The bestselling book “Caste” brilliantly frames racial hierarchies in the United States but largely ignores the horrors of India’s caste structure.
SEPTEMBER 17, 2020
In early September 2001, at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, Indian Dalit activists were desperately rallying support to get caste recognized as a manifestation of racism. The term Dalit, derived from the Sanskrit word for oppressed, is used to describe people placed by India’s caste system at the very bottom of the social hierarchy and once called “untouchables.”
As delegates from around the world lobbied in Durban, Dalits had reportedly won the backing of the spokesperson of the European Union, as well as that of representatives from Guatemala and Switzerland. A handful of other European countries had also promised their support. But months of strategizing and advocacy failed to materialize when the Dalits were let down by a crucial constituency: their own government.
For decades, New Delhi had championed boycotts against apartheid-era South Africa. But at an international platform designed to hold nations accountable for the continued mistreatment of marginalized populations, the Indian government informed the world that the issue of caste—and the institutionalized suppression of those who fall at the bottom of its hierarchies—was an internal matter.
In the new bestseller Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, a work Oprah Winfrey has said “might be the most important book I’ve ever chosen for my book club,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning Isabel Wilkerson ensures that the topic of caste gets a major platform. Wilkerson introduces caste as a framework to analyze the United States’ graded racial hierarchy that holds African Americans near the bottom and explains why conventional concepts of racism alone are no longer sufficient to explain how it has endured, nearly intact, for four centuries. In order to understand how an unconscious ranking of human characteristics has been “used to justify brutalities against entire groups within our species,” she looks to the concentrated evil of Nazi Germany, which lasted 12 years, and the Hinduism-rooted caste system of varnas in India, which has lasted, in various forms, for millenniums. Wilkerson patiently peels each carefully matted layer of racial hierarchy to lay bare the history of oppression that people such as myself, a Dalit, have inherited from our ancestors. And in some 400 pages, she obliterates decades of New Delhi’s diplomatic attempts to prevent caste from getting the global notoriety it has always deserved.
The parallels between caste and race are not new, and Wilkerson leans heavily on the work of several early 20th-century researchers, notably the pathbreaking African American anthropologist Allison Davis, to trace how racial inequalities in the United States mirrored those in India and how the inhuman life conditions of African Americans reflected those of Dalits. Yet Wilkerson, like many before her, unequivocally centers her work on the United States, with caste as a larger framework—a structure of gradation to explain how race represents the skin atop the bones of the fixed, immovable ranking that is known as caste. In doing so, Wilkerson gives us a language uniquely tailored for our times. As the Black Lives Matter movement forces the United States to contend with its history of racism, many of its white residents now recognize themselves as beneficiaries of centuries of caste privilege (along with many others who resent this interrogation and cling tighter to their assumed superiority).
While the United States’ liberal ideology of multiculturalism was once content with overlooking the factions and frictions within the various communities labeled as nonwhite, the world is now openly examining the striations within racial hierarchies—and within races themselves. The supposed solidarity of Latinx people, Middle Eastern Americans, and East Asian and South Asian Americans, all of whom gained from the advances made by the often violent struggles of African Americans during the civil rights movement and beyond, is rightfully under scrutiny at a time when Black folk fight to bring attention to their modern-day lynchings at the hands of the police system. An estimated 90 percent of Indian Americans are upper caste—they also comprise the highest-earning ethnic group in the United States—so it is understandable then that discussions about the horrors of the Indian caste system are only just entering mainstream American discourse. This makes Wilkerson’s definitions of dominant caste (white), middle castes (Latinx and Asian), subordinate caste (African American), and indigenous people (Native American) in the United States a radical intervention. It not only makes visible the plainly manifest yet stubbornly obscured reality of racial suppression of African Americans but also supplies other people of color with a vocabulary to understand their place in the lattice of racial and social order in the United States. As a Dalit woman and immigrant from a formerly untouchable manual scavenging caste in India, my place in the Indian social order lies at the very bottom. But as a brown resident in the United States, I fall somewhere in the middle of the racial caste pyramid.
The brilliance of Wilkerson’s book lies in her painstaking research, her clear understanding of the different executions of caste, and her ability to draw a single direct thread that goes from the enslavement of African natives, captured and brought to Virginia in 1619, to nearly every form of inequity inflicted on Black folk—public lynchings, segregation, legal slavery under Jim Crow, redlining, mass incarceration, underrepresentation, voter disenfranchisement, suppression, killings by police, medical mistreatment, and constant microaggressions. She deftly and neatly reveals how systemic coding and learned cultural assumptions of white superiority—along with the unconscious biases—are often responsible for upholding the racial hierarchy of caste.
There is perhaps no aspect of Black life, including the knee-jerk social distancing of newer African immigrants from African Americans, that, in Wilkerson’s telling, is unrelated to the well-worn, comforting grooves of caste. In a later chapter, she describes how a Nigerian student at first did not identify with being Black, something that had no meaning for him back home and which led him to believe that if they were being passed on for jobs and promotions, then “[m]aybe the African-Americans were not working hard enough.” But after spending a few years in the United States, he knew better than to dismiss the reality of his race as a perceived determining factor in his worth.
As she unbraids each knot of the United States’ complex racial caste system, however, the absence of a critique of the capitalist forces that define the American social order is glaring. While Wilkerson connects both the mass incarceration of African Americans and an absence of universal health care to slavery, there is no mention of the prison industrial complex or the crooked lobbying by insurance and pharmaceutical firms to keep the health care system as broken as it is. Ibram X. Kendi, the National Book Award-winning author of How to Be an Antiracist, whom Wilkerson also prominently acknowledges in her book, has noted that the origins of racism cannot be separated from the origins of capitalism in the slave trade that provided the economic fuel of a new world order.
