist.' Find something new. Like Racial Disorder Syndrome. And we could have different categories for sufferers of this syndrome: mild, medium and acute.
Wilkerson has written a closely argued book that largely avoids the word 'racism,' yet stares it down with more humanity and rigor than nearly all but a few books in our literature.
'Caste' deepens our tragic sense of American history. It reads like watching the slow passing of a long and demented cortege. In its suggestion that we need something akin to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, her book points the way toward an alleviation of alienation. It's a book that seeks to shatter a paralysis of will. It's a book that changes the weather inside a reader.
While reading 'Caste,' I thought often of a pair of sentences from Colson Whitehead's novel 'The Underground Railroad.' "The Declaration [of Independence] is like a map," he wrote. "You trust that it's right, but you only know by going out and testing it for yourself."
The air was hazy on a January night in 2018 when Isabel Wilkerson, the journalist and author of a much-lauded narrative account of the Black migration out of the American South, arrived in Delhi. Wilkerson's visit had been prompted by a book she was writing that used the Indian caste system to illuminate America's racial hierarchy. It was her first trip to India, but one aspect of what she saw there seemed instantly familiar. She quickly discovered that, as an African American woman schooled in the folkways of race in her home country, she could easily distinguish upper-caste Indians from Dalits, or Untouchables. In turn, "Dalits . . . gravitated toward me like long-lost relatives." Patterns of deference and social performance marked caste onto her hosts' bodies, even when Indians did their best to shake them off.
Wilkerson spent much of the 2010s researching and writing her book, just as the United States was moving in a direction that seemed to validate its thesis. A series of killings of African Americans, often by police officers, helped birth a new anti-racist social movement. Athletes knelt, monuments to slavery began to come down, reparations for enslavement and its long aftermath became a mainstream idea, and the politics of White grievance took over the White House. When she finished her book, she titled it Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Wilkerson's thesis is that Americans' current obsession with race is somewhat misplaced, for there is a deeper and more intractable system that hides behind the chimera of race, and that system is properly called American caste.
Caste, Wilkerson argues, is something we internalize unconsciously. Race is fluid and superficial, she asserts, joining the many scholars who have pointed out that race - with all its assumptions of the innate intellectual and moral superiority of one arbitrarily designated group of people over another - is an illusion. Caste, on the other hand, is fixed and rigid. Caste, like grammar, becomes an invisible guide not only to how we speak, but to how we process information. The caste system disguises itself by making us see race traits as real and immutable, and anti-racist work as simply the elimination of prejudiced thinking. The real problem, Wilkerson argues, goes deeper.
Caste has its origins in slavery, where there emerged a ladder of humanity, global in nature, with the English Protestants at the very top while all others rank in descending order until one comes to the African captives transported to build the New World. These Africans were analogous to the mudsill, she writes - the wooden beam that anchors a house to its foundation and provides support for the whole structure. Since the Civil War era, many commentators have referred to Black Americans as the essential mudsills of our society. Caste is like a container for the aspirations of these darker-skinned Americans, Wilkerson argues - a set of unstated assumptions about where and how they are supposed to exist. While there have been a variety of racial regimes as the country has moved from slavery to freedom to the post-civil-rights era, the assumptions of caste have remained relatively constant, often invisible and nearly impossible to dislodge.
Wilkerson's book is strongest when she illustrates her points through poignant stories, like that of a Black woman born in Texas after the civil rights era to parents who simply named her Miss, in defiance of the caste assumptions that required Black people to be addressed by their first names. At other points, Wilkerson narrates the stories of Dalits in India, who, despite the protections for them enshrined in the Indian constitution, can find simple things like trying on clothes in a store to be nearly impossible because of disrespect and harassment from high-caste Indians who believe that people at the bottom of the social ranking should do no such things. One interviewee simply resigns himself to wearing shoes that don't fit.
Wilkerson also shares her own experiences as a prominent journalist, seemingly outside the caste that is assigned to a person of her hue, such as when a boutique manager simply cannot believe that she is the Isabel Wilkerson who has asked to interview him, even after she provides him with her identification. Caste continues to do tangible harm to those at the lowest rung , Wilkerson argues, harm that can be quantified in terms of measurable phenomena such as different health outcomes for people who have to live under the assumptions that attach to the bottom caste.
