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Book Review of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent


Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent is the second book by Isabel Wilkerson, the first woman of African-American heritage to win the Pulitzer Prize in journalism[1]. In this non-fiction book, Wilkerson endeavours to reframe popular understandings of race in the United States. Indeed, Wilkerson avoids using terms such as “white”, “race” or “racism” throughout her book, believing they have become insufficient to describe social divisions within America. She argues that their popular usage focuses too much on individuals rather than systems. Instead, Wilkerson’s book is about structural power: it is an examination of the structures that support, maintain, and legitimise racial divisions and oppression. She writes: “I wanted to understand the origins and evolution of classifying and elevating one group of people over another.”[2] Caste is the result of this effort, combining historical examples and personal anecdotes to reveal an institutionalised inequality that Wilkerson identifies as ‘caste’.


Caste is a masterclass in storytelling that Wilkerson supports with a compilation of documented research spanning centuries. She mixes historical examples, urban legends, personal anecdotes, and news snippets to create a gripping narrative of how a nation has subordinated black people since its inception. Her detailed characterisations and poetic imagery encourage an intimate relationship with the lives of those she chronicles. She then contrasts this closeness against the harsh brutality of the historical record to create a haunting effect. It is not surprising that the novel has received high praise from a vast array of critics. The New York Times describes it as “one of the most powerful nonfiction books I’d ever encountered”.[3] Similarly, The Guardian writes: “[Wilkerson] activates the history in her pages, bringing all its horror and possibility to light, illuminating both the bygone and the present.”[4]


Wilkerson’s Argument


According to Wilkerson, 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.”[5] In America, race is the physical characteristic used to determine one’s rank in the social hierarchy. For this reason, Wilkerson argues that race and caste co-exist and continually reinforce each other: “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 that holds each group in its place.”[6] She defines a racist as someone who harms, mocks or institutionalises inferiority based on race. A casteist is anyone who upholds or gains from the caste system without ever questioning its tenets.


Wilkerson’s America is essentially a two-tier caste system: white people make up the dominant caste and black people make up the subordinate caste. The other races - including American Indians, Hispanics, Asians, and European immigrants - are somewhere in-between. The system, she argues, has been in place longer than the nation itself. “Before there was a United States of America,” Wilkerson writes, “there was enslavement. Theirs was a living death passed down for twelve generations.”[7] The American caste system was established and implemented openly, on par with India and Nazi Germany. Wilkerson even emphasises to readers that the Nazis looked to American race laws for inspiration when considering how to segregate their own Jewish population; however, several Nazi researchers ultimately concluded that "American law went overboard."[8]


Wilkerson documents the pogroms of violence against America’s lowest caste throughout history to show the hideous ways caste has reinvented itself since its inception. Enslaved Africans were reduced to a form of currency, whipped, starved, and regularly subjected to torture and rape.[9] The torture and lynching of a black person was considered a form of entertainment during Jim Crow.[10] In the twenty-first century, Black Americans continue to be victims of targeted violence such as the attack on a Black church in Charleston by Dylann Roof in 2015.[11] Wilkerson sets all these examples in a continuum to connect the overt racism of the past to what some argue is covert racism today.


Overall, the book is a valuable contribution to the comparative study of social inequality, especially in Wilkerson's comparison of the United States to India’s caste system. Here, Wilkerson draws from the work of Dalit scholar and leader B. R. Ambedkar to delineate what she identifies as ‘the eight pillars of caste.’ In his essay, The Hindu Social Order (1987), Ambedkar argues that caste operates on the obstruction of mobility, both in occupation and status. He argues that caste is premised on a “graded inequality”,[12] which places Brahmins at the top and Dalits at the bottom in India. He also references endogamy as an essential mechanism for maintaining caste hierarchy[13] – a practice that is still prominent in many parts of India today.[14] Meanwhile, Wilkerson points to American anti-miscegenation laws, which criminalised inter-racial marriages and relationships as recently as 1967, as a comparable mechanism to reinforcing the hierarchies of race. She explains that “for much of American history, dominant-caste men controlled who had access to whom for romantic liaisons and reproduction.”[15]


