The Work of Analogy: On Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents”

By Anupama RaoSeptember 1, 2020

The Work of Analogy: On Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents”

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. described his month-long visit to India in February 1959 as a pilgrimage to the land where Gandhian nonviolence had achieved its greatest victory. But the visit exposed him to the violence of caste, beginning with Indian Dalits greeting King as an American Untouchable. He came to appreciate the force of the analogy, though he resisted it at first. He returned to the United States with a keen interest in India’s efforts to redress the historical discrimination of caste.

King never fully grasped the paradox of going to India in pursuit of Gandhi, who was a social conservative on caste. Gandhi’s bitter opponent, the Dalit leader and constitutionalist B. R. Ambedkar, had politics that were undoubtedly closer to King’s. Ambedkar famously described caste as a system of “graded inequality” structured around an “ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt.”

Ambedkar and W. E. B. Du Bois had corresponded about the similar situation of Dalits and African Americans in 1946, when Ambedkar requested copies of a petition submitted to the United Nations to internationalize what was then called “the Negro problem.” At the time, Ambedkar noted that that there was “so much similarity between the position of the Untouchables in India and the position of Negroes in America that the study of the latter is not only natural but necessary.”

In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, Isabel Wilkerson makes a strong case for adopting a term associated with traditional society and heritable hierarchy to describe American racism. Caste is typically viewed as both intensely local, and essentially Indian. Wilkerson suggests the opposite. She boldly argues that what we call race in the United States is actually a caste system. “Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions,” Wilkerson writes, “the architecture of human hierarchy” that “embeds into our bones an unconscious ranking of human characteristics and sets forth the rules, expectations and stereotypes that have been used to justify brutalities against entire groups within our species.”

What’s in a name? Wilkerson argues that legislation against racial discrimination has deprived the term racism of analytic purchase. The term is now “radioactive — resented, feared, denied, lobbed back toward anyone who dares suggest it.” An inverse logic comes to characterize society: it is those who utter the name of racism who are more often accused of racial prejudice, while those who feign ignorance of the word or avoid its use also avoid the encounter with racism, whether their own or that of others. The hate that dares not speak its name can grow and spread, assisted by its seeming invisibility or unsayability.

We cannot slay the demons we do not know, and we cannot know them without naming them. “Say Their Names.” With this call, the Black Lives Matter movement asks us to memorialize the victims of police impunity. It is also, of course, a public lament. We should say the name of the crime too — but since racism has been marginalized in the public lexicon, a new concept is required.

To rename race (as caste) is to render systemic racism unfamiliar and thus newly available for inquiry. Its novelty can disarm critics, and catch those who are unselfconscious about their prejudice off-guard. Wilkerson thus prefers replacing racial categories with the terms, “Dominant casteruling majorityfavored caste, or upper caste, instead of, or in addition to, white.” She also favors identifying African Americans as “Subordinate castelowest castebottom castedisfavored caste, and historically stigmatized.”

Wilkerson is clear that “[c]aste and race are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive.” I appreciate the gesture. The forms of inequality signaled by the terms “caste” and “race” are neither identical nor symmetrical. But why then, is the lexicon Wilkerson has chosen drawn from a social order that she believes has both predated and outlasted state-sponsored racism? Since her intervention has less to do with Indian caste than with the changing conditions of American racism, I wonder whether Wilkerson has not politicized race at the cost of essentializing caste. She grasps the power of Indian parallels, but she does not engage sufficiently with caste to understand the deep lessons it has for the American experience.

Wilkerson equates Indian caste with the violent discrimination of Dalits, and likens their treatment to that of African Americans. Yet caste is more complex than this one-to-one correspondence. Heritable hierarchy succeeds by incorporating castes within the social order while displacing its violence to the margins. What we call “caste” exemplifies the Kantian term, asocial sociality: caste ideology restricts contact across castes while intensifying contact within each caste. Caste’s role as social power is thus perceptible only when the entire spectrum of hierarchy both within and between castes is taken into account.