Wilkerson's book is a powerful, illuminating and heartfelt account of how hierarchy reproduces itself, as well as a call to action for the difficult work of undoing it, but the fundamental conceit that drives its analysis is one of recognition. Wilkerson sees something familiar about the Dalits in India, and about the racial hierarchies that the Nazi regime constructed in Germany. Throughout human history, she asserts, three caste systems have stood out - those of the United States, India and Nazi Germany. Indeed, a central section of the book is devoted to setting out the 'eight pillars of caste.' These are features that these three systems all have in common, such as hierarchies that are supposedly natural or divinely ordered, heritability of status, controls on marriage and sexuality across caste lines, prohibitions on pollution of the upper caste by contact with the lower, caste-based occupational hierarchy, and terror and violence as means of enforcement. Yet Wilkerson devotes only limited space to comparing the Nazi regime to America or India, although she does mine that regime for other purposes. The Nazi regime, she argues, relying on recent work by the legal historian James Whitman, borrowed some of the legal structure for its notorious Nuremberg Laws from American statutes such as racial-intermarriage prohibitions that were on the books in most U.S. states. Present-day Germany, she also points out, officially repudiates and remembers the horrors of its racial past, while the United States often celebrates the defenders of slavery. Still, it is the recognition of the similarities between the United States and India that provides the foundation for this book.
As Wilkerson acknowledges, many others have also felt a sense of kinship between Indian caste and American race. Since the middle of the 19th century, critics of caste and British colonialism in India, and anti-racist activists in the United States, have mined the analogy to productive effect. Martin Luther King Jr. visited India, the Dalit leader Bhimrao Ambedkar studied in the United States, and a host of writers, activists and intellectuals in India and America also made use of the analogy, as the historian Nico Slate and others have shown. Proponents of white supremacy have done so as well, analogizing high-caste Indians, who tend to be lighter-skinned, to the Caucasian race through an imagined reading of the word Aryan. Mid-20th -century social scientists, including Allison Davis, Oliver Cromwell Cox, John Dollard and Gunnar Myrdal, also argued about the Indian-American analogy.
The proposition that Indian caste - with its four main group distinctions (which exclude Dalits and other groups known as 'Tribals') and its innumerable other distinctions based on geography, occupation and other things - is the same system as one that developed in a country with an entirely different history is easily disprovable. At times, Wilkerson criticizes those, particularly Black Americans, who object to her caste framework as manifesting a form of false consciousness, when there is a legitimate debate over the term's applicability to the United States. Yet, for Wilkerson, like many others, caste is more of a metaphor than anything else. Her real point is that there is something of a family resemblance in how many societies treat their mudsills.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents reaches the public in the midst of an intense debate over the history of racial oppression and the persistence of what is often called structural racial inequality. Amid proposals to reform or abolish police departments and prisons, to explore reparations for slavery, to undo the racial foundations of capitalism, and to reconstruct many institutions of American life, Wilkerson reminds us that this is not the first time the United States, like other societies, has tried to come to grips with its foundational problem. Unless one reaches for those foundations and tears them out, she warns, caste is likely to remain with us long after our current moment of racial reckoning is done.
To read Isabel Wilkerson is to revel in the pleasure of reading - to relax into the virtuosic performance of thought and form one is about to encounter, safe and secure that the structures will not collapse beneath you.
In the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist's first book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, Wilkerson evinced a rare ability to craft deeply insightful analysis of deeply researched evidence - both historical and contemporary - in harmonious structures of language and form.
Now, in her sophomore effort, the former New York Times Chicago bureau chief does not disappoint. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is a masterwork of writing - a profound achievement of scholarship and research that stands also as a triumph of both visceral storytelling and cogent analysis.
What is caste? According to Wilkerson, "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." Racism and casteism do overlap, she writes, noting that "what some people call racism could be seen as merely one manifestation of the degree to which we have internalized the larger American caste system."
