Caste: The Origins of our Discontents

As another year comes to a close, I reflect on the books that had the greatest impact on me in 2020. In the genre of non fiction, Caste by Isabel Wilkerson is the most powerful book I have read this year. The title itself piqued my interest. The premise of the book is that ‘caste’, a term traditionally associated with India, is a better word to describe racism in the US. As someone who has grown up in India, caste is not just a term I am familiar with, but something that has seeped into every aspect of my existence, knowingly or unknowingly. It is so deeply ingrained in the psyche that often people are not even aware of how they are perpetuating the caste system even if they openly and truly condemn it. In that aspect, caste is very similar to white supremacy and Wilkerson posits that African Americans in the United States are at the lowest rung in a hierarchy analogous to both the caste system in India and the Nazi rule in Germany. She claims that “Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste…. Caste is the bones, race the skin.”

One might wonder if these cross cultural comparisons have any merit for how do we compare 400 years of American history with 12 years of Nazi rule and 3000 years of a complex system of social stratification in India? The three share basic methods of subjugation and the underlying feeling of dehumanization is the same. So caste and not race is the lens though which we should view America, according to Wilkerson. It is not just a matter of semantics but a better framework to understand and analyze the inequities. Wilkerson says that Nazi Germany was inspired by American segregation laws and believe it or not, they thought the American system was too extreme. I have often wondered why people are only shocked by Nazis and their brutality when what African Americans endured as slaves was no less. Even the Nazis thought that determining the percentage of blood that made you black to be too harsh. It is only on reading this book I realized that there was no basis to the one drop of blood rule ( which even black people have come to believe- so deep is the brainwashing or rather whitewashing) and that theory was touted just to keep black people in their place.

Wilkerson delineates 8 pillars of caste that are common across the three societies and gives examples from each category to illustrate her point. Endomagy is one of the pillars of caste I found fascinating as a comparison. She equates the past ban on interracial marriages in the US to the control of marriage and mating in India where traditionally people married into their own caste. Alabama was the last state in the union to overturn the ban on interracial marriage in 2000, 33 years after the Supreme Court ruled in Loving vs Virginia that such laws were unconstitutional in all states. And yet, more than 40% of Alabamians voted against overturning it. Now, in the US and in India, legally you are allowed to marry any one you want. But only 10% of the population in India marries outside its caste and only 15% of marriages in the US are interracial. This number includes Hispanics and Asians as well. The percentage would be a lot lower if it were only blacks. Sadly, the figures speak for themselves.

Another pillar of caste that I found striking to compare is the emphasis on pollution and purity. Black people were considered impure and dirty just as Dalits who belong to the lowest echelons of the caste system in India and whose very shadows were once considered polluting and who often eat and drink from separate containers to this day. It was no different for black people till a few decades ago when they drank water from separate fountains and were not allowed to use swimming pools frequented by white people. Wilkerson cites the example of Al Bright, the only black child on the Little League Team in the town of Youngston, Ohio who was banned from using a swimming pool when his team went on a celebration outing. When parents and coaches protested, he was allowed to float on a raft without his feet touching the water, towed around the pool by the manager only after all the white kids had vacated the pool. This incident took place in 1951.   

The book traces the history of enslavement in the South from 1619 when the first Africans were brought to Virginia to the Civil War and subsequent period when the caste system was perpetuated through the Jim Crow South. Even after the abolition of slavery, the country found ways to keep black people subjugated. Wilkerson describes in detail discriminatory housing policies, unethical medical experiments and horrific lynchings where the white community would come to view the spectacle, collect body parts as souvenirs and send postcards of the event to family and friends. This was an astounding revelation to me for as a recent immigrant, I didn’t fully know or understand the extent of the horrors African Americans were subjected to in the past. I had always viewed America as the leader of the free world. But what a paradox then that the country that espouses the values of liberty and justice for all fails many of its citizens on just those counts? For unless the racism inherent in society is acknowledged and addressed, any claim to be the beacon of democracy rings hollow.

“Americans are loathe to talk about enslavement in part because what little we know about it goes against our perception of our country as a just and enlightened nation, a beacon of democracy for the world. Slavery is commonly dismissed as a “sad, dark chapter” in the country’s history, It is as if the greater the distance we can create between slavery and ourselves, the better to stave off the guilt or shame it induces.”  

