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Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents [Book Review]


Caste by Isabel Wilkerson is a book about how caste functions in society and its structure. It’s also about changing tides. Those who don’t fight the current when they should and those who try to hold the water still. The fact that the majority group is projected to become a relative minority has struck fear and unease in some corners of America. There’s a seeming desire to fight progress and hold on to the old ways of doing things via old-fashioned methods.

Early in the book, Wilkerson points out that uncomfortable subjects from history should be dealt with directly. When acknowledged and addressed in the open you can seek out and utilize resources for understanding, managing, resolving, and guarding against future recurrences of said issue.


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Within the context of the book, Wilkerson defines a caste system as follows:

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. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places.

The book focuses on three caste systems, that of India, Nazi Germany, and America. Across all three of the caste systems, the structure determines the distribution of power within the society. It dictates who gets resources and how much. It also sets expectations for who will be treated with respect, deference, and assumed intelligence or capability. It sets the social norms for society with regards to expectations and stereotypes. Instead of the hierarchy being based on an individual’s capabilities it’s determined by ancestry and random traits that are deemed important and used to define groups.

In America, race through its various definitions has determined the dominant and subordinated castes. Those who do not fit neatly within the classification of “White” or “Black” fall between the extremes of the hierarchy. The centuries-long fight for racial equality has largely been a war against the caste system. The goal of preserving institutional and societal racism is to keep Black people firmly and permanently at the bottom. The concept of race is a human creation not biological; its constructs were based on colonialists’ need to rationalize the enslavement of human beings. By using skin color and African ancestry as determinants to which stereotypes could be ascribed imperialists created a rationale for the enslavement of what would come to be known as “Black” people.

While the overall American caste hierarchy is based on race there were still levels within the system’s ranks. And people did all they can to get closer to the top or move up in rank while simultaneously distancing themselves from those at the bottom. Thus individuals who are not members of the subordinated class but are otherwise poor cling to whatever dregs of superiority they might be able to claim. They don’t get the full advantage of resources offered to those at the very top. But instead, fight tooth and nail to keep the system in place to hold on to their feelings of superiority. With little else going for themselves they build much of their identity on feeling superior to whatever groups are deemed beneath them.

Wilkerson’s concept of the book grew out of the creation of The Warmth of Other Suns. In that book (which I highly recommend reading) she told the story of Black people fleeing the oppressive systems of the South. But Wilkerson was inspired to create this new book upon realizing that these people also experienced other forms of oppression in the places where they settled. Caste explorers how caste systems are created with regards to the foundation for building and upholding such a hierarchical system. It also goes into detail about how the three specific versions that are profiled were developed and their sorting criteria.

I previously read Before the Mayflower and found its explanation of how Black people came to be enslaved in America and the system that was built around slavery quite insightful. But Caste goes even deeper by taking the time to detail how the structure of systemic racism and the very concept of race were created and evolved. While in modern times society regards any individual of European descent as “White”, this was not always the case. The definition has evolved and expanded over time for very strategic reasons.

It was interesting to read about how various groups were effectively “auditioned” for enslavement and Black people lost out due to surviving. Native Americans were on their home turf and could use their ability to move about freely to their advantage. Likewise, it would be difficult to differentiate between a free and enslaved European based solely on physical appearance. That’s not to say that the wheel of capitalism didn’t also grind the average European worker or that Native Americans weren’t murdered and forced off their lands. But rather that they wouldn’t occupy the very bottom rung of the hierarchy and would enjoy freedoms and advantages not afforded to enslaved Black people.

In visiting Atlanta’s APEX Museum I learned about how Africans had prior experience with some of the New World crops. And they were also able to quickly learn how to cultivate those that were unfamiliar. Instead of profiting from their abilities, it condemned them and their descendants to generations of unpaid servitude.

Wilkerson makes a good point in bringing attention to the reality that often slavery is glossed over as people push for it to remain in the past. The reason for this is because America has promoted itself as being founded on democracy and freedom. The American dream is defined by the very idea that America is the one nation in the world where anything is possible through hard work. But the reality is that the country was built on a foundation of profiting from slave labor. America, its social norms, and infrastructure were heavily influenced by if not directly based on the requirements for upholding slavery.

Slavery and its support system taught Southerners that there was justification for holding Black people in bondage. It told them that they had a right to rule over and control the very existence of another group of human beings. Any threat to the established social order was met with strong resistance as it ran counter to expectations and threatened the advantages of an unpaid labor force. Much of the identities of members of society were defined by their place in the hierarchy of slave society. Thus the end of slavery and any pushes for progress cause an identity crisis. And over time the rules of society have adapted to keep the formerly enslaved and their descendants trapped at the bottom of the hierarchy.