Wilkerson also points to the practice of untouchability in India to show how the notion of caste hinges on concepts of purity and pollution. While constitutionally illegal, it is still common for Dalits to be made to drink from separate cups when invited to upper caste homes: materials that have touched Dalit bodies are deemed contagious mediums of pollution that dominant ‘pure’ caste bodies must be ‘protected’ from.[16] Wilkerson then persuasively extends these notions of touch and contact to race in the United States. For example, black families were barred access to some swimming pools during the Jim Crow era because of fears that they would ‘pollute’ the water.[17]


Meanwhile, Wilkerson draws parallels between horrific experiments subjected upon Jews in Nazi Germany and Black people in America to show caste’s dependency on the dehumanisation of the ‘other’. She writes that "German scientists and SS doctors conducted more than two dozen types of experiments on Jews and others they held captive," while "in the United States, from slavery well into the twentieth century, doctors used African-Americans as a supply chain for experimentation, as subjects deprived of either consent or anesthesia."[18] One of the book’s most poignant moments is Wilkerson’s descriptions of the violence inflicted upon black women by Dr J. Marion Sims, who is regarded as one the founding fathers of American gynaecology. His scientific discoveries, Wilkerson notes, came “by acquiring enslaved women in Alabama and conducting savage surgeries that often ended in disfigurement or death.”[19] Comparisons such as these are useful for defining the parameters of a caste system that recur across time and space.


Criticisms


While Wilkerson’s thesis and use of historical comparatives are interesting and at times compelling, there are some weaknesses that must be addressed.


Wilkerson’s central thesis is premised on the notion that popular narratives have reduced ‘racism’ to individual ‘feelings’ of prejudice: a malicious and international act that makes it difficult to explain the powers of structural racism.[20] While this is certainly one narrative in public discussions of racism, the idea of structural racism is also widely discussed, especially in more liberal circles. For instance, COVID-19 highlighted inequalities in access to healthcare, where race determines who is vulnerable, who can afford healthcare, and who can afford insurance.[21] Similarly, increased attention to police brutality generated discussion around policing a historically racist institution.[22] As a result, it is not always clear what new contribution Wilkerson’s book is offering to the discussion of human rights.


The distinction between “caste” and “racism” is core to Wilkerson’s argument. But the attributes that she defines as unique to caste - i.e. “divine will,” “control of bloodlines,” and “purity vs pollution” - are backed up in the American context only with reference to historical evidence primarily from The Jim Crow era and slavery. Wilkerson has proven her point concerning that part of America’s history but does not provide enough evidence to make the case that “caste” is an apt description of modern-day American racism. This further raises the question of whether introducing the concept of “caste” to the American context adds anything to our discussion of contemporary American racism beyond what concepts like “structural racism” already offer.


Wilkerson’s style of argument is frequently anecdotal, which leads to some eyebrow-raising claims. For example, Wilkerson describes the 2016 election as “a remarkable blueprint of caste hierarchy in America, from highest to lowest status, in a given group’s support of the Republicans.”[23] She argues that white Americans who voted for Trump were only trying to maintain their caste status, but provides little concrete evidence to that effect. The failure to consider alternative explanations - such as the idea that voters were motivated by a sense of economic disenfranchisement in the face of outsourcing and wage stagnation[24] - reflects a sometimes unscientific approach that runs throughout the book.


Finally, Wilkerson’s use of India and Nazi Germany as points of reference feels occasionally reductive and heavy-handed. Caste in India is an incredibly complex system with significant regional variations. Wilkerson’s references to Indian caste are occasional and she draws upon a limited body of evidence to build her characterisation. Putting Nazi Germany in the same category as India and the United States is a bold choice, and the potentially problematic implications of categorising the Holocaust and Indian castes together are never addressed. There are also marked differences between Nazi Germany, the Indian caste system, and the system of Jim Crow. The Holocaust made use of concentration camps and systematic extermination while India’s caste system is proscribed in Hindu religious texts, neither of which was true of America’s racist hierarchy. Wilkerson does not address these distinctions.