Wilkerson's central thesis is that caste, while a global occurrence, achieves its most violent manifestation in the treatment of American Blacks, set at the lowest level in society through historical and contemporary oppression, marginalization and violence - all legally maintained through systems of law and order. "The English in North America developed the most rigid and exclusionist from of race ideology," Wilkerson writes, quoting the anthropologists Audrey and Brian Smedley.
Wilkerson establishes a correlation between American Blacks, whom she names the "American untouchables" and the Indian "untouchables," or Dalits, as the lowest caste; while whites in America are the dominant, highest caste equivalent to the Indian Brahmins. Describing the treatment of Blacks in America, Wilkerson writes:
"The institution of slavery was, for a quarter millennium, the conversion of human beings into currency, into machines who existed solely for the profit of their owners, to be worked as long as the owners desired, who had no rights over their bodies or loved ones, who could be mortgaged, bred, won in a bet, given as wedding presents, bequeathed to heirs, sold away from spouses or children to convene an owner's debts or to spite a rival or to settle an estate. They were regularly whipped, raped, and branded, subjected to any whim or distemper of the people who owned them. Some were castrated or endured other tortures too grisly for these pages, tortures that the Geneva Conventions would have banned as war crimes had the conventions applied to people of African descent on this soil."
Wilkerson's argument is based on an exploration of what she names the three resonant caste systems in history: the Indian caste system, the Nazi caste system and the American caste system - which the Nazis researched when creating their own. "There were no other models for miscegenation law that the Nazis could find in the world," Wilkerson writes, citing Yale legal historian James Q. Whitman as evidence: "'Their overwhelming interest was in the 'classic example,' the United States of America."
Wilkerson supports her analysis with an immense compendium of documented research that spans centuries. Through her detailed historical research, she unearths evidence that the violence toward Blacks that the American caste system espoused was too much even for the Nazis; they balked at replicating some of the more horrific acts of American racism toward Blacks. "[Herbert] Kier was just one of several Nazi researchers who thought American law went overboard," Wilkerson writes, while others, like Hans F. K. Gunter, thought the American laws so outrageous as to be untrue.
Caste, Wilkerson posits, is dependent upon the dehumanization of the other, most powerfully seen in the use of Jews and Blacks as the subject of horrific experiments by the respective dominant caste systems of Germany and America. "German scientists and SS doctors conducted more than two dozen types of experiments on Jews and others they held captive," while "in the United States, from slavery well into the twentieth century, doctors used African-Americans as a supply chain for experimentation, as subjects deprived of either consent or anesthesia," Wilkerson writes.
One of the most poignant examples Wilkerson describes is the violence done by Dr. J. Marion Sims, lauded as the founder of American gynecology, on the bodies of Black women:
"He came to his discoveries by acquiring enslaved women in Alabama and conducting savage surgeries that often ended in disfigurement or death. He refused to administer anesthesia, saying vaginal surgery on them was not painful enough to justify the trouble. ..."
Wilkerson says Sims would "invite leading men in town and apprentices in to see for themselves. He later wrote, 'I saw everything as no man had seen before.' "
Medical experiments were also carried out on Black men and Black children: Wilkerson notes Harriet Washington's research in Medical Apartheid in which a plantation doctor "made incisions into a black baby's head to test a theory for curing seizures" with "cobbler's tools" and "the point of a crooked awl." The horror is legion.
Wilkerson documents the pogroms of violence against the caste of American untouchables as waves throughout history - whether the violence of slavery or the waves of vigilante violence that that rose during Reconstruction and have continued since; incidents such the Ocoee, Fla., massacre in 1920 or the 1921 destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Okla., are set in a continuum that meets with the attacks on Black Americans in Birmingham, Ala., 40 years later in the 1960s, and then again in Charleston, S.C., by Dylann Roof on a Black church five years ago. This violent terror is a marker of the caste system, Wilkerson writes. The descriptions are vivid in their horror; the connections travel across history and time to resonate in the mind.
This structural move is a classic trademark of Wilkerson's style, and one of the attributes of her unique voice that imbues her writing with such textured depth. Wilkerson's use of a poetic focus on imagery and detailed characterization allows us an intimate and personal relationship with the lives of those she chronicles; when this empathic closeness is juxtaposed with the harsh brutality of the historical record the contrast is resonant and haunting, becoming a towering memorial to those violated by the violence of caste.