We are loathe to talk about past horrors but events that happened long ago still color our thinking. The book depicts current realities too with the backlash to Obama’s election and the rise of Trump and Trumpism. Wilkerson believes that white voters vote against their own self interest when the power they hold is threatened for the reality is that in a few decades, they will no longer be the majority of the population. She goes on to ask this uncomfortable question: ”..if people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?” In the US, there is controversy over the removal of Confederate monuments whereas Germany has no statues or memorials to Nazi officers and looks back upon the Third Reich as a shameful part of its history. Americans not willing to dismantle monuments is emblematic of the larger unwillingness to dismantle the system.

Wilkerson lays bare some stark and painful truths about race relations with scholarly research and compelling personal anecdotes. She describes how she was viewed with suspicion while traveling business class. She was followed in the airport and questioned by agents on a car rental company’s shuttle bus and not one passenger came to her defense. Throughout the book she employs striking metaphors to drive home her point. She likens caste variously to the foundation of an old house, to a computer operating system, and to a staged performance. “Caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance.”

There are some gaps in the arguments Wilkerson puts forth. She tends to view caste as a binary and has omitted the plight of Native Americans and other minorities and does not dwell much on how class operates within caste- for instance how do we explain the success of Asian immigrants in the US who are not white? Some of the comparisons of the treatment of African American to Jews seem tenuous too. The Nazis wanted to eliminate Jews and not dominate them while black people in the US and Dalits in India were needed by the dominant class for economic exploitation. 

In addressing the caste system in India, Wilkerson focuses mainly on Brahmins and Dalits but caste is far from a two tier system in India. It is an extremely complex dynamic whose definition is broader and more nuanced. There are four main castes or ‘varna’. Interestingly, the Sanskrit word varna itself means color indicating that originally skin color was used to determine place in a hierarchy. The four castes are Brahmin, Kshatriya,Vaishya and Shudra or the priestly, the warrior, the merchant and the laborer respectively and each caste is further divided into sub castes. Dalits once known as ‘ untouchables’ and whose work involves removal of garbage and animal carcasses, cleaning toilets and sewers, are the most oppressed group. They are even excluded from the traditional classification and form a fifth caste.

There could be more than 5000 castes and sub castes in India and often a subjugated group also subjugates in turn, those they perceive to be lower on the rung. Besides the caste system is not restricted to Hindus but is practiced in some form or other by Muslims and Christians too. Caste is not the exclusive domain of religion but has insidiously seeped into Indian culture. Wilkerson cites sociological research and discusses the activism of Dalit scholar B. R. Ambedkar but does not take into account current realities in India where the government has implemented affirmative action initiatives for the marginalized and where we witness the evolution of a rapidly growing Dalit political movement to fight caste hegemony and Hindu nationalism as they continue to be targets of lynching and rape.

Despite these shortcomings, the book is illuminating. It inspired me to do some soul searching about my own heritage and my complicity in keeping the machinery going. Call it unconscious or silent bias, in the end the discrimination whether in the US or in India is part of an underlying unspoken system of hierarchy. We have accepted this system and adapted to it. I naively believed that caste was not something that was all that prevalent in urban India where I grew up and was mostly confined to rural pockets of the country. I didn’t care what castes my friends belonged to or what last names they went by. Yet, I was guilty of not protesting when the domestic helpers drank water from separate glasses or were not allowed to use the bathrooms at home. Often in a high rise I would come across separate lifts- one for the residents of the building and one ‘ for servants and dogs’. I remember being shocked and angered by it but not enough to do anything about it. Not only do we need to have empathy but ‘radical empathy’, to borrow Wilkerson’s words, to bring about social change.

Caste is an eye opening book especially for those born into privilege who need to shoulder the responsibility for the inequities in society and work to eradicate the deeply entrenched social malady but the sad part is that not everyone is willing to open their eyes to the truth. Although the book ends on a note of hope, it is a long and tortuous road ahead. And there was a part of me that wondered despondently if it is truly possible to live in a world without any implicit hierarchy of race, caste or class!


8 thoughts on “Caste: The Origins of our Discontents

  1. Thanks for the interesting report on the book and the insights on how people outside the US are dealing with issues of racial justice. This book sounds like a worthwhile read.

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  2. Well, M L King visited India in 1958 as state guest and he addressed a public meeting in Bombay (now Mumbai) that was presided over by G L Mehta who had just returned to India as U S Ambassador and was Chairman of ICICI, The meeting was at Green Hotel where the tall Taj Mahal hotel stands now.

