Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
Random House, August 2020
496 pages / Amazon
Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is the type of book that is bound to be polarizing. It offers a new way of imagining race in America that will resonate with the experiences of many who have encountered the obstacles and prohibitions of the U.S. racial regime, especially those who can readily identify with Wilkerson’s assertion that “caste” is “a fixed and embedded ranking of human value.” At the same time, any claim of social rigidity across time and space is sure to raise the hackles of historians, anthropologists, and race scholars alike, and Wilkerson is largely unable to head off these criticisms.
Wilkerson, best known for her moving investigation of the Great Migration in The Warmth of Other Suns, brings the same journalistic approach to Caste, describing her own firsthand encounters with what she identifies as “caste-ism.” She also brings together a number of interviews, as well as other anecdotes from across three different national contexts: the well-known caste divisions of India, the rise of Nazi Germany, and the creation and maintenance of the U.S. racial hierarchy. In doing so, Wilkerson aims to demonstrate how the United States can and should be examined in conversation with these seemingly foreign systems of inequality.
While Wilkerson argues that her conceptions of race and caste are not synonymous, within the United States at least, there is little that differentiates the two. Caste, for Wilkerson, is the rigid substructure of race. As she explains, “caste is the bones, race is the skin.” While the exact parameters of various races have shifted over time, allowing Irish, Italians, and other Eastern Europeans into the privileged club of whiteness, Wilkerson argues that the existence of dominant and subordinated castes has remained consistent, even while the inhabitants of these castes have changed. This means that at any given time, where an individual falls in the caste hierarchy predetermines the ways they may be treated in society, as well as the opportunities they have available, as though steered by “a wordless usher… guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance.”
This argument is not entirely new. W.E.B. Du Bois, for example, wrote in 1909 of a racial caste system that creates “a definite place preordained in custom, law and religion where all men of black blood must be thrust.” The problem with imagining race as a set category—as pointed out by critical race scholars in the last several decades—is that the nature of race, and much of what gives it its power, is not its inflexibility, but its adaptability. When Black police officers kill Black civilians, it is often assumed that race is not a factor, but Black police officers are just as likely as their white colleagues to disproportionally target Black civilians. A caste-based analysis of Black police brutality cannot account for the power differentials between these two individuals of the “same” caste. Similarly, by claiming that Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans occupy ambiguously defined “middle castes,” Wilkerson argues for their subordination to the white or “dominant” caste and superiority over the Black or “subordinate” caste. How, then, are we to account for the history of Black buffalo soldiers fighting on behalf of American colonialism against Native Americans in the West? How are we to account for the many different ways that race shapes, classifies, and makes vulnerable individuals and groups in different locations and periods according to the whims of white supremacy? While race mediates these interactions, they cannot be so easily reduced to concrete hierarchies of caste.
It is always dangerous to ascribe labels to historical actors that they themselves never used to describe themselves. The result is often that our modern lenses distort historical specificity. Yet this is precisely what Wilkerson does by equating Black and lowest caste, white and upper caste and lumping everyone else in the middle. Wilkerson replaces race with an idea that does not consider context or the particularities of how race is variously used to marginalize and uplift certain populations in the interests of the economic elite and structures of white supremacy.
This imprecision points to the other major drawback of Wilkerson’s idea of “caste:” its failure to understand the ways that race intersects with many other social categories of privilege and oppression, not in the least class, gender, and sexuality. Wilkerson makes explicit that her conception of caste does not include class or gender, which she describes as “variations within caste.” This oversight leads Wilkerson to conclude her book with the line, “A world without caste is a world in which everyone is free.” Having already removed caste from the various hierarchies denoted by class, gender, and sexuality, amongst others, it is unclear how this ideal world would overcome non-racial modes of oppression.
By replacing race with racial determinism, and racial determinism with “caste,” Wilkerson does little to explain the ways race is experienced, created, and maintained in the United States. Instead, Caste offers an overly simplified explanation of shifting racial divisions that are consistently being challenged, redefined, and reasserted. It is only by considering the ways race follows and diverts the trajectories of power that we may begin to challenge these relationships. Imagining the racial hierarchy as rigid and inflexible only obscures the insidious power of race as an intersectional marker of who succeeds, who is restricted, who is promoted, who is imprisoned, who lives and who dies.
Wilkerson presents an intriguing idea that falls short of reimagining hierarchy in the way she intends. But that is not to say that there is nothing useful to be drawn from Caste. There are few who doubt that the United States suffers from a multitude of inequalities and hierarchies. Often, these differences do create seemingly impenetrable boundaries, such as the cultivation and policing of white middle-class suburbs, or the funneling of impoverished students into increasingly restrictive educational systems of surveillance and imprisonment, or even glass ceilings of employment and pay. These barriers and expectations create interlocking and unequal categories of persons that keep individuals “distinct from one another and in their assigned places,” but they are not so easily reducible to race, even as race plays a prominent role. How else are we to understand Black elites such as Oprah Winfrey or Barack Obama but by imagining how race interacts with class, with gender, and with meritocracy? The predetermination of ability and opportunity is indeed akin to a caste system. To restrict our focus solely to race without the nuance of its intersectional and contextually dependent expressions, however, is to miss the particular ways that power operates through a number of deterministic categories that affect the ways individuals in America are evaluated, categorized, and acted upon in a racial state.
Kendall Artz is a PhD student in the American Studies department at the College of William & Mary. His research focuses on social identity formation, especially the constructed experience of white identity. Kendall earned his Master’s degree in Social Anthropology from Queen’s University Belfast, and his background in anthropological theory still strongly informs his interest in community, perception, and the self. Kendall can be found on Twitter @ArtzKendall.