Caste is divided into six sections exploring the various aspects of caste: its origins, its sustainment and far-reaching "tentacles," and its effects - whether detrimental health for the givers and receivers of racism or the expected white supremacist backlash to the election of the first president of recognizable Black heritage: "The ability of a black person to supplant the racial caste system," Wilkerson writes, quoting the political scientist Andra Gillespie of Emory University, was "the manifestation of a nightmare which would need to be resisted."
Although a claim can be made that the opening chapter or two on the fallout of the 2016 election appear dated, this to be fair, is only because of what has happened to America in the interim since Wilkerson penned those words.
What is problematic is the glaring absence of Africa in a book that aims to position itself as a seminal text on the concept of a global caste system and the positioning of Blackness within that global caste system. Wilkerson glances at this briefly with a scant mention of South Africa in a couple of paragraphs and by quoting a woman identified only as a Nigerian playwright saying that "there are no Black people in Africa" - and then keeps it moving. Both are moments that do need to be unpacked. It is understandable why Wilkerson does not walk through this door to explore caste in Africa - Caste is 400 pages before adding the impressive list of research sources. But if Wilkerson is not opening that door, there does need to be an acknowledgement of why not, an acknowledgement of that absence.
Simply put: With colonization, European colonizers brought their caste system to Africa and implemented it over the already existing caste systems among many African ethnic groups.
Perhaps the absence of Africa is because of the caste system Wilkerson speaks of itself - to get people in the dominant caste to care about a narrative about Blackness and Brownness, about the lower castes, there must be a strong presence of whiteness in the conversation because it is the dominant caste system within the narrative.
And thus the caste system rears its head to affect a work about the caste system in real time.
This points, ultimately, to the role of personal accountability within a caste system. What does one do with this knowledge of the violence of caste? Does one perpetuate it? Eradicate it?
Interestingly, Wilkerson at times seems to argue not for an eradication of caste, but to create space for her, and others she meets, who have been miscast in their "caste" - regulated to the lowest caste when by intelligence or other attribute they should be in the higher caste, or vice versa. "We had defied our caste assignments: He was not a warrior or ruler. He was a geologist. I was not a domestic. I was an author," Wilkerson writes. Even the ending "Awakening" section, couched as a look forward, is depicted less of an articulation of the possibilities of a world without caste, and more of her desire simply to be seen as equal to those of the dominant caste.
In this, Wilkerson leans to biology. She offers the example of wolves as her support for the necessity of this hierarchal structure - the necessity not just of the alpha, but of the omega, or the underdog, beaten and abused by the others, the "untouchable." When the underdog dies, she writes, the whole pack is destabilized. No one wants to be the lowest of the low, "the scapegoat," but the pack needs one to survive.
Without the untouchable, Wilkerson argues here, society collapses. The untouchable is needed. Wilkerson just does not want to be one.
"The great tragedy among humans is that people have often been assigned to or seen as qualified for alpha positions - as CEOs, quarterbacks, coaches, directors of film, presidents of colleges or countries - not necessarily on the basis of innate leadership traits but, historically on the basis of having been born to the dominant caste or the dominant gender or to the right family within the dominant caste."
I would argue that the tragedy, rather, is the need for these positions such as "omega" to still exist, which then justifies the need for this caste structure and its continued existence - even if it exists with Wilkerson's proffered edit that would allow an individual, no matter "background or caste," to hop into their desired caste and profit from the continued oppression of others the caste system welds.
If we are to look at biology as evidence, let us consider the research of Eli D. Strauss and Kay E. Holekamp on hyenas in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the official journal of the National Academy of Sciences, which offers another model for social positioning. Within the hyena community, as with wolves, there is a strict hierarchy of dominant caste and lower castes. But, if a female understands the hierarchy as unjust and challenges a more dominant member of the higher caste and her female peer group agrees with her, they will rise up across caste and challenge the dominant caste; if this female cross-caste coalition wins, the hierarchy is destabilized, and this radical feminist hyena and her cross-caste pack become the new dominant caste.
