Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Reading, and writing about what I read, helped me stay sane this awful year. I’m glad to wrap up 2020 with Isabel Wilkerson’s acclaimed book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.

Caste book cover

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Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
By Isabel Wilkerson
Random House, New York, 2020

Caste examines the problem of racism in America from a different angle. The main idea of the book is that American society is a caste system and has been since well before the founding of the country. Wilkerson draws parallels between America’s caste system and those of India and Nazi Germany. She compares the experiences of people in the lowest-ranked castes: Blacks in America, Jews in Nazi Germany and Dalits in India.

“A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed superiority 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 in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places.”  [p. 17]

In America, race is the immutable trait used to assign caste. In Nazi Germany caste distinctions were based on religion and minor physical variations within the white population. In India, caste is determined by a wider range of factors including skin color and also birthplace and occupation.

In all three instances,

“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.”  [p. 70]

In a key section titled “The Eight Pillars of Caste,” Wilkerson lays out the mechanisms by which caste systems are created, justified, maintained and brutally enforced. Heritability is one of the pillars; the characteristics used to assign caste are inherited, fixed and unchangeable. Caste is a life sentence. You cannot earn or marry or convert your way out of it. Caste, she stresses, is different than class. A prosperous white man can lose his job or squander his wealth and slide into poverty, but he will still remain a member of the white caste.

Although I can’t be certain, I think Wilkerson uses the term “caste” to describe what other authors such as Ibram Kendi would call systemic racism. Why introduce another term into an already complex subject? And what difference does it make?

Wilkerson notes that race and caste frequently overlap in the US. But she thinks it’s important to use different words to disentangle the structures that separate people and keep them in their assigned place in the hierarchy from the racial antipathy and stereotyping that are used to make value judgements about people. “Caste is the bones, race is the skin,” Wilkerson says. Because she is focused on the structure, on the bones, she mostly uses the terms “dominant caste” and “subordinate caste” rather than “white” and “black” throughout the book.

I think caste is also a more generalizable concept than race. It allows us to recognize instances of similar power structures in other parts of the world where race isn’t necessarily the distinguishing characteristic. In fact, I suspect there are additional caste systems not mentioned in the book, like apartheid in South Africa, or China’s treatment of Tibetans and Uighurs.

It’s less clear what difference this makes. Does a caste-based analysis lead to any different conclusions or insights than a race-based approach?  Does the idea of caste enable agency – taking action to achieve change – any better or any differently than ideas about dismantling systemic racism?  Unfortunately, Caste does not answer these questions.  

Photo of author Isabel Wilkerson

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Isabel Wilkerson is an award-winning journalist, author and lecturer.  She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for Feature Writing as The New York Times’ Chicago Bureau Chief. Her 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and numerous other awards.  She’s taught at Boston, Emory and Princeton Universities.

Wilkerson writes with eloquence and power. Caste contains a lively mixture of detailed historical research and personal narratives of her own and others’ experiences.

Over and over again, she uses both history and narrative to describe the horrific impacts of caste on those at the bottom rung. Many of these accounts are painful to read.

She also points out the price paid by those in the privileged castes. After desegregation in the 1960’s there were towns in the South that shut down public schools or filled in public swimming pools rather than integrate, depriving everyone in the community. We are all less safe when our criminal justice system is more likely to convict a Black man simply because he is Black while the real criminal walks free.  Society as a whole suffers when we are deprived of the creativity, talents and energy of people in lower castes who are not permitted to develop or exercise their abilities.

And here in the US, we lack a robust public health system, in large part, Wilkerson argues, due to the caste system. A caste system is toxic to our sense of shared responsibility for caring for everyone in society. People in the dominant caste perceive a threat to their own prosperity and status if the system looks after everyone equally.

“Caste is more than rank, it is a state of mind that holds everyone captive, the dominant imprisoned in an illusion of their own entitlement, the subordinate trapped in the purgatory of someone else’s definition of who they are and who they should be.”  [p. 290]

Wilkerson’s analysis of the 2016 presidential election is interesting, but here too I wonder whether the idea of caste helps us understand the results any better.

