Review of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (Random House, 2020).
My spouse and I are cleaning up our backyard and turning it into a “no-mow” zone of vegetables, flowers, native plants and grasses. One corner had become a haven for little trees, and I have that area cleaned out for now. The easy approach was simply to lop off the interlopers at ground level, but that was an unending task. The real solution was to dig the unwelcome newcomers out at the taproot. So that’s what I did (and will continue to do). The task means digging under the surface and persisting in the digging for as long as we steward that bit of soil.
“I sought to dig up the taproots of hierarchy,” Isabel Wilkerson writes in the opening pages of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, “and the distortions and injustice it yields.” Wilkerson is the first woman of African American heritage to win the Pulitzer Prize in journalism, recipient of the George S. Polk Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Journalist of the Year award from the National Association of Black Journalists. She has been a professor of journalism and endowed lecturer at Northwestern University. She published The Warmth of Other Suns in 2010 and thereby won the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction as well as the Anisfield-Wolf Award for Nonfiction, the Mark Lynton History Prize, the Sidney Hillman Book Prize, and the Heartland Prize for Nonfiction.
Wilkerson describes herself as a writer of narrative nonfiction, and she is one of the best such writers, in my opinion, this nation has produced. She writes lyrical prose, tells magnificent stories, paints brilliant, multiple, and precise metaphorical images with her words, and sees beneath the surface of the stories to discern deeper meanings and larger movements of history. If her public interviews are any indication, she carries all of this off with humility, grace, courage, and clarity. I find it a privilege to read her work—beginning with the joy of her consummate craft and moving into the profundity of her insight.
Wilkerson applies her mature gifts to the latest essay on caste. She observes that throughout her extensive work in The Warmth of Other Suns, she did not use the word “racism,” even though that piece is drenched in race. “I discovered,” she notes, “that I was not writing about geography and relocation, but about the American caste system, an artificial hierarchy in which most everything that you could and could not do was based upon what you looked like and that manifested itself north and south.” In this previous work, Wilkerson discovered and immersed herself in theory and analysis of caste and found a tool to dig out the roots of racism.
“Color is a fact,” Wilkerson reminds us. “Race is a social construct.” What, however, is the foundation upon which race is “constructed”? Wilkerson argues that the foundation (to shift to another of her many metaphors) is caste. She writes, “A caste system is an artificial construction, 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 and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it.” Caste is the manifestation of the human hunger for hierarchy, expressed in made-up constructions with very real human consequences. “A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places,” she concludes. It is about keeping everyone in place, for the benefit of the dominant status group.
Caste is what Wilkerson describes as the architectural framework of artificial hierarchies, the unseen joists, and studs of this “old house” called America. Race is the key, the cue, and the covering for this deep-buried system. “Race, in the United States,” Wilkerson writes, “is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin. Race is what we can see, the physical traits that have been given arbitrary meaning and become shorthand for who a person is. Caste is the powerful infrastructure,” she asserts, “that holds each group in its place.”
Like most white Americans, I was limited to generic understandings of caste and culture on the Indian subcontinent. Wilkerson studied that system in depth for insight and comparison. She also studied the Nazi caste system as applied to Jews and others for a third example. While the three systems are not identical, they are indeed comparable. “The human impulse to create hierarchies runs across societies and cultures,” Wilkerson reminds us, “predates the idea of race, and thus is farther reaching, deeper, and older than raw racism and the comparatively new division of humans by skin color.” The comparisons leads her, and us, deeper into the realities of artificial human hierarchies and enrich the understanding of racism in the American context.
There is concern expressed by some reviewers that Wilkerson reduces the horror of the Holocaust by comparing the Nazi regime with other caste systems. I’m in no position to judge, but that was not my takeaway. Instead, I found the comparisons revealing in multiple directions. In addition, while the horror of the Holocaust must never be reduced and always remembered, the horror of American racism has not been adequately examined and expressed. That horror has covered four hundred years (and the horrors of the Indian system have covered thousands of years). But the cumulative results are indeed comparable.
Nor is caste simply an academic term for social or economic class. Again, caste is the taproot, and class is the flower. “It is the fixed nature of caste that distinguishes it from class,” Wilkerson writes, “a term to which it is often compared. Class is an altogether separate measure of one’s standing in a society, marked by level of education, income, and occupation, as well as the attendant characteristics, such as accent, taste, and manners, that flow from socioeconomic status.” Class can be secured and performed in spite of caste distinctions, but it cannot erase those distinctions. “If you can act your way out of it,” Wilkerson notes, “then it is class, not caste.”
I cannot, in a two-thousand-word review, begin to summarize the wealth of data, the beautiful narrative history, the entertaining excursions, and the powerful analysis Wilkerson brings to this conversation. You have to read the book to explore, for example, “the Eight Pillars of Caste,” or the description of “Cortisol, Telomeres, and the Lethality of Caste,” or Wilkerson’s reflections on “A World Without Caste.” Instead, I want to reflect on a few challenges the book has presented to me.