It is not enough, but it is a start.
Let us think not just about our own individual desires to be seen as a member of the dominant caste and benefit accordingly, but about the necessity to challenge this entire system of oppression radically. Let us think not just about replicating oppressive patriarchal systems but about alternative models such as matrilineal cross-cultural communication and connection.
Let us look not to the wolves, but to the hyenas.
(The White Review)
In 1498 the colonial explorer Vasco da Gama reached Kerala, on the West Coast of present-day India. The Portuguese first came as traders, but soon moved to consolidate their rule of the region in order to ensure a monopoly over the profitable spice trade. The writings of early settlers in Kerala offer a historical account of the 'varna' system - an endogamous, hereditary hierarchy sanctioned by key Hindu religious texts. The varna system was premised on the inheritance of occupation from parent to child, whereby menial and ritually polluting roles that involved dealing with human waste and corpses were performed by those at the bottom of the hierarchy, often in exploitative arrangements with those at the top. This hierarchy pervaded all aspects of social life: touching, dining, marriage, access to education, public spaces, land and even water were circumscribed by one's position within the system. In the BOOK OF DUARTE BARBOSA, written in 1516, Duarte Barbosa, a Portuguese commercial agent and interpreter, termed this system 'casta', meaning breed or lineage. In an attempt to define the varna system, writers such as Barbosa drew from anti-Semitic ideas of bloodline purity, which were then pervasive in the Iberian Peninsula.
The term 'caste' thus has its roots in the persecution and pathologising of Jewish people during the Black Death of 1348, and in the anti-Semitic pogroms of 1391 in Spain, events which resulted in the mass conversion of Jewish people into Christianity. The old Christians viewed the new converts, the 'conversos', with scepticism. In the mid-fifteenth century, the Spanish Court of Inquisition installed blood purity (limpieza de sangre) laws, which decreed that any Christian with a Jewish ancestor was a converso, and thus restricted from holding prominent trade or political positions; these laws form the foundation of racial anti-Semitism in the Western world. Spanish colonialists fashioned similar racial hierarchies in the Americas, based on typologies of mixed-race individuals. In the subcontinent, the Iberians identified their own colonial practices of race-making: of creating, classifying and institutionalising difference.
The act of comparing, in the words of American sociologist C. Wright Mills, is making the familiar strange. This is the premise of Isabel Wilkerson's book CASTE: THE ORIGIN OF OUR DISCONTENTS (2020), which takes us through three systems of social hierarchy: the South Asian caste system, Nazism in Germany and race in the United States. Wilkerson argues that German Nazism and the racial system in the United States are premised on the same logic as the Indian caste system. It is productive to discuss these systems together: to examine them in conjunction is to see how they vary and converge, based on their specific historical and geographic contexts as well as their founding logics. By examining how identity-based difference is repeatedly forged and institutionalised into hierarchies, Wilkerson’s work expands our broader understandings of social inequality as it manifests across time and place.
CASTE builds on Wilkerson's Pulitzer Prize-winning book THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS (2010), which examined the twentieth-century Great Migration of Black families from the American South to the North, in a futile attempt to escape racism, which was proven to be ubiquitous in American life. Wilkerson, who is a journalist, explains how she spent fifteen years researching the Jim Crow era and still never used the word 'racism' in her book, because she felt it was an inadequate term: in its contemporary popular usage, she argues, the word focuses on individuals rather than systems. Rather, Wilkerson sets out to look at structures that enable, reproduce and reinforce racial segregation and exploitation: "I wanted", she writes, "to understand the origins and evolution of classifying and elevating one group of people over another." CASTE is the product of this exercise, consisting of a mix of historical examples and personal anecdotes, interwoven with an analytical examination of both race and caste. For Wilkerson, the contemporary United States is like a 400-year-old house whose structure is built on the 'unseen skeleton' of caste: her central argument is that race is not a complex enough framework to understand contemporary inequalities in the US.