No Democratic nominee has won a majority of white votes in presidential elections since civil rights legislation was enacted by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960’s. (This held true in the 2020 election too.)  Donald Trump appealed directly to the fears and grievances of dominant caste voters in 2016 (and 2020).  Dominant caste groups – white men and women – mostly voted Republican, while subordinate caste groups such as Hispanic and Black men and women mainly backed Democrats.

Democrats are missing the point, Wilkerson argues, if they think white working-class citizens are acting against their own economic self-interest when they vote for Republicans. In fact, they are voting to protect their caste status.

But the most important year in the book isn’t 2016 or 2020, it’s 2042. That’s when the US Census Bureau predicts whites will become a minority in America.  This poses an existential “dominant group status threat” that has galvanized the dominant caste into action. It explains, among other things, the increasingly anti-democratic behavior of the Republican Party, from voter roll purges, polling station closures, voter ID laws, all the way up to numerous attempts to overturn or delegitimize the results of the 2020 election. These actions are aimed at preserving dominant caste status.

Wilkerson quotes the civil rights historian Taylor Branch, who asks,

“If people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?” [p. 352]

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Caste made me ashamed of my own ignorance.  Despite having read several books about racism over the last two years, there was so much in this book about the history of racism and the experiences of Blacks in America – past and present – that I either knew nothing about or was only dimly aware of. As a white male I still have a lot to learn. Being raised in a Jewish family doesn’t give me a free pass and being an immigrant from Canada isn’t a valid excuse.

I do keep coming back to the question of whether the term “caste” makes any real difference. I think it’s a useful concept for separating the systems of dominance from the characteristics used to divide us. And it also enables us to recognize similar systems of oppression in other parts of the world.  But in the US at least “caste” does not seem to add anything substantial to our understanding of the problem.

More importantly, I don’t see how it helps us address those problems.  This is my main disappointment with the book.  Wilkerson says we need to be more empathetic towards each other, look beyond racial characteristics and recognize each other as full human beings, and be vigilant against the ever-present threat of old prejudices and jealousies reasserting themselves. All perfectly valid, but she doesn’t propose any specific approaches for dismantling the caste system.  If anything, the fixed and immutable nature of caste makes the prospects for change even more daunting.

Perhaps that wasn’t Wilkerson’s objective in writing Caste. The book is subtitled “The Origins of Our Discontents” so maybe she was aiming to provide a new paradigm for exploring the history and the impact of America’s racial divisions. I think Caste succeeds admirably there.

In the end, it’s up to all of us to work for change, especially those of us in the dominant caste/race. As Wilkerson says, when you buy inherit* an old house you become responsible for it. Even though you didn’t build it, didn’t lay its foundations and are not responsible for causing its flaws, you have to deal with them. Ignoring the sagging roof or the bowed walls or the moldy-smelling basement will not make them go away. And if you pretend those problems don’t exist for too long, they will turn into devastating crises.

* * *

As always, thanks for reading.

Best wishes for a happier, healthier and just plain better 2021!

Update (Jan. 17, 2022): After the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol, I think we have a pretty clear answer to Taylor Branch’s question above.  In an interview with Kara Swisher on the New York Times Sway podcast from January 21, 2021, Wilkerson discusses the events of January 6. You can read the transcript here. She notes that while it was white men who rampaged through the Capital, it was black and brown janitors who came in hours later to clean up the mess.

“And there they were, laboring in their uniforms, bent over with mops and brooms and with masks over their faces. And I saw instantly the people assigned to the subordinated caste for 400 years, since before there was the United States, still consigned to their historic role of serving and cleaning up after those who had been programmed to see themselves as dominant and superior and supreme.”

* Update (Feb. 4, 2022): I originally used the phrase “buy an old house” but a reader pointed out to me that “inherit” is actually a far more apt analogy. I checked the book and Isabel Wilkerson used the word “inherit” too (p. 16) so i’ve corrected my error. 

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4 Responses to Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

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