I inhabit and perform in the hierarchy several levels above the bottom caste in American society. I am a white, English-speaking, cisgender, heterosexual, lower middle class, highly educated, Protestant Christian male. My family comes predominantly from German immigrants. As a tribe we Germans “earned our whiteness” in the 1840’s (at least according to scholars), ahead of the Irish, Italians, Greeks, Poles and other Europeans who came after us. Even with my few modest class handicaps, I’ve been able to box above my caste weight for most of my life, and I have had every advantage my privilege provides. I have done so with little or no thought applied to that reality until the last decade or so.
That being said, I have been aware of the tenuous nature of my class status beginning in middle school. My anxiety about slipping back down the ladder has been a driver throughout my adolescence and adult life. That’s also true for my caste colleagues, many of whom live with that fear of falling. I have grown up with people who fill the ranks of the anxiously resentful and respond with vigor to warnings that someone is coming for their jobs, their homes, their neighborhoods, their families, their faith, and their status. The assumption is that class position is a limited good, and a zero-sum commodity. If someone else gains, then I must lose.
The implications for the current political season and racial crisis are surely obvious. I wonder, however, if “caste” is a disease that is curable or merely treatable. I don’t get a conclusion from Wilkerson’s work. In her epilogue I get the sense that she believes it is curable. I’m not so optimistic. It seems to me that one implication of her work is that humans will always be recovering caste-addicts, not recovered ones. In practical terms, the distinction probably makes little difference since there is so much work to do. On the other hand, it does point to the species-wide reality of caste and its discontents.
The project that brings me to all of this reading and research is the little New Testament letter of Paul to Philemon. In that context, I am sure that work on caste is in helpful conversation with the analysis of the first-century Mediterranean world as an honor/shame culture. Others have certainly explored this in depth. I have studied the work of Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh in this regard for thirty years. The standard lists of characteristics of honor/shame cultures, for example, are closely related to Wilkerson’s “eight pillars” of caste systems.
This matters to me because it supports efforts to compare the Greco-Roman slave system to the American, race-based system. In short, if race is the root of the American system, then any comparisons to the Greco-Roman system break down fairly quickly. If, on the other hand, there is a deeper taproot which both systems have in common, then comparisons can be accurate and instructive. I have found that to be the case. I find Wilkerson’s work to be supportive of that project. This ongoing project is a doorway into the class/race/caste conversation with everyday Christians, even if it is a side door. Inviting people through that door is part of my work these days.
Regarding the future of American racism, I would say that Wilkerson is hopeful but not necessarily optimistic. “A caste system persists” she writes in her Epilogue, “in part because we, each and every one of us, allow it to exist—in large and small ways, in our everyday actions, in how we elevate or demean, embrace or exclude, on the basis of the meaning attached to people’s physical traits. If enough people buy into the lie of natural hierarchy,” she observes, “then it becomes the truth or is assumed to be.” The current political, economic, and law-enforcement climate does not encourage much optimism.
One possibility is that the American caste system will structure itself more like the South African apartheid system—with a middle group of “colored” strivers seeking to distance themselves from the lowest cast of “black” people. I am “white” because my forebears did what was necessary to be “promoted” by assimilation into the dominant status group. That caste carrot could be offered to others in order to maintain the status of the lowest caste. “The devastating truth is that, without the intervention of humanitarian impulses, a reconstituted caste system could divide those at the bottom and those in the middle, pick off those closest to white and thus isolate the darkest Americans even further, lock them ever more tightly to the bottom rung,” Wilkerson writes. That is the anti-democratic path of minority rule solidified for the long haul.
On the other hand, we can see an example in contemporary Germany, Wilkerson believes, of another path forward. “To imagine an end to caste in America,” she asserts, “we need only look at the history of Germany. It is living proof that if a caste system—the twelve-year reign of the Nazis—can been created, it can be dismantled. We make a serious error when we fail to see the overlap between our country and others, the common vulnerability in human programming…” This is another terrible reminder that genocide happens only when supported by the ordinary people of a society. It is also an encouragement that ordinary people can choose another path.
Wilkerson joins the chorus calling for an American “Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” similar to that which brought some justice and closure to the apartheid system in South Africa. “Our era calls for a public accounting of what caste has cost us,” she argues, “so that every American can know the full history of our country, wrenching though it may be.” I am sure she is correct. I am also sure that such an effort will push white Americans to either violence or genuine maturity.
With Wilkerson, I am hopeful but not optimistic. Even the thought of creating a written history of race in our local congregation sends shivers of revulsion and terror through the skin of most of our (almost all white) members. What will such a project do to a whole nation? I don’t know. But at least small communities such as predominantly white Christian churches might lead the way in such efforts at repentance, repair and (perhaps) reconciliation. I refer you to Jones’ White Too Long for at least one example of such a local project.
Wilkerson ends the book with this sentence. “A world without caste would set everyone free.” That certainly must be true if one accepts the sweep of Wilkerson’s argument. It would, however, be a mature sort of freedom and not merely a release from burdens. A world without caste would be a world grown up into responsibility for others. The freedom in such a world would be the sort of two-pronged freedom described by the Christian gospel (and, for example in Martin Luther’s essay On the Freedom of the Christian). It would be a freedom from the burdens of caste, and a freedom for the good of the other.
Human diversity is a given, and even a gift. Domination is a decision and leads to damnation for all. Wilkerson has deepened my understanding of both the blessing and the curse. And she encourages me to keep digging.