Hierarchy is itself a much-contested term. In Homo Hierarchicus, an intensely debated, field-defining book which was published in English in 1970 in a translation by Mark Sainsbury, the French sociologist Louis Dumont demarcated an unbridgeable divide between the principle of hierarchy (derived from Hindu religion) and the idea of equality, between caste status and modern individualism. Dumont went to great lengths to show why hierarchy was not a form of racism.

The four-fold caste division with which Indians are familiar — priest, warrior, merchant, laborer (with the untouchable as “outcaste”) — is described in ancient Hindu texts along lines similar to Dumont’s own understanding of hierarchy, but this bears little relation to the social life of caste. In fact, this was one of the main criticisms of Dumont’s position, who drew on a longer set of Orientalist assumptions, from Hegel to Voltaire, of caste as “other” to ideas of freedom and equality.

A further complication is the British codification of caste as both a social identity and a political mechanism of control, which produced modern caste. During the colonial era, communities regularly petitioned to move up the caste hierarchy with arguments to show why they deserved a higher status than was assigned to them.

Today’s caste politics is organized around claims to “backwardness” and the logic of competitive victimization. Dalits are increasingly incidental to affirmative action policies, although they were the occasion for these policies. Hindu nationalism has consolidated upper castes and lower castes around a shared hate object, Muslims. And heritable caste has made complex adjustments with modern capital structures.

In brief, “caste” is a millennial social order with an equally long history of conflict and transformation. A Dalit perspective helps relate caste with democracy in much the same manner as we might approach the paradox of race and democracy, and not merely thorough a shared inventory of violations, as Wilkerson suggests.

She is less interested in the history of the concept than in the power of analogy. Wilkerson’s focus on shared logics of abjection and social outcasting leads to comparison of three caste hierarchies in world history — India, the United States, and Nazi Germany. Her interest is in the reproduction of hierarchy and systemic inequality, and less on the efforts to change it. This appears to justify the compression of divergent histories and incommensurable timelines.

We might recall Hannah Arendt’s caution that “social revolution” — that is, attempts to eliminate inequality — has a record of failure that revolutionary idealism should learn from. Indeed Wilkerson’s systemic focus leads to a discussion of the several pillars of racial caste: the taboo against miscegenation, laws of purity and pollution, inherited rank, the use of terror and violence to police social boundaries, and Old Testament law sanctioning racial superiority.

A consummate storyteller, Wilkerson chooses her anecdotes to illustrate caste’s enduring logic, from humiliation and prejudice to spectacular violence. She presents graphic evidence of the power white supremacy derives from the ritual dismemberment of the black body. The will to memorialize images of the violated black body only compounds the crime: the slave market, advertisements for the sale of slaves, lynching postcards, photographs of murdered activists and bombed churches, the body camera.

Wilkerson describes the modern avatar of American racism as a collective illness. She draws on the social psychology of group behavior to explain the ubiquity of everyday racism, which structures social interaction but does not rise to the level of legible harm.

Wilkerson relates her own experience of traveling first class on a plane when a white man forcefully throws his body against hers while retrieving his luggage. The onlookers are silent and observe the rules of liberal etiquette, so it is as if no one noticed the assault on Wilkerson. Elsewhere, she describes the refusal to recognize black achievement, the indifference to black suffering, and the effect of racial disregard on the subordinate castes, who willingly participate in their own self-abasement.

Wilkerson’s focus is the “black tax” that people of color must pay in order to qualify for the recognition of their personhood and the toll it has taken across generations. She is less interested in the racial basis of economic inequality or historical disparities in the accumulation of wealth. There is mention of the white working classes twice across Wilkerson’s book. First, in the context of a discussion of Du Bois’s powerful formulation of whiteness as a “psychological wage.” Next, Wilkerson references the psychologist Erich Fromm, whose experience with historical fascism led him to believe that the working classes and poor whites were most likely to identify with virulent racism, possibly as a consequence of their forced intimacy with black workers. In each instance (and across the book), the focus is less on the conflict between labor and capital than on how white supremacy transcends class.

