What I’m Reading: Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by former New York Times reporter and Chicago bureau chief Isabel Wilkerson, is a combination study and meditation on caste in the United States. Wilkerson posits that the United States is a caste society like India, and that racism is merely the form that caste takes. That is to say, the early settlers created a societal hierarchy at which black African slaves were at the bottom, but that was almost incidental. It could have been indentured servants at the bottom, Irish immigrants, or any number of other groups. That hierarchy exists to this day, but labeling it as racism is unhelpful.

Racism, Wilkerson writes, is personal, and rightfully taken as a personal affront when you accuse someone of it. That makes it difficult to talk about. Caste, on the other hand, is an impersonal system. We’re all part of the caste system, like it or not, the people at the top trapped as much as the people at the bottom. Someone can be completely unracist, but still make decisions that perpetuate the caste system. By examining the unequal situation of the races in the America as the result of a caste system, rather that the result of personal racism on somebody’s part, it should be easier to recognize the problem and deal with it.

I have to admit, I was skeptical of Wilkerson’s thesis, but she really makes a good case. She identifies eight pillars of the caste system, comparing how they operate in the United States, India, and throwing in Nazi Germany for good measure. The eight pillars are 1) caste is claimed to be the result of divine will or a law or nature; 2) your place in the caste hierarchy is heritable; 3) castes are endogamous (you can’t marry or date out of your caste); 4) the caste system exists to maintain “purity” in the higher ranking castes; 5) your caste determines the occupations open to you; 6) the caste system dehumanizes the lower castes to enable its perpetuation; 7) the caste system uses terror and cruelty to enforce behavior; and 8) the superiority and inferiority of castes are inherent.

This covers roughly the first half of the book, and by the end of it, I was on board with Wilkerson. Yes the United States is (or was), a caste society. True, India’s caste system is far more elaborate, with its multiple levels of castes and sub-castes, and has persisted for far longer (even continuing despite deliberate attempts to break it down since India achieved independence in 1947) than the US caste system. Still, the American caste system fit all the criteria that Wilkerson sets out, and proves with numerous historical examples.

Yet, ultimately I found Caste to be a frustrating book. Partially frustrating in a way the author intended, as she presents various stories of the injustices faced by blacks in a caste system throughout US history. But frustrating too, because I find the analysis of the book breaks down in the second half, when she moves to the present day to show how caste is still with us.

She has chapters on media-heavy issues like police shootings of black people, the Trump presidency, and her own personal experiences with the caste system. But I find each of these to be problematic, while she neglects certain aspects of African Americans in American society that I think would have been more helpful to her thesis.

First, the problem with her using police shootings of black people as a way the caste system still exists is that it’s simply not true. Yes, police officers shoot black people sometimes, but as black professor John McWhorter shows, they shoot white people as well, and in greater numbers. In fact, according to McWhorter, your income level is a better predictor of whether you’ll be shot in a police interaction than your skin color. Basically, cops are far more likely to shoot poor people, of whatever race, than wealthier people. While that is not a good thing, it renders Wilkerson’s point moot.

Then, Wilkerson’s Trump chapter is notably weak. She mentions several things that occurred during Trump’s presidency that she attributes to a caste system that still exists, but not in an analytical way. I find this chapter to read more like a litany than anything else. It was actually quite disappointing, as I can get that sort of material anywhere. I would far have preferred to read a more careful, point-by-point account of what exactly is was about Trump, his presidency, and his supporters, that indicate a caste system still exists.

Finally, there are Wilkerson’s personal anecdotes. One of these is quite powerful–an account of her meeting with a business owner in Chicago. When she enters the man’s luxury goods store, he keeps trying to get her to leave, as he’s expecting an important reporter from the New York Times to arrive any minute. She repeatedly explains that she’s the reporter, but he refuses to believe her, evidently on the basis that a black woman couldn’t possible hold such a position. I felt this was a perfect example of how the caste system still operates today, and does what I believe Wilkerson intended: making an abstract concept more personal for the reader.

Unfortunately, Wilkerson doesn’t stop there. She has an entire chapter on rude interactions she’s had and unpleasant situations she’s found herself in on airplanes that she blames on the caste system. I found these anecdotes to be ambiguous as regards caste, at best. Mostly, I nodded along and thought, “Yep, air travel sure sucks nowadays.” Other anecdotes she brings up in the book’s second half (some involving her, some involving other people) also fall flat, or at least add little to the narrative. Perhaps the wealthy black woman mistaken for a drycleaner, or a flight attendant failing to help Wilkerson put her bag in an overhead bin, are indications that the caste system still exists. But even if true, that caste system is quite attenuated from the system that a century ago was lynching 80-100 black people a year and kept nearly the entire black population in menial jobs.

But while focusing on these not-so-convincing suggestions that there is still a caste system, Wilkerson totally neglects two areas I was expecting to read about: education, and real estate. I remember my own high school in the 1990s, where black students where nearly absent from the honors courses I was in (only one or two black girls were ever in these classes, and no black males), despite the school being probably forty percent African American. Were there really no qualified black boys that could have taken these classes? Or was it that a caste system was blinding teachers, administrators, and parents from even considering potential black honors students? I thought an exploration of this would have been fruitful.

Similarly, a discussion of real estate and neighborhoods could have helped Wilkerson’s thesis. Of course, redlining kept blacks out of white areas even into the early 1960s. Yet in the decades since then, most neighborhoods in American cities have not particularly integrated. Is that due solely to personal preferences–most people would rather live near those who look them? Or is the caste system still at work in some subtle way here–shaping people’s choices without them even being aware of it?

On the topic of the inequality of the races in the United States, I think Caste is a valuable exploration of what is likely the root cause of that–a caste system. But its cogent historical analysis in the first half is followed by a far weaker examination of caste in the present day in the book’s second half. Still, for those interested in the subject, this book is highly recommended.

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