Isabel Wilkerson on Race & Caste in the 21st Century

15 November, 2020


Caste: The Ori­gins of Our Dis­con­tents by Isabel Wilk­er­son
Ran­dom House (2020)
ISBN 978–0593230251

Monique El-Faizy

It’s impos­si­ble not to think about race in rela­tion to the Unit­ed States these days. Kamala Har­ris, half-Jamaican, half-Indi­an, has been elect­ed vice pres­i­dent. The coun­try has been con­vulsed by videos of black men being killed or oth­er­wise abused at the hands of police offi­cers, of white peo­ple exert­ing their priv­i­lege and by the result­ing Black Lives Mat­ter protest move­ment. Hav­ing a pres­i­dent who rou­tine­ly dog whis­tles to white suprema­cists height­ened racial ten­sions all the more. 

Isabel Wilk­er­son­’s impor­tant book, Caste: The Ori­gins of Our Dis­con­tents, comes, then, at a par­tic­u­lar­ly salient time. But Wilk­er­son goes beyond the usu­al analy­ses of race in Amer­i­ca and brings in a new dimen­sion by look­ing at race through the lens of caste, which she describes as “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.” 

Read more  about  Caste .

Read more about Caste.

The two are linked, she argues, but not the same. “Race, in the Unit­ed States, is the vis­i­ble agent of the unseen force of caste,” writes Wilk­er­son, a Pulitzer-prize win­ning for­mer jour­nal­ist and the author of The Warmth of Oth­er Suns, which won the Nation­al Book Crit­ics Cir­cle Award for Non­fic­tion. “Caste is the bones, race is the skin.” In oth­er words, we focus on race because we can see it, but caste is what gives racism form. 

It’s a sub­tle par­a­digm shift that makes sense of social con­structs in the Unit­ed States in a fresh way. For those who have read Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chi­ma­man­da Ngozi Adichie, Robin DiAn­ge­lo or any num­ber of oth­er authors on this sub­ject, the facts that Wilk­er­son lays out in the book won’t be new, so much as they will be pre­sent­ed in a dif­fer­ent manner. 

By look­ing at Amer­i­can his­to­ry through the lens of caste and com­par­ing the US sys­tem with the caste struc­tures in India and Nazi Ger­many (which used Amer­i­can racial puri­ty laws as the basis for its own), Wilk­er­son gives the read­er a dif­fer­ent frame­work with which to con­sid­er both Amer­i­ca’s his­to­ry and its present. Each of the three nations “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,” she writes. 

In the Unit­ed States, African-Amer­i­cans have had the same social stand­ing as the untouch­ables in India—for many years, quite lit­er­al­ly, Wilk­er­son argues, pro­vid­ing many exam­ples of white peo­ple refus­ing not only to touch black peo­ple but to even share a drink­ing foun­tain or use a swim­ming pool a black per­son swam in. 

But Wilk­er­son speaks not in terms of  black and white—noting that race is a social con­struct and that skin col­or is as arbi­trary a way of sort­ing peo­ple as height or eye col­or would be—but of dom­i­nant caste and low­er caste. This schema is par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing when con­sid­er­ing how immi­grants find their place in US soci­ety and made me think of the inte­gra­tion of my own par­ents, my blond-haired, blue-eyed Dutch moth­er and my Egypt­ian father, and what that mixed her­itage means for me, who does­n’t fall com­fort­ably into either camp,  in terms of Amer­i­can caste structures. 

Wilk­er­son writes about her own expe­ri­ences as a woman in dark skin, about being the Chica­go bureau chief for the New York Times but hav­ing a store man­ag­er she was going to inter­view dis­miss her as wast­ing his time because he was expect­ing an impor­tant jour­nal­ist; about being treat­ed dif­fer­ent­ly from oth­er pas­sen­gers while sit­ting in the first-class sec­tion of an air­plane, about being vir­tu­al­ly ignored in restau­rants, and being fol­lowed by DEA agents on a rental car shut­tle. Who she is, and what she does for a liv­ing and her career accom­plish­ments can be erased by the col­or of her skin. 

“It explains every­thing that is hap­pen­ing today,” one of the many friends I urged to read the book told me after fin­ish­ing it. Caste is, quite sim­ply, essen­tial for any­one try­ing to under­stand the upheavals of our time and their Amer­i­can provenance. 

At the core of Wilk­er­son­’s book is the argu­ment that the Unit­ed States was con­struct­ed on a pro­found injus­tice that has not been addressed or atoned for. The caste sys­tem that endures today has been with us for 400 years, she writes, begin­ning after the first Africans arrived in the colony of Vir­ginia in the sum­mer of 1619. Caste is baked into the Amer­i­can DNA. 

The book is unflinch­ing, par­tic­u­lar­ly in its por­tray­al of the bru­tal­i­ty of slav­ery in the US and in its implic­it con­dem­na­tion of the ordi­nary cit­i­zens who not only stood by but rev­elled in the com­plete dehu­man­iza­tion of their fel­low humans. Amer­i­cans don’t get off more light­ly than their coun­ter­parts in Nazi Ger­many. Wilk­er­son describes the car­ni­val-like atmos­phere at many lynch­ings and the sou­venirs that peo­ple took home from them. She also describes in detail the grue­some med­ical exper­i­ments done on black bod­ies that rivalled those con­duct­ed by Nazi doc­tors on Jews. It is a slice of Amer­i­can his­to­ry that has been large­ly sanitized. 

Getty Images

Get­ty Images

Per­haps the sharpest point of the book comes when Wilk­er­son talks about the reck­on­ing done by Ger­many over its Nazi past, and the lack of an equiv­a­lent in the Unit­ed States. At the core of Caste is the argu­ment that the Unit­ed States has not addressed or atoned for the pro­found injus­tice on which it was built. Much of the vio­lence inflict­ed on enslaved Africans were “tor­tures that the Gene­va Con­ven­tions would have banned as war crimes had the con­ven­tions applied to peo­ple of African descent on this soil,” she writes. 

But they do not, and where­as Ger­many has many mon­u­ments to the vic­tims of Nazi crimes and none to the per­pe­tra­tors of those crimes, we in the Unit­ed States are still argu­ing over the removal of mon­u­ments to those who per­pe­trat­ed and defend­ed what can only be seen as crimes against human­i­ty. “In Ger­many, dis­play­ing a swasti­ka is a crime pun­ish­able by up to three years in prison. In the Unit­ed States, the rebel flag is incor­po­rat­ed into the offi­cial state flag of Mis­sis­sip­pi,” Wilk­er­son notes. Ger­mans who had not yet been born when Hitler came to pow­er con­tin­ue to bear the bur­den of respon­si­bil­i­ty for their ances­tor’s mis­deeds; a sim­i­lar reck­on­ing has yet to take place in the Unit­ed States. 

A move­ment of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is long over­due, but as the polit­i­cal are­na has illus­trat­ed recent­ly, much of Amer­i­ca is far from being able to con­sid­er our own his­to­ry with an hon­est gaze. Wilk­er­son ends Caste on a hope­ful note, urg­ing rad­i­cal empa­thy. After fin­ish­ing the book, though, I find it dif­fi­cult to share her opti­mism. Our cur­rent polit­i­cal cycle has shown that white pow­er will pro­tect itself at almost any cost. Until we as Amer­i­cans can take an unblink­ing look at the basis of the inequal­i­ties that plague our nation, we will be unable to change them. 

Monique El-Faizy, a TMR con­tribut­ing edi­tor, is a jour­nal­ist and author based in Paris.