In “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” author Isabel Wilkerson explains that the racial discrimination that has always existed in the U.S. is best characterized as a caste system, like that in India and Nazi Germany. The scientific definition of racism is the combination of racial bias and systemic power. Per Wilkerson, this defines caste.
A caste system ranks humans based on artificial and arbitrary criteria, creating boundaries to keep different castes apart and in their distinct and assigned places. If the criteria are highly visible, such as skin color, it’s hard to escape your assigned caste. Live within a caste system long enough, and it becomes the norm. Caste is a disease, and no one in society is immune.
Wilkerson explains how race, like caste, is a human invention — a social construct, not a biological one. The human genome reveals we are 99.9% the same. Race and caste were invented by dominant classes to solidify their advantages. Today in America, she says, the dominant caste is made up of white Americans, the middle caste includes Asian and Latino people and the lower caste includes Black people and Native Americans.
Caste is embedded in our culture. It’s the patterns of our social order, with one’s caste established at birth. Caste sets forth the rules, stereotypes and expectations. Caste is about who has power and who doesn’t. It’s about respect, authority and assumptions of competence. Wilkerson calls it 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.” Caste is how we process information and guides us beyond our awareness. It is embedded in our bones and our unconscious.
The American caste system began in 1619 with the first colony in the South. For 250 years, “slavery was the fabric out of which the cloth was made.” America’s form of slavery was the most brutally extreme in the world. Slaves were regularly subjected to tortures that would be banned by the Geneva Conventions. This “living death” was passed down for 12 generations. Slavery so perverted the balance of power that it made the abuse of the subordinate caste seem normal and righteous. Wilkerson describes how when Nazi Germany sought to develop its own caste system, America gave inspiration and direction. But even the Nazis never stooped to selling body parts as souvenirs, as Americans did at lynchings, and President Andrew Jackson, when he went horseback riding, used bridle reins made of Native American flesh.
Wilkerson shares many horrific examples of America’s 400 years of racial violence. Reading these examples will likely stir anger and outrage, which were often my feelings. Even as America moved to more progressive policies, such as FDR’s 1930s New Deal reforms, the farmers and domestic workers who made up the majority of the lower caste were excluded. Black Americans were also excluded from government programs assisting with homeownership, which is a key factor leading to today’s wealth gap between Black and white Americans.
Wilkerson provides a broad understanding of the caste system by describing its eight pillars, which include caste being divine will and within the laws of nature, its inheritability, occupational hierarchy and terror as enforcement and cruelty as a means of control. Each pillar is detailed with explicit examples from American history, as well as in our culture today. Whereas Germany refuses to hide or forget its Nazi past, America has instead celebrated the history of our caste system, with Confederate flags, statues and memorials.
A caste system builds rivalry and distrust and decreases empathy toward fellow citizens. Wilkerson describes how America has suffered due to our culture and caste system, including our poor health, high violence and low happiness levels compared to other developed countries. Americans are stingy in aid to the poor but are more than happy to lock them up.
Wilkerson writes how President Barack Obama became a symbol of a profound loss of white status. In response to Obama’s election, Republicans have been focusing on changing election laws to restrict minority voters, including the Supreme Court overturning the Voting Rights Act, new voter ID laws and other tactics used in the South during Jim Crow. The US Census projects the end of white majority by 2042, which the dominant white caste would see as a crisis. Expect greater and greater attempts to suppress the votes of lower castes.
Wilkerson claims the slogan Make America Great Again is the result of a threat to the dominant caste. She states that working-class whites need the demarcations of caste more than rich whites. They are the people most likely to aggressively claim that Blacks can never attain the status of even the lowest white, because “one might lose everything, but not whiteness.” The rise of the lower caste is a threat to their existence. Working-class whites may vote against their own economic self-interests by electing a right-wing oligarch who they expect will pull everyone up by their bootstraps, but what they get is someone working to maintain the caste system. Wilkerson asks, “If people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?”
Wilkerson closes her book by challenging our caste system. We can’t fix anything that we won’t admit exists. According to her, as much as 80% of white Americans hold unconscious bias against Blacks; it kicks in before one can even process it. White Americans need to wake up, then make a choice. Not to speak is to speak; not to act is to act. The bottom caste didn’t create this mess, and the bottom caste alone can’t fix it.
Wilkerson calls for “radical empathy,” defined as “putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective.” It is not enough to be tolerant. White Americans must become pro-Black, pro-woman, pro-Latino, pro-Asian, pro-Indigenous and pro-humanity. White Americans are not responsible for what people who looked like us did centuries ago, but each of us are responsible for what good or ill we do to people alive with us today.
Before reading “Caste,” I felt that I had a fairly good understanding of race and racism in America and was doubting I would learn anything new. I was wrong. Reading “Caste” brought me new perspective on American racism. Wilkerson convinced me that American society truly does operate in a caste system. Reading “Caste” can be upsetting, but I believe it is vital educational material and suggest picking it up.
Read more of the July 7-13, 2021 issue.