Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
By Isabel Wilkerson
Random House. 476 pp. $32
– – –
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.
– – –
Mack, a historian and a professor of law at Harvard, is the author of “Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer” and a co-editor of “The New Black: What Has Changed – and What Has Not – With Race in America.”