No Mere Slogans: On Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents”
By Yogita GoyalSeptember 1, 2020
Caste by Isabel Wilkerson
Such charged moments punctuate Isabel Wilkerson’s ambitious and unwieldy book about race, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Its very title announces her iconoclasm. For Wilkerson, the United States needs to understand its fraught and violent history by moving away from the vocabulary of race. But if this sounds like the tired demand for color blindness or post-racialism, rest assured, because Wilkerson wants us to think of the nation as operating according to the invisible but rigid rules of a caste system, indeed, a long-standing, all-encompassing infrastructure of hereditary ranking and hierarchy that divides us into upper and lower castes.
In the example above, accordingly, we must learn to see the teenage girl (for whom living in a “Black skin” in America was the worst punishment she could imagine) as an instance of a subordinate caste experiencing caste-based discrimination. Wilkerson met the author, who said white people accepted her as long as she stayed in “the container” they have built for her.
Immediately following this encounter, Wilkerson describes her own experience of being reduced to a container with the wrong label as an African American journalist. When she arrives at an exclusive boutique on Michigan Avenue to interview the manager for a piece she’s writing as a national correspondent for The New York Times about Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, the manager refuses to believe that Wilkerson is the journalist he’s been waiting for. He rudely demands for her identification before finally asking her to leave. For Wilkerson, “his caste notions of who should be doing what in society” help explain this instance of discrimination rather than the ready label of racism.
What does caste enable that race obscures? Why has the vocabulary of race come to seem so exhausted even in a moment when the nation faces resurgent white supremacy and a vibrant protest movement centering Black lives? Wilkerson skates over the inadequacy of race language perhaps too quickly, but one might glean two core reasons for her belief.
The first is that race names only that which is visible, the “skin,” while caste forces us to fathom the “bones,” the invisible infrastructure that determines one’s place and rank. Second, racism has come to be identified with overt prejudice, expressed in the form of derogatory language or hurtful slurs, allowing people to disavow their own unexamined behavior by claiming that they don’t have a racist bone in their body or that their best friend is Black.
There is no “litmus test” for racism, Wilkerson observes, hoping to shift the conversation away from the racist individual toward the system that gave birth to them. She explains that it was her research for her previous Pulitzer Prize–winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, that led to an exploration of the existence of an American caste system. She opens the first chapter of Caste with the 2016 election, orienting those readers who responded to that shocking event with statements like “This is not America” or “I don’t recognize my country.”
Caste is thus written to educate those readers who are unfamiliar with the deep-rooted realities of racism in American history, and not for the scholar or pedant. Assessing the book by the measure of historical scholarship or political theory will inevitably frustrate, given its hybrid genre, combining anecdotes, published studies, interviews, and Wilkerson’s own theses on “the eight pillars of caste” including endogamy, heritability, occupational hierarchy, dehumanization and stigma, cruelty and terror, and ideologies of inherent inferiority naturalized by religious doctrines. The loose structure of the book eschews both chronology and sequence, gathering examples and ideas rather than proving a thesis systematically. As a history, it has too many gaps; as a memoir, it reveals no discernible structure of a life lived over time; as a polemic, it relies far too much on sentimental appeal.
I confess being unable to know what to do with a chapter that outlines canine hierarchy (alpha males, underdogs, and lone wolves) and concludes that “humans could learn a lot from canines” about “natural alphas.” Similarly confounding is an odd interlude (fiction, perhaps, or ethnography?) of an upper-caste Indian man jettisoning his symbol of caste identity, the sacred thread, and feeling that he is born again. Despite such unusual choices, most powerful in Caste are the vivid anecdotes of personal harm — the cumulative evidence for the lived experience of discrimination from slavery to segregation and into the era of civil rights and beyond.
For Wilkerson, a caste system is an arbitrary and punitive ranking of human value that defines inferior and superior groups and sets them apart on the basis of ancestry. She focuses on three caste systems but only gives sustained attention to the “race-based caste pyramid in the United States.” The other two — Nazi Germany and India — flit in and out of view, the latter more than the former, but still indistinct, as if visible only through a fog. India embodies the ancient system of caste, Nazi Germany accelerates it, and the United States has been disavowing its existence since 1619.
The book touches on some of the most familiar moments of the race-caste analogy — such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1959 trip to India, where he is welcomed with rapturous applause and comes to see himself as a kind of “untouchable”; the work of a group of Southern anthropologists in the 1930s and 1940s about the relations among race, class, and caste; and the brief correspondence between Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar and W. E. B. Du Bois, both intellectual pioneers of Dalit and African American experiences of exploitation. But such histories aren’t the book’s central focus. Most of all, turning to caste affords Wilkerson access to an experiential, affective register through which she collates moments that capture the persistence of discrimination. She explains her reasons for writing the book: “[M]oving about the world as a living, breathing caste experiment myself, I wanted to understand the hierarchies that I and many millions of others have had to navigate.”
