Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste is a unique analysis of the US’s racial division. The “What—So What—Now What” formula is useful in understanding the book. The book’s insight that racism in our country is a caste system helped me understand why it is so difficult to uproot.
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Wilkerson defines a caste system as “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.” Although “geneticists and biologists have long seen race as a man-made invention with no basis in science or biology,” in America “the signal of rank is what we call race, the division of humans on the basis of their appearance.”
Caste, more than racism, explains persistent racial bias and systemic power. To Wilkerson, racism today is reduced to “a feeling, a character flaw conflated with prejudice, connected to whether one is a good person or not. It has come to mean overt and declared hatred of a person or group because of the race ascribed to them, a perspective few would ever own up to … and an easily deniable, impossible-to-measure attribute.”
Unlike race, caste, to Wilkerson, is not hatred, and it is not personal. Caste is “the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.” Casteism is “the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you.”
It is caste and the “policing and adherence to the caste system” that account for everyday and systemic acts attributed to racism.
Using Nazi Germany and India, along with the U.S., as examples of caste systems, Wilkerson explains the eight pillars of caste, “the principles on which a caste system is constructed.”
- Divine will and the laws of nature. Reading of sacred texts by “those who put themselves on high” that “consign subordinate castes to the bottom . . . owing to the sins of the past.”
- Assigning everyone an inescapable rank at birth.
- Endogamy and Control of Marriage and Mating. Restricting marriage to people within the same caste, even prohibiting “sexual relations, or even the appearance of romantic interest, across caste lines.”
- Purity vs. Pollution. Establishing separate but hardly equal treatment, from the most mundane facilities (water fountains) to the privileges granted in the social contract, based on belief in the “purity of the dominant caste and the fear of pollution from the castes deemed beneath it.”
- Occupational hierarchy. Basing division of labor and dominance or subservience on one’s place in the hierarchy, commensurate with one’s perceived physical and mental capabilities.
- Dehumanizing a group and the individuals within it. Dehumanization “locks “the marginalized outside of the norms of humanity so that any action against them is seen as reasonable.” In the U.S., slavery did this, converting one class of humanity into currency and machines.
- Terror and cruelty as enforcement and control. Violence and terror are used as constant reminders of the absolute power the dominant caste holds over the subordinate caste.
- Inherent superiority vs. inherent inferiority. Giving deference to those born to the upper caste and degradation to those in the subordinate caste, even when “the person deemed superior was unquestionably not.”
Although some of these principles may no longer be held as strongly as in the past, the system they supported became “the operating system for economic, political, and social interaction in the United States from the time of its gestation” to today. The aggregate of these principles support “the autonomic, unconscious, reflexive response to expectations from a thousand imaging inputs and neurological societal downloads that fix people to certain roles based upon what they look like and what they historically have been assigned to or the characteristics and stereotypes by which they have been categorized.”
The caste perspective explains why, even though constitutional amendments and national legislation long ago abolished the legal bases of the U.S. caste system, guaranteed Black people’s rights as citizens, and protected them from discrimination, and even though Black people have achieved the highest positions in government, business, entertainment, and many other fields, Black people in the U.S. still suffer from disproportionate and disparate treatment and daily forms of discrimination. Wilkerson details the deleterious effects of caste in American life, on both the subordinate and dominant castes.
- A subordinate caste provides a scapegoat for social problems such as crime and drugs that prevents real progress against these scourges.
- Government programs on labor protections, housing, and social security, were kept from farm and domestic laborers, occupations dominated by subordinate caste members. These repressed development of wealth in the subordinate class to the extent that a wealth gap persists to this day.
- Leadership talent is misplaced or overlooked when selections are based on dominant or subordinate caste status.
- The threat of subordinate caste success leads to backlash of arson, lynching and other forms of terror on the part of the dominant caste to keep the subordinate caste in its place.
- The race of the victim is the best predictor of the guilt or innocence of an accused subordinate caste criminal.
- Stress-related medical conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease that result from the dynamics of the caste system disproportionately affect subordinate caste members. Stressors include:
- A feeling of entitlement allows dominant caste members to intervene in the everyday lives of subordinate caste members in order to maintain hierarchical boundaries, subjecting subordinate caste members to a “quiet mundanity of terror.”
- False rivalry and scarcity. Competition among members of the subordinate caste to curry favor with the dominant caste, a “crabs in a bucket” phenomenon.
- “Stockholm syndrome.” Efforts to adjust to shifting and arbitrary demands and accommodate expectations of the dominant caste, a “nerve-jangling existence.”
- The least educated middle-class men in the dominant caste attribute stagnant wages and economic insecurity to improving conditions among members of the subordinate caste. This threat results in suicides, drug overdoses, and alcoholism.
The social cost of a caste system is a “less benevolent society” than other wealthy nations’, characterized by rivalry, distrust, and lack of empathy and measured by rankings on:
- Mass shootings
- Incarceration rates
- Infant mortality and deaths of pregnant women before and during childbirth
- Life expectancy
- Student achievement scores
In a brief but powerful conclusion and in reflections sprinkled throughout the book Wilkerson suggests how to “break the back of caste.” She prescribes “radical empathy” which requires “putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel.”
Then, we must choose.
“We can be born to the dominant caste but choose not to dominate. We can be born to a subordinated caste but resist the box others force upon us. And all of us can sharpen our powers of discernment to see past the external and to value the character of a person rather than demean those who are already marginalized or worship those born to false pedestals. We need not bristle when those deemed subordinate break free, but rejoice that here may be one more human being who can add their true strengths to humanity.”
“Radical empathy” sounds a lot like the personal experience and close connection, the education, listening, and speaking out that bring down the barriers of race. Whether for race or caste, we must do this work so that our founding principles will apply in the coming minority majority nation.
Resource: Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, New York, 2020.