While racism is commonly understood as a form of personal hatred, Wilkerson frames it as a consolidation of power. She explains that for members of the dominant caste to loathe the progress of African Americans, or for them to feel discomfort at seeing Black people in positions of influence, the disgust at an assertion of equality isn’t an individual response but a result of the collective conditioning of white populations. It is a superiority reinforced through nearly every cultural, social, economic, legal, and judicial aspect of American life. Seen through Wilkerson’s framework, when a supposed majority of white women vote for a presidential candidate who has conclusively proved to be harmful to their interests—over a seemingly more competent white woman—they are choosing the cultural aspect of their identity that brings them closest to power. Or when a white working-class voter is willing to suffer from an inflamed liver rather than vote for the Affordable Care Act, he is acting in the interests of the collective superiority of his dominant white male caste that rebukes any shared solidarity with those lower than him on the caste order.
In a culture that defines us often exclusively with our identities (as opposed to, as Wilkerson argues, who we are on the inside), it is staggering to imagine the power of a Black female journalist unpacking how caste structures can hurt even white men when most of the inequality she seems to have faced comes at the behest of that same dominant caste. Making a case for radical empathy, Wilkerson asserts—somewhat tidily and with a mild case of moral grandstanding—that our prejudices are systemic yet our awakening can only be individual. But if that is so, then it’s difficult to imagine how structural power and privilege might spontaneously topple in the wake of the personal recognition of inequality. But this seemingly naive and even simplistic belief in our humanity might possibly be the single most subversive statement in Wilkerson’s laborious undertaking.
Wilkerson’s definition of caste makes one expect that her book would underline the ongoing horrors of the caste system in India and within Indian communities in the United States and elsewhere. Reading Caste, however, it would be hard to know that. Serving a uniquely American argument, Wilkerson expediently relies on B.R. Ambedkar, the Dalit architect of the Indian Constitution and the foremost leader of anti-caste ideology, whom she calls the “Martin Luther King of India.” Readers of Ambedkar’s work will recognize his words and phrases generously sprinkled throughout Wilkerson’s book. For Dalits, who have almost single-handedly kept Ambedkar’s legacy alive despite abject neglect from Indian institutions and have struggled to see him recognized as the preeminent leader of Dalit rights on a global stage, it is a moment of pride. Wilkerson recalls forming her initial theory of the eight pillars of caste, which serve as the foundation of her argument, through a lecture she was invited to deliver at a meeting of Dalit Ambedkarites in Massachusetts. Later, she recounts her visits to India, a caste conference in the United Kingdom, and outlines conversations she had with Dalit academics, researchers, and theorists.
What captures most of Wilkerson’s attention, however, is the treatment of Dalits as it aligned with the enslavement of African Americans and in the Jim Crow era that followed. Wilkerson gives little space to the inequities that affect Dalits today, some of which are more brutal and dehumanizing than even before India’s independence. Describing her first trip to India a few years ago, she mentions the roadside religious shrines lined on the streets of New Delhi and admits to finding them slightly exotic, only to later compare them to the spontaneous memorials that appear at the site of a police shooting or at gun violence in U.S. schools.
Yet she fails to mention how Dalits in India are routinely abused and subjected to violence and even murder for supposedly desecrating a religious shrine or a temple with their so-called polluting touch—a concept to which Wilkerson devotes an entire chapter when she explains the different pillars of caste. One such pillar is titled “Endogamy and the Control of Marriage and Mating,” an idea Ambedkar explored extensively as a graduate student at Columbia University in 1916. Endogamy, or the practice of marrying within one’s caste to maintain caste superiority and purity, is the basis of arranged marriages, one of India’s more recognizable cultural exports to the United States. Neither that nor the heartless so-called honor killings (of Dalit and dominant caste couples by their family members) to preserve the superiority of their caste find mention in her pages.
In support of her larger argument, Wilkerson investigates the blood-curdling horrors inflicted by the Third Reich and draws attention to how the miscegenation regulations of the Southern United States were extreme even for the drafters of the Nuremberg laws. But even as the most sensitive analyst, Wilkerson appears to give in to the idea of American exceptionalism and centers Western narratives while failing to dig into the continued brutalization of Dalits who largely reside in India—in the global south. Despite her humanist and internationalist approach to bring all three systems of caste on par with each other, the original Indian version, as Wilkerson calls it, suffers the most in the service of the greater rationalization and possibly in favor of a largely American audience.
Wilkerson’s radical framing of racial injustice as a system of caste, aligning the struggles of Black Americans with those of Dalits, elevates thousands of years of Dalit trauma and struggle into the global spotlight in a single swoop. Her construct unquestionably cements the solidarity between Black and Dalit movements after decades of foiled attempts, from the brief correspondence between Ambedkar and W.E.B. Du Bois to the revolutionary Dalit Panther Party modeled after the Black Panthers. But overlooking the ongoing horrors and implications of the Indian caste system on Dalit lives ultimately serves the dominant caste’s straw man argument that casteism is a fading reality in the Indian subcontinent. Wilkerson plays an assessor shining a spotlight on the decaying foundations of the house that is America, festered with the rot of the racial caste system. She powerfully reveals the American story, unearthing the chapters that have been deliberately buried by a white supremacist version of history. Wilkerson forces readers to confront the implications of a skewed racial hierarchy. Yet for me, a Dalit reader often marginalized and restricted to the bottom of an even more lopsided global order, it often feels like being left out of my own history.