And such a personal focus serves as the anchor for the entire book (somewhat similar to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen) as Wilkerson highlights the injury caused by unexpected behaviors, especially in such rarefied or elite spaces as the first-class cabin of an airplane, a chic restaurant where the waiter ignores her, the boutique on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue which refuses to accept her presence. The desire for recognition throbs throughout Caste: recognize my pain, Wilkerson urges, and that of millions of others like me. In fact, the book ends with two vignettes of hope: the first involves a white family friend who learns that the waiter’s behavior toward them requires her to speak up, and the second where an unfriendly plumber in the basement of Wilkerson’s old house finally softens when she appeals to his humanity by asking about his mother.
That Wilkerson presents these ordinary encounters as “radicalization” or “awakening” — rejoicing that “the heart is the last frontier” — indicates the limits of her political imagination where the agency of the subordinated is superseded by the appeal to the sentiments of the dominant castes. Such limits are particularly evident because her sustained insistence on the potency and pervasiveness of the entrenched caste system demands solutions other than banal realizations of privilege or of common humanity. Moreover, as Wilkerson educates herself on the persistence of caste in India, she also seems to miss the full vibrancy of Dalit politics, culture, and history, insisting instead that she has developed a kind of caste-radar: “I began to be able to tell who was high-born and who was low-born among the Indian people.” She clarifies that such knowledge comes not from a literacy about surnames, family occupations, or linguistic backgrounds (which serve as usual markers of caste identity), but simply from observing how people behave. Her insistence on the personal encounter, and on lived experience, thus shapes her understanding of both race and caste.
Instead of statistics, Caste accumulates metaphors. America is an old house that needs repair. A play has been running for centuries, and the cast of the play has grown accustomed to its assigned roles. Humans are trapped in the matrix, programmed to live out their drone-like existence. Caste is the unseen skeleton of America, and so, “[l]ooking at caste is like holding the country’s X-ray up to the light.” Caste is the DNA of the United States. It is also “the wordless usher in a darkened theater” and a “powerful Sith Lord.” Caste is like alcoholism or cancer, buried deep within, ready to emerge at any moment, a “disease” to which “none of us is immune.” The history of racist violence is like a pathogen buried in the permafrost: just as heat can reactivate anthrax, “human pathogens of hatred and tribalism” lurk just beneath the surface. Where “[r]ace is what we can see,” caste is the “underlying grammar” of our mother tongue. In this way, race is the “visible agent of the unseen force of caste.” Where “[r]ace is fluid and superficial,” “caste is fixed and rigid.”
Because the meanings of race and caste shift so often, both remain somewhat blurry. So when Wilkerson outlines her schema — where white equals the upper caste, Asians and Latinos make up middle castes, and African Americans are consigned to the lowest castes — questions immediately arise about the efficacy of such distinctions today. Even if the history of Jim Crow resonates with the segregation mandated by caste (anti-miscegenation laws and bans on inter-caste marriage, or affirmative action in the United States and reservations and quota systems in India), how does today’s uneven world (where differences of ethnicity, class, gender, religion, ideology, age, and sexuality have fragmented older ideas of a singular Blackness) comprise a caste system?
That Wilkerson concedes that Native Americans should be referred to as “[o]riginal, conquered, or indigenous peoples” and “women of any race, or minorities of any kind” as marginalized people already points to the exclusions and flattening at work. While the specific legacy of slavery and segregation, as well as the magnitude of ongoing anti-Blackness, demands attention, any book that claims to pinpoint “the origins of our discontents,” and provide a road map for the future must engage with changing and internally complex racial formations. Is a Burmese refugee middle caste while Beyoncé or an African American CEO occupies a lower caste? The child caged on our Southern border? The Latinos in my city dying of COVID-19 in large numbers?
The vocabulary afforded by caste, uninflected by differential access to power, allows Wilkerson to claim that “caste trumps class” but misses a true measure of the modalities in which discrimination is lived and how racial taxonomies change over time. Why return us to a binary of Black and white albeit renamed lower and upper caste, undifferentiated by class, gender, citizenship status, disability? Who is satisfied by such simplicity, crudeness, even? Governor Jan Brewer jabbing her finger in President Obama’s face draws outrage as a dominant caste member “putting a man from the subordinate caste in his place, no matter his station.” But Wilkerson makes no mention of how caste works when President Obama drinks a glass of water in Flint, Michigan, presides over punitive deportation policies, or expands extrajudicial killings and drone-bombings across the world.
The extended metaphor of America as an old house that Wilkerson returns to time and again captures these contradictions. For Wilkerson, “[a]n old house is its own kind of devotional.” Which is why she insists that “we in the developed world are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside” but conceals deep ruptures within. As a figure for belonging, home ownership surely conjures up questions of access and wealth. It also raises the question of Native American sovereignty and unceded, occupied territory. Bourgeois concerns with home improvement rendered in the lovingly detailed language of care of welts in the ceiling sit uneasily with the urgency of our historical conjuncture, just as so many are faced with evictions, not to mention a longer history of punitive state policies against the homeless and displaced, the loss of Black homes in the last economic recession, the long history of redlining and unfair housing policies, and further back, the deeper loss of home that came with the capture and torture of Atlantic slavery.