The colonists handicapped the enslaved and castigated what were normal human impulses in response to being mistreated. They then turned around and used those conditions to justify the continued enslavement of Black people and later the continued subjugation of Black people during Jim Crow. This puts things into perspective if you take into consideration how social, political, and economic views breakdown in America.

People who are of European ancestry from different countries that have warred with each other for hundreds of years come to America and band together under the racial banner of being “White”. They are culturally still Irish, Italian, Polish, etc. but in America, they are now simply termed “White”. There’s a history of these ethnic groups being discriminated against when they first began arriving in large groups.

But they were eventually folded into White society and while not quite at the highest levels of Whiteness, would enjoy most of the benefits of the dominant caste. A major part of their elevation was in not being Black. Thus once themselves outsiders, they too would adopt negative perceptions of the subordinated caste. And as with the original colonists, they would come to adopt expectations of superiority and domination of those deemed to be beneath them.

With that idea in mind, there’s a quote in the book that I found to be thought-provoking:

You know that there are no black people in Africa

The quote refers to the idea that in America anyone with traits or ancestral ties to Africa is deemed “Black”. But the reality is that Africa, like Europe or Asia, is a continent. And while the continent’s inhabitants live on the same landmass they are not a monolith. Before Africa was carved up during the age of imperialism, the people were members of tribes and distinct ethnic groups with no basis on skin color. Thus they did not regard each other as a unified people based on the color of their skin.

Wilkerson points out that unlike Europeans who readily take on the descriptor of being White, immigrants with African traits or ancestry do not readily accept the title of being Black. Or to be more precise they accept the title of being Black but differentiate themselves from Black Americans by emphasizing their nationality or ethnic group rather than their race. This is due in part to the negative stereotypes of Black Americans that are broadcast around the world.

Caste systems ascribe expectations of people based on assumptions about who they are and their capabilities. It doesn’t take into account the individual and thus expectations versus reality can vary widely. And members of the dominant cast while speaking of being interested in change and equality still exhibit behaviors that reinforce the caste system.

Wilkerson provides examples of attending events related to caste and seeing members of the dominant caste speak over members of the subordinated caste. She also saw members of the subordinated cast second-guess themselves and treat members of the dominant caste with undeserved deference. Growing up in societies where these caste systems are so pervasive makes it difficult to overcome these ingrained behaviors. And that’s in societies where these systemic issues are being discussed.

I agreed with most of Wilkerson’s assertions except for her views of the issue of socioeconomic standing being a caste determinant. Or rather that she doesn’t seem to specifically discuss how it’s equally unfair to have a caste system based in part on blue-collar vs. white-collar, post-secondary education attainment, etc. Throughout the book, Wilkinson takes issue with arbitrary traits such as race and religion dictating and determining rank in a caste system. But at points, it seemed like her problem was with the rigidity of caste systems rather than these hierarchical systems in general.

The examples she provides are valid and show obvious bias. But these examples largely revolve around individuals who possess traits of the subordinated caste but have achieved high levels of education, are employed in well-respected professions, and/or have high levels of income not being welcomed into the upper echelons of the caste system. Instead, they remain to a degree lumped in with the other members of the subordinated caste.

My issue is not so much with the factors used to establish a caste system but rather that such systems exist at all. Several of the examples that Wilkerson provides are related to members of the subordinated caste (ie: Black people) being treated with less respect than their job titles or places of employment should guarantee for them. But I do not believe that anyone deserves any degree of preferential treatment because of their job title or where they work.

For example, she shares a story of traveling to Chicago to interview a business owner and having him dismiss her because she doesn’t fit his expectations of a New York Times reporter. Not taking anything away from her experience as I understand her point about the frustration. But the story comes across as being less about a professional who is there to do a job and being given a hard time and more about constantly repeating that she worked for the New York Times and the clout that should have come with it.

She shares another story of being followed from the airport and questioned by agents aboard a rental company’s shuttle bus. The other passengers give her the side-eye rather than coming to her defense which she finds upsetting. Not simply because she’s an innocent person being questioned about nonsense. But because the other passengers don’t recognize her as a fellow middle-class business traveler.