Wilkerson draws from, and revives, early sociological scholarship from the 1930s and the 1950s, which had attempted to understand racial inequality through the lens of the South Asian caste system. The first explicit comparison between the two was made in 1936, when sociologist Lloyd Warner published an article titled American Caste and Class, arguing that social stratification in the American Deep South involved two types of system: a class structure and a caste system. Warner defined caste as "a theoretical arrangement of the people of the given group in an order in which the privileges, duties, obligations, opportunities, etc., are unequally distributed." The two key features of caste, both of which distinguished caste from class, he argued, were the strict control of inter-caste marriage and a lack of mobility between caste groups. Warner's writing inspired other significant sociological work on the racial caste system. These scholars did not, however, reference writing from South Asia on caste. Wilkerson here draws on the work of Dalit scholar and leader B. R. Ambedkar, who drafted the Indian Constitution and played an important role in bringing to light the inequities of the caste system through his writing and activism. In his essay THE HINDU SOCIAL ORDER (1987), Ambedkar emphasises that the caste system operates on the obstruction of access to social mobility, both in occupation and status. Caste, he argues, is premised on a graded inequality, with Brahmins at the top and Dalits at the bottom. Every caste within the hierarchy, save for those in the very lowest ranks, have a vested interest in perpetuating the system: it sanctions their dominion over less powerful others.
Wilkerson expands on Ambedkar's discussion, and delineates what she calls the "eight pillars of caste": the 'piers beneath the surface of caste system', an analysis of which reveals how religious practice, and socially constructed binaries, are used to legitimise and justify hierarchies. In India, an ancient Hindu text known as the Manusmriti (the laws of Manu) codifies the caste system and classifies individuals into four caste groups, in ranking order: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. Similarly in the West, Wilkerson notes, the Old Testament story of Canaan, the son of Ham - who was cursed by Noah to be enslaved by his brothers - has long provided a religious justification for enslavement and colonisation, upholding the belief that Black and Native American communities are the descendants of Canaan. The control of knowledge, and the interpretation of religious texts, is often graded by asymmetries of power. "Divine will", it's important to remember, tends to legitimise oppression.
Caste, Wilkerson argues, is inherited and immutable across an individual's lifetime. This is Ambedkar's point: caste does not afford mobility, and as Wilkerson suggests, neither do the structural hierarchies of race in the US. Ambedkar was an early intersectional feminist: he criticised the control of women’s sexuality through endogamy, describing it as an essential feature of caste, and of maintaining caste systems. In his seminal text THE ANNIHILATION OF CASTE (1936), Ambedkar writes about caste intermarriage as a way to intrinsically undo caste: "Fusion of blood can alone create the feeling of being kith and kin, and unless this feeling of kinship, of being kindred, becomes paramount, the separatist feeling - the feeling of being aliens - created by caste will not vanish." Meanwhile, in the US, anti-miscegenation laws, which criminalised inter-racial marriages and relationships, were in use federally as recently as 1967. "For much of American history, dominant-caste men controlled who had access to whom for romantic liaisons and reproduction," Wilkerson explains. The recent Netflix show INDIAN MATCHMAKING (2020) euphemistically gestures to the practice of inter-caste arranged marriages in India, without depicting what is at stake when caste norms around dating and marriage are transgressed. The realities of inter-caste relationships are not as glamorous as the opulent excesses of upper-caste arranged marriages. In South Asia, inter-caste affairs or marriage leads to community stigma, estrangement from one's family, and even brutal cases of honour killings and violence, in which both the police and the judiciary are often complicit. In the context of caste, marriage and other personal relationships are political acts, which can either challenge the status quo or uphold it.
Endogamy, at heart, is preoccupied with the maintenance of pure bloodlines. Wilkerson shows how the notion of caste hinges on concepts of purity and pollution: the idea that dominant caste bodies, and the spaces they occupy, must be kept 'pure' and 'protected' from the polluting influence of subordinate caste bodies. Wilkerson points to the practice of untouchability in India, which is constitutionally illegal, but still persists in many settings. Dalits, when invited to upper-caste homes, are made to drink tea or water from separate cups, since materials and objects that have touched Dalit bodies are deemed to become contagious mediums of pollution. These notions of touch and contact extend to race too, though are not as essential to it as a system: during the Jim Crow era in the US, Wilkerson explains how Black families were not allowed in some swimming pools because of a fear that they would pollute the water.