Conclusion


Overall, Caste is a well-written and enjoyable read that offers an interesting introduction to understanding race in America for readers who are new to the topic. Wilkerson’s characterisation of America’s racial hierarchy is undoubtedly a powerful one and offers a helpful framework for understanding the human rights of African-Americans for readers unaware of how racism operates on a structural level. However, those familiar with the social science theories will likely find Wilkerson’s thesis a repetitive rehashing of already well-established ideas. The book’s unsystematic approach to evidence will likely keep it from being considered a serious work of social science, even if it adds to the book’s poignancy.



Endnotes

1. “30 Moments in Journalism,” National Association of Black Journalists, February 27, 2008. https://web.archive.org/web/20081006183638/http://www.nabj.org/30/moments/thirty/index.php.


2. Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of our Discontent. (New York: Penguin Random House, 2020), 27.


3. Garner, Dwight. “Isabel Wilkerson’s ‘Caste’ Is an ‘Instant American Classic’ About Our Abiding Sin,” The New York Times, July 31, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/31/books/review-caste-isabel-wilkerson-origins-of-our-discontents.html.


4. Bhutto, Fatima. “Caste by Isabel Wilkerson review – a dark study of violence and power,” The Guardian, July 30, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jul/30/caste-the-lies-that-divide-us-by-isabel-wilkerson-review.

5. Wilkerson, Caste, 17.


6. Ibid, 19.


7. Wilkerson, Caste, 45.


8. Whitman, James Q. Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017, 122-23. Quoted in Wilkerson, Caste, 84.


9. Wilkerson, Caste, 45-47.


10. Ibid, 89-96


11. Ibid, 287.


12. Ambedkar, Babasaheb. “The Hindu Social Order,” in Dr. Babashabel Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, eds, Vasant Moon and Prof. Hari Narake, vol. 3, (New Dehli: Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, 2014), 106.


13. Ambedkar, Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis, and Development. (Columbia, S.C.: LM Publishers), 2020.15.


14. Daniyal, Shoaib. “How same-caste marriages persisted for thousands of years in India – and are still going strong,” Scroll.in, October 19, 2018. https://scroll.in/article/897802/how-same-caste-marriages-persisted-for-thousands-of-years-in-india-and-are-still-going-strong.


15. Wilkerson, Caste, 112.


16. Aiyadurai, Ambika. “Even After a Century, Water Is Still the Marker of India's Caste Society,” The Wire, August 23, 2022, https://thewire.in/caste/even-after-a-century-water-is-still-the-marker-of-indias-caste-society; Yadav, Pooja. “Caste, Water And The Notion Of Purity: How India Failed To Heal Ambedkar’s Wound?” Explainers, September 21, 2022, https://www.indiatimes.com/explainers/news/caste-water-and-the-notion-of-purity-how-india-failed-to-heal-ambedkars-wound-579830.html.


17. Wilkerson, Caste, 118.


18. Ibid, 147.


19. Ibid, 148.


20. Ibid, 68


21. Human Rights Watch, “US: Covid-19 Disparities Reflect Structural Racism, Abuses,” HRW, June 10, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/06/10/us-covid-19-disparities-reflect-structural-racism-abuses; Davies, Dave. “'1619 Project' journalist lays bare why Black Americans 'live sicker and die quicker,'” NPR, June 14, 2022, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2022/06/14/1103935147/linda-villarosa-under-the-skin-racism-healthcare.


22. Martin, Michel. “The History Of Policing And Race In The U.S. Are Deeply Intertwined,” NPR, June 13, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/06/13/876628302/the-history-of-policing-and-race-in-the-u-s-are-deeply-intertwined; Lopez, German. “How systemic racism entangles all police officers — even black cops,” Vox, August 15, 2016, https://www.vox.com/2015/5/7/8562077/police-racism-implicit-bias; Beckett, Lois and Ajasa, Amudalat.

“‘Deep systemic racism’: will Minneapolis’s police department ever change?” The Guardian, 25 April, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/apr/25/minneapolis-police-race-violence-justice-department-investigation.