For those convinced that racism in the United States isn’t a big problem today, the book should be an eye-opener. For those of us who already know these histories (for example, that the Nazis consulted American racial laws to develop their own eugenic agenda), Caste may serve instead as an invitation to dig deeper than Wilkerson herself chooses to and to understand more fully the exact coordinates of the race-caste analogy, both difference and similarity. In challenging American exceptionalism by placing domestic racial formations within and against other times and places, Wilkerson admirably draws attention to the realities of global connectedness. But transnational comparison should ideally go a step further, in order to reframe the unexamined truisms of each site and illuminate something we would not otherwise see. We may thus recall that the very definitions of race and caste in recent history developed in tandem — the colonial construction of caste was itself shaped by European racial discourse, as the end of the 19th century saw various efforts at hierarchical classification of people into races in the West and castes in India. It is therefore no coincidence that the etymology of caste from the Portuguese casta draws on European ideas of descent. Early efforts to fight caste prejudice in India drew on abolitionist strategies and likened caste oppression to slavery. Correspondingly, in the antebellum United States, abolitionists used the idiom of caste to describe slavery, drawing on missionary accounts of India to find in the language of caste a useful avoidance of race as biology, as well as a way to claim the biological unity of the species. Du Bois, Ambedkar, and Gandhi all debated the status and relation of African Americans and Dalits. And the “caste school of race relations” in the 1930s and 1940s construed the connections with class and capitalism. Martin Luther King Jr.’s adaptation of Gandhian satyagraha or truth force and nonviolent civil disobedience in the 1950s, and the revolutionary politics of the Dalit Panthers of the 1970s further reveals the radical convergence of such analogies in the service of a political platform of liberation. And at the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, India, Israel, and the United States joined hands to refuse consideration of caste discrimination, Zionism, and reparations for slavery and colonialism. These conjoined histories demand further study, not least because our futures are likely connected.
To fathom such relations, a less blurry portrait of caste itself must emerge. Caste hierarchies in India are indeed pervasive and vicious. But they are not unchanging. While caste was once associated with underdevelopment, it is now a significant force in modern Indian democratic politics as well as a vibrantly contested political identity. Despite or alongside continuing violence — economic, sexual, land grabs, brutality against inter-caste marriage, desecration of commemorative sites, Prime Minister Modi’s right-wing bigotry — there is a rising Dalit militancy, an effort to imagine a politics premised on recognizing historical vulnerability and claiming the pain of the “ground down” or “broken” body as the very site of the coming emancipation. India’s 200,000,000 Dalits have been fighting for their rights on multiple fronts — with a boom in Dalit literature, with considerable electoral clout and voting power, with a vital public sphere, with a Bhim Army, with symbolic celebrations like Phule Jayanti and with Ambedkarite-Marxist alliances.. All these forces have shown how deeply caste hierarchies are intertwined with religion, gender, ethnicity, and, most of all, with class.
In the end, Wilkerson’s choice to define caste and race with partial precision inhibits a fuller understanding of how inequality and discrimination acquire new shape and form in the present — as historical forms of violence persist but also mutate and magnify. To misread the very nature of power makes efforts to combat it nearly hopeless but also denies agency to those who fought the battles of the past and march in the streets today. What struck me most as I read this book during the pandemic is that Wilkerson’s frame doesn’t help explain how the powerful social movements of our COVID-19 era could emerge, or what they mean — led by the young; the poor; by women; by queer, trans, and nonbinary people; by Black and Dalit leaders in both India and the United States. Wilkerson engages the failures of President Trump’s response to the pandemic, and the misery it has caused, but not the larger histories of the movements that have led us to this moment. Two of the world’s largest democracies have shown the limits of their response to the pandemic, the effect of prolonged years of fostering repressive, xenophobic, and anti-scientific policies. But today’s social movements create new capacious solidarities. Perhaps it is time to reckon with the fact that hope and change won’t come from “a telegenic American dream family.”
The protests in Kashmir and Ferguson, Shaheen Bagh and Portland, the seismic shifts brought about by Black Lives Matter in our understanding of race, rebellion, and reconciliation, and the Dalit uprisings of recent decades are the true measure of the race-caste analogy. Smash the Brahminical patriarchy. Defund the police. Abolish ICE. Dismantle the white savior complex and the savarna or Brahmin savior complex. These are no mere slogans. They are visions of justice, and of an alternate future — beacons for us all.
Yogita Goyal is professor of African American Studies and English at UCLA. Her most recent book is Runaway Genres: The Global Afterlives of Slavery.
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