The book's analytical description of caste is a valuable contribution to the comparative study of social inequality, laying bare how these features recur again and again across time and space, and in the parallel contexts of the US, India and Germany. Inequality is neither new nor surprising, but by defining the parameters of what constitutes a caste system - and its mechanisms for reproducing itself through endogamy and inherited occupations - we can think of strategies that may successfully and tangibly abolish it. But what of race - 'the R-word' that Wilkerson argues is inadequate for describing contemporary racial inequalities in the US? For her, understandings of racism have evolved from the combination of racial bias and systemic power to something more like a feeling - a subconscious but active prejudice. The framing of racism as a malicious and intentional act makes it difficult to implicate the structural scaffolding of racism, which is perpetuated through the courts, markets, schools, hospitals, and even the family. What underlines each of these systems are, of course, inequalities in material access to resources and wealth. Wilkerson distinguishes between race, which she calls 'the skin', as "what we can see, the physical traits that have been given arbitrary meaning", and caste, "the bones, the powerful infrastructure that holds each group in its place." Caste remains slippery and difficult to locate, consisting largely of taken-for-granted beliefs, structures, and practices. It is the infrastructure of our divisions […] the architecture of human hierarchy. In bringing attention to structural racism, Wilkerson echoes the work of social scientists such as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, who in the early 2000s argued that racism in contemporary times is colour-blind, covert, and difficult to pinpoint, citing the example of one respondent who argued against minority students having access to unique opportunities on the grounds of race by claiming - with no sense of irony - that everyone should be treated equally. However, where Bonilla-Silva advances a structural interpretation of 'racism without racists', Wilkerson abandons the term 'racism' to describe structures and instead reinterprets race through caste.
Wilkerson contends that because popular narratives argue that racism is an intentional act, the term can no longer be used to discuss structural racism; in other words, popular narratives of what constitutes racism negate the explanatory power of structural racism. This logic is not entirely clear. There is plenty of mainstream work in the social sciences that demonstrates that race is a structure and that racism is systemic. Sociologists Joe Feagin and Sean Elias, in a 2013 paper titled 'Rethinking Racial Formation Theory: A Systemic Racism Critique', point to systemic or structural racism as an 'inegalitarian structure of resources and hierarchy of power established by and for whites, particularly elite whites', which 'involves much more than individual racial prejudices and discrimination.' In the wake of COVID-19, and with increased attention to police brutality, everyday conversations about racism have blown wide open to discuss the role of racialised capitalism in creating inequalities. This has primarily shown itself to be true with healthcare, where race determines who is vulnerable, who can afford healthcare, and who can afford insurance. Policing, too, is a historically racist institution, arising in part out of plantation patrols that enforced enslavement in the American South. Wilkerson settles on a definition of racism that is more akin to colourism. She emphasises that race is the result of social meanings attached to skin colour, hair texture, and facial features.
The act of comparison is rife with promises and pitfalls. Comparing race and caste runs the risk of erasing the historical contexts and specificities of each, and flattening out nuance. But Wilkerson does not claim that race and caste are the same, nor does she see them as being mutually exclusive. As such, the book is not just a work of comparison but also one of transposition: Wilkerson applies the concept of caste to better understand race relations in the US. CASTE looks at the structure of US society through the lens of the South Asian caste system, and locates Whites as the dominant caste, Asians and Latinxs as middle castes, and Blacks as the lowest caste. Ultimately, this is a reductive and heavy-handed approach to the understanding of both caste and race. In the Indian context, the caste system is a hierarchy proscribed in detail by various religious texts, and it's not always clear how Wilkerson has come up with her analogies (the narratives around Asians and Latinxs, for example, are very different). It serves to be cautious of the simplifications and erasures that comparison entails.