23. Wilkerson, Caste, 330.


24. Fang, Lee. “Donald Trump Exploited Long-Term Economic Distress to Fuel His Election Victory, Study Finds,” The Intercept, October 31, 2018, https://theintercept.com/2018/10/31/donald-trump-2016-election-economic-distress/; ​​Banik, Nilanjan. “The Economic Factors Behind the Trump Triumph,” The Wire, November 10, 2016, https://thewire.in/economy/economic-factors-behind-us-presidential-election.


Bibliography

Aiyadurai, Ambika. “Even After a Century, Water Is Still the Marker of India's Caste Society,” The Wire, August 23, 2022, https://thewire.in/caste/even-after-a-century-water-is-still-the-marker-of-indias-caste-society; Yadav, Pooja. “Caste, Water And The Notion Of Purity: How India Failed To Heal Ambedkar’s Wound?” Explainers, September 21, 2022, https://www.indiatimes.com/explainers/news/caste-water-and-the-notion-of-purity-how-india-failed-to-heal-ambedkars-wound-579830.html.


Ambedkar, Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis, and Development. (Columbia, S.C.: LM Publishers), 2020.15.


Ambedkar, Babasaheb. “The Hindu Social Order,” in Dr. Babashabel Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, eds, Vasant Moon and Prof. Hari Narake, vol. 3, (New Dehli: Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, 2014), 106.


Bhutto, Fatima. “Caste by Isabel Wilkerson review – a dark study of violence and power,” The Guardian, July 30, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jul/30/caste-the-lies-that-divide-us-by-isabel-wilkerson-review.


Daniyal, Shoaib. “How same-caste marriages persisted for thousands of years in India – and are still going strong,” Scroll.in, October 19, 2018. https://scroll.in/article/897802/how-same-caste-marriages-persisted-for-thousands-of-years-in-india-and-are-still-going-strong.


Fang, Lee. “Donald Trump Exploited Long-Term Economic Distress to Fuel His Election Victory, Study Finds,” The Intercept, October 31, 2018, https://theintercept.com/2018/10/31/donald-trump-2016-election-economic-distress/; ​​Banik, Nilanjan. “The Economic Factors Behind the Trump Triumph,” The Wire, November 10, 2016, https://thewire.in/economy/economic-factors-behind-us-presidential-election.


Garner, Dwight. “Isabel Wilkerson’s ‘Caste’ Is an ‘Instant American Classic’ About Our Abiding Sin,” The New York Times, July 31, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/31/books/review-caste-isabel-wilkerson-origins-of-our-discontents.html.


Human Rights Watch, “US: Covid-19 Disparities Reflect Structural Racism, Abuses,” HRW, June 10, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/06/10/us-covid-19-disparities-reflect-structural-racism-abuses; Davies, Dave. “'1619 Project' journalist lays bare why Black Americans 'live sicker and die quicker,'” NPR, June 14, 2022, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2022/06/14/1103935147/linda-villarosa-under-the-skin-racism-healthcare.


Martin, Michel. “The History Of Policing And Race In The U.S. Are Deeply Intertwined,” NPR, June 13, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/06/13/876628302/the-history-of-policing-and-race-in-the-u-s-are-deeply-intertwined; Lopez, German. “How systemic racism entangles all police officers — even black cops,” Vox, August 15, 2016, https://www.vox.com/2015/5/7/8562077/police-racism-implicit-bias; Beckett, Lois and Ajasa, Amudalat.

“‘Deep systemic racism’: will Minneapolis’s police department ever change?” The Guardian, 25 April, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/apr/25/minneapolis-police-race-violence-justice-department-investigation.


Whitman, James Q. Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017, 122-23. Quoted in Wilkerson, Caste, 84.


Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of our Discontent. (New York: Penguin Random House, 2020), 27.


“30 Moments in Journalism,” National Association of Black Journalists, February 27, 2008. https://web.archive.org/web/20081006183638/http://www.nabj.org/30/moments/thirty/index.php.

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