It reminded me of respectability politics when something unjust happens to a Black person. The story isn’t about a human being, in general, being wronged in some way but told through the lens of the qualifier that this is an upstanding citizen and credit to society. It overlooks that this is a human and instead focuses on stats and achievements as though that makes a person more deserving of remaining safe and free from harassment. These are things that are usually associated with being middle class rather than this person is a human being and their humanity should be recognized.

Wilkerson speaks about Europeans having been discriminated against in the past and not regarded as White people and then eventually being welcomed into White society. But within the book she seems to be trying to make the case for upwardly mobile Black people, primarily professionals, being welcomed into upper society and afforded the same deference as their White counterparts. There’s little discussion of or focus on poor Black people and their place in the current iteration of America’s caste system.

It’s unfortunate but realistic that there will always be haves and have nots in the world. Or rather those who have, those who have more, and those who have less. And I understand how unfair it is to be held back in life due to random physical traits being deemed of high or low value. But I don’t agree with the idea that even when based on merit an individual’s value or potential should be measured in terms of how much money they make or the kind of work they do. I believe that each human life is of equal value and your life is no more important because you work at a prestigious company or have attended a prestigious university. I accept that there are different socioeconomic levels within society but I refuse to subscribe to the belief that it’s a more valid characteristic for ranking human beings within society.

This is a tendency that leads to me regarding many political and social campaigns with skepticism. When you get down to it I believe that a lot of people who claim to be interested in changing society are actually focused on upholding the traditional structure. The change that they truly want is to become an insider or allowed full participation within the structure rather than seeking to truly overhaul the system. While reading Caste I came to believe that Wilkerson’s issue is at least partially about some Black people being unable to move from the subordinated to the dominant caste.

I would ask the question, if we put money and the resources that it can provide to the side why does any one group of people need to defer to another group of people? Where does this idea come from that any human being should be in the position of having another human being lord over them? I’m firm in the belief to envy not the oppressor and to choose none of their ways. If we’re talking about equality and freedom from oppression then I think that should apply to everyone regardless of socioeconomic standing. Trading one overlord or oppressor for another but without regard to race is not progress.

Wilkerson differentiates between class and caste by explaining that while one can move up or down in class, caste is fixed and does not allow for working one’s way up or down ranks. Class may offer some degree of protection and even access to resources but caste would still tether you to the group with which you were associated at birth. This is why I believe to achieve true equality in America you must attack all of the -isms, the major ones being racism, sexism, and classism. Anything less will continue to perpetuate inequality.

Wilkerson uses the analogy of wolf packs and the associated alpha, beta, underdog, etc. And within that context explains how caste systems automatically propel some people into positions of leadership for which they might be ill-suited. But then goes on to explain that without a caste system natural alphas would emerge to lead society forward. But human beings are supposedly more evolved than wolves. Why is the alternative to caste essentially a class system where some still have dominion over others? Why isn’t the solution to create a society that develops strong individuals capable of leading themselves while being conscientious enough to collaborate with others for the greater good?

There are several other thought-provoking and discussion-worthy topics within Caste. Particularly with regards to politics and the last few election cycles. She also makes some interesting contrasts between Germany’s handling of its Nazi past after World War II and the South’s handling of its Confederate history after the Civil War. I think those chapters are some of the high points of the book. I don’t want to give anything away here as I think it’s important to read those sections for yourself so you can objectively form your own opinions. This is especially relevant given the events of 2020 and the Presidential Election.

I was incredibly excited when I learned that Isabel Wilkinson was going to be releasing Caste. Her first book, The Warmth of Other Suns was amazing and is the barometer against which I measure other books about race, history, or economics. I try to not make comparisons between an author’s books but I’m going to do it here anyway. The Warmth of Other Suns is superior to Caste. It is a non-fiction fact-based book with a great deal of info about research and economics that still manages to be thoroughly engrossing.

The Warmth of Other Suns tells the story of The Great Migration primarily through the stories of its three main subjects. I think Wilkerson tried to do something similar in Caste by discussing three different caste systems from around the world but it just didn’t pack the same punch for me. A good deal of the book is spent defining and explaining the various structures. By featuring three distinct systems with their own rules but no people as featured subjects, the book felt distant and academic. It required a bit of effort for me to get through the book and even more time to sit down and figure out how I felt about what I’d read.

As always I don’t waste my time reviewing books that I think aren’t worth reading. To be clear, I think the book is good overall but I don’t think it was great throughout. Like I said, the last maybe third of the book is amazing and in line with my high expectations for Wilkerson. But just be forewarned that some parts of the book are a bit of a slog.

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