Yet to see one's own oppression reflected in another's, despite differences created by time and space, is a radical act. To this end, comparison, in spite of its dangers, creates solidarities. There is a rich history of solidarity between race and caste movements through such comparative framings: in 1871, anti-caste leader Jyotirao Phule dedicated his book SLAVERY (GHULAMGIRI) to the then-recently emancipated Black community in the US, while the Black Panthers inspired the Dalit Panther movement, which was created in 1972 to oppose caste discrimination in India. The Durban conference in 2001 was a significant attempt by Dalit activists and the National Commission of Dalit Human Rights to demand that caste-based discrimination be recognised as racial discrimination, a gesture that reverses Wilkerson’s own act of comparison.
For Dalit activists, the inclusion of caste in the category of racial discrimination was primarily a strategy to highlight the plight of lower-caste groups in India. Their attempts were opposed by the Indian government (at the time constituted by the National Democratic Alliance, comprising of the current ruling Bharatiya Janta Party and its allies) and prominent upper-caste caste scholars, such as sociologist Dipankar Gupta. The Indian government argued that caste had never been a state-promoted legal framework (unlike racism and Zionism) and that the Indian Constitution already criminalises caste discrimination. Upper-caste scholars and leaders are able - through what is ultimately a privilege - to divorce caste from its lived realities, and engage in abstract, analytical discussions. For Dalit activists, on the other hand, caste is a lived, everyday reality, and entirely tangible.
There is a political significance to recognising, or denying, the similarities of caste and race. To recognise them as equally important is to bring attention to the issue of caste, and elevate it to the status that race holds in current discourse. But to deny caste as race is to distract from the way Hinduism is premised on the caste system, and benefits from the exploitation of Dalits and others at the bottom of the hierarchy. The spirituality of Hinduism, which serves as a type of soft power, is often invoked in the Western world in apolitical and uncritical ways (soul-searching trips to ashrams, consulting Hindu spiritual leaders, or reading Hindu texts like the Bhagavad Geeta) which erase the significance and persistence of caste oppression. These developments mirror the climate in India. Sociologist Suryakant Waghmore has suggested that caste has evolved to be more insidious - and further embedded in subtle practices and the language of individual choice and preference - under contemporary capitalism. Waghmore presents this as the emergence of a 'Hindu cosmopolitanism', where caste is thought of as a community identity rather than as an inherited, hierarchical category. It is not surprising, then, that one of the main opponents of race-caste comparisons is the Hindu right wing. Their political agenda has been premised on an exclusionary politics that includes the dismantling systems of affirmative action based on caste, and the arrests and targeting of Dalit intellectuals and activists, among other measures.
It is significant, then, that Wilkerson centres the work of Dalit writers and thinkers, who have often been ignored in scholarship in the US, and in doing so, amplifies their voices and struggles. Wilkerson is conscious of the importance of such solidarities: in writing about attending a conference on caste with Dalit colleagues, she recounts:
It felt like an initiation in to a caste which I had somehow always belonged. Over and over, they shared scenarios of what they had endured and I responded in personal recognition, as if even to anticipate some particular turn or outcome.
This comparison, while not without its problems, holds curled up within it the possibilities of radical political arrangements, which would upend the status quo. It’s no surprise that such ideas have caused consternation to the Indian state, exemplified in recent weeks by the protests against the brutal sexual assault of a young Dalit woman by upper-caste, Thakur men in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh. Claiming an ‘international conspiracy’, the ruling BJP government shut down a website that advised protestors about the dos and don’ts of protest (including what to wear to protests and how to deal with tear gas) because it was apparently inspired by Black Lives Matter protests in the US, and was seen as an attempt to foment caste conflict. Protestors have self-consciously drawn on these solidarities by declaring ‘Dalit Lives Matter’. Dalit Lives Matter protestors see their own struggles reflected in the Black Lives Matter movement; as they articulate their grievances, they also seek to leverage the international attention that the Black Lives Matter movement has garnered, making an appeal to the international community on the basis that justice for victims of caste violence remains a distant dream under the current Indian regime. In this context, Wilkerson’s book is a powerful resource for Dalits to bring attention to the oppressive structures of the caste system in India. In a powerful moment, Wilkerson details Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to India in 1959. When interacting with Dalit high school students in Trivandrum, Kerala, King was introduced as ‘a fellow untouchable’ by the school principal. He was initially taken aback, but later realised: ‘Yes I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States of America is an untouchable.’
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