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  3. This is at least my second time reading your post (I wanted to think about it a little), which does such a wonderful job of discussing a very complicated and throught provoking book. As one of your previous commentators noted, it’s really great to have a non-U.S. perspective on the racial issue, particularly as Wilkerson relied so heavily on the Indian caste system to explain the racism so prevalent in the U.S. I’m a white southerner by birth & heritage and grew up in the deep south, under a system that Wilkerson so accurately describes as apartheid (I discussed my background a little bit in an old post; if you’re interested just scroll down a paragraph or two. ) I grew up with Confderate monuments and “whites only” signs plastered all over the place, so I suppose you could say I, too, bring a personal perspective to Wilkerson’s book.
    I’m about halfway through Caste, which I began reading last summer. Despite the fact that it was well-written and cogently argued, I just had to set it aside as the catalogue of horros Wilkerson discussed was just too much to handle at that time. I was well aware that Wilkerson’s facts were accurate, and I was actually familiar with many of the incidents she recounted, but the emotional impact of seeing them presented in such an orderly and scholarly way was overwhelming. Caste is an incredibly valuable book for this reason alone; it’s hard to ignore an insidious evil when it’s so well written and researched. I’m hopeful that Caste will be as widely read as it should be and perhaps used as a teaching tool, at least in college and perhaps high school.
    I think you’ve put your finger on the paradox that has always been present in the U.S. and that explains many of its lingering social problems, i.e., that a nation seemingly dedicated to liberty and individual rights was equally determined to preserve slavery, whose lingering effects are still very much with us. Are you familar with the New York Times 1619 project?( The legacy of slavery and the contributions of African Americans have frequently been presented as extraneous to the American experience; the 1619 Project was designed to rectify this. It’s a valuable piece of journalism that was designed to be used, in part, as a teaching tool. I was quite depressed when I saw that it was generating considerable opposition.
    I agree with you that Wilkerson at times stretches her analogies to Nazi Germany a bit too far and that she over-simplifies the very complex Indian caste system. I also agree with you that these are relatively minor flaws that don’t detract from the book’s overall impact.
    In answer to your question regarding the possibility of a world without hierarchies — well, again like you I’m not overly optimistic about it! I think the question might better be posed as whether it’s possible to have a hierarchy whose upper tiers are accessible to all in a fair and just way, and which requires all its members to treat each other with dignity and respect. Regardless of how you ask the question, however, it’s going to be, as you note, a tough slog to get there.
    Oh, BTW — I do intend to finish Wilkerson’s book. I’m just not going to continue having it as my breakfast read!

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    1. Thank you for your insightful comments! It’s wonderful to hear your perspective as a white woman who grew up in the South.Thank you too for the link about the 1619 Project! I am familiar with it but need to read more about it. I read your post on Toni Morrison where you explain your background. It was fascinating and although I lived a very different life from you in a different country belonging to a different race, a lot of what you said resonated with me. I too was born into privilege but took many of my privileges for granted.It is an insidious evil that many of us are not even aware of and are shocked when we actually read about the atrocities or hear about experiences first hand from someone who has been mistreated. By the way I love Toni Morrison and have read many of her books.
      I found parts of ‘ Caste’ to be very distressing but somehow I persisted and read everything. It’s definitely not the best read especially during a pandemic on top of everything else.
      I love what you say about hierarchies – that they are inevitable but that the opportunities to climb the ladder must be available to everyone. Thanks again for your perceptive comments! Much food for thought!

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      1. Thanks for the kind words! I think it’s fascinating to compare notes on our respective experiences with “privilege.” I’m not proud of it now, but when I was growing up, I have to admit that while I was attuned to class issues, I took the apartheid that governed everything around me for granted.
        I actually think that much of the racial problem in the U.S. is traceable to the inability of many white people to recognize that the system in place (call it caste or whatever) has in fact “privileged” them whether they realize it or not. I discussed that a bit in my piece on Morrison; how I thought for some time that my own family’s situation was comparable to that of poor African Americans because (at least for my grandparents) we were in the same economic boat, so to speak. It took Morrison’s novels, combined with a fair amount of life experiences, to realize I was wrong on this point. Being white, as Wilkerson discusses, confers an innate advantage that transcends one’s class/economic status. I think we in the U.S. are just beginning to deal with these issues and are finding the process pretty painful.
        I recently came across a blog review (can’t remember whose blog) of Akala’s Empire, which discusses racial issues in the U.K. I’ll probably never get to it, but it would be interesting to compare it to Caste.
        I, too, need to read more of the 1619 Project, which I mostly skimmed when it first came out. I also love Toni Morrison’s work — she really is one of the greatest of writers.

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  4. I agree. Acknowledging the problem is the first step to solving it. But people say they do not discriminate or they don’t see color personally but do not realize that the system has favored them from birth by virtue of being born white or being born in a high caste. That takes a lot of introspection and soul searching.I am hopeful though that we will get there some day.

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