The resistance to engaging with the history of racial capitalism is indeed surprising. Wilkerson wrote powerfully about the Great Migration and the racism of the North in her previous award-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns. This was precisely the period when the race question became the (racial) labor question.

In Caste, Wilkerson draws upon prior scholarship on American caste by a group of sociologists who are credited with creating the “caste school of social stratification,” which sought to explain the difference between class relations in the industrial North and the endurance of caste in the American South. They explained American caste, that is, the barriers to black social mobility and the accumulation of wealth by focusing on the taboo against race mixing and rules governing black/white social relations.

Wilkerson is deeply influenced by this school of thought, especially the figure of the rare black sociologist Allison Davis, who co-authored a study entitled Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class (1941) together with his wife Elizabeth, and another white sociologist couple, the Gardners. Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal drew upon Davis’s study for his world-famous study of racial caste sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944), though there was little public acknowledgment of the fact. (Myrdal’s text played an influential role in affirmative action law — the US Civil Rights Commission’s 1947 report, To Secure These Rights, drew on Myrdal’s book. Justice Earl Warren drew on the ’47 report and cited Myrdal in his 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.) However, there were serious challenges to what was essentially a school of “race relations” at a time when black workers were trying to unionize and otherwise engaging in mass action to challenge segregation in all walks of public life. The powerful criticism levied against the “caste school” by Trinidad-born sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox drew on the black Marxist tradition and focused on economic exploitation and political class to explain racial caste.

But perhaps the most creative transformation of the term caste was by Du Bois, who associated “color caste” with the birth of modern racism governed by law and racial capital. The emergence of the white and the black proletariat — and the tragic failure of class unity as a consequence of the color line — is one of the central features of Du Bois’s analysis in his epic Black Reconstruction (1935). Du Bois even congratulated himself for having revolutionized the use of the word “caste.”

In an ironic twist, anti-caste thinkers in India drew on race to clarify the conditions of inherited privilege. They sought new vocabularies to rewrite caste as historical violence. Ambedkar’s intellectual forebear Jyotirao Phule described the battle between upper castes and the downtrodden as a race war in his 1873 text, Gulamgiri [Slavery]. Ambedkar was not averse to historical comparison but he was distrustful of Phule’s essentialist notion of race. Instead, he gravitated to the emerging social science disciplines and drew on their analytical tools and philosophical assumptions, such as the comparative method and historical developmentalism.

Although slavery is typically viewed as the worst form of human degradation, Ambedkar took a different stance. The slave was at least conscious of his enslavement, and the master needed to protect his estate. Untouchability was worse because it was an indirect form of slavery, Ambedkar argued. His early text, Castes in India (1917), refers to caste as an “enclosed class,” and rethinks caste endogamy as sexual violence.

For both Du Bois and Ambedkar, the language of class, labor, and capital were key to understanding modern caste even when their intellectual journeys diverged. Black Reconstruction moved Du Bois further toward the embrace of a communism he made his own in the quest to understand white supremacy. Ambedkar challenged the adequacy of a merely materialist response to the historical violence of caste, and privileged the Buddha’s radical humanism contra Marx.

Meanwhile, Wilkerson supports the forms of reconciliation undertaken by both Germany in the wake of the Holocaust and South Africa in the aftermath of apartheid. The viability of that measure without serious engagement with dispossession, destitution, and mass poverty — the problem of redistribution, in brief — appears questionable.

Isabel Wilkerson has written an important book that reminds us of a comradeship of interwoven histories, which might illuminate each other analogically but are neither identical nor symmetrical. The conversation she has begun forces deeper engagement with the utopian possibilities, the missed meetings, the productive misrecognition, and the silenced voices that constitute the archive of global caste.


Anupama Rao is associate professor of History at Barnard College and associate director of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, Columbia University.

LARB Contributor

Anupama Rao is associate professor of History at Barnard College and associate director of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, Columbia University. She is senior editor, Comparative Studies in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. She is author of The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India (University of California Press, 2009), Gender and Caste: The Imagination of Equality (Women Unlimited, 2018), and Memoirs of a Dalit Communist (Leftword Books, 2019).


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