Review of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson (Random House, 2020)
“Anything that causes the negro to aspire above the plow handle, the cook pot, in a word the functions of a servant, will be the worst thing on earth for the negro. God Almighty designed him for a menial. He is fit for nothing else.” —Governor James K. Vardaman of Mississippi
I begin with this quote by Governor Vardaman in order to address a primary question I asked myself as I began reading Caste: why talk about “caste” or “caste-ism” instead of “race” or “racism”? How does using the word “caste” illuminate the problem? Isabel Wilkerson’s answer is that “caste” speaks more specifically and powerfully to the institutional, societal nature of racism. Looking back at Governor Vardaman’s quote — he served as governor from 1904 to 1908 and as senator from 1913 to 1919 — under the paradigm of “racism,” we might focus on Vardaman as an individually egregious racist. Under the paradigm of “caste-ism,” we will see Vardaman’s statement as a societal problem. In what kind of society can a governor make such statements and be applauded and upheld by the electorate? Only in a society where voters give systemic support to the opinions expressed by Vardaman; only in a society with a caste system firmly in place.
Wilkerson says that “Caste and race are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive. They can and do coexist in the same culture and serve to reinforce each other. Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin. 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” (19). She also notes that “Caste is fixed and rigid,” whereas “Race is fluid and superficial” (19) as, for instance, with periodic redefinitions of who qualifies as “white” in the United States.
Isabel Wilkerson is a distinguished writer, having won a Pulitzer Prize in journalism in 1994, and a National Book Critics Circle Award for The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010). Caste is not remarkable for new facts. As Wilkerson acknowledges, scholars have been comparing racism and caste-ism at least as far back as Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944). What Wilkerson so valuably contributes is an extensive knowledge of what previous scholars have said on the subject, a fine writer’s ability to use interesting comparisons and metaphors to get the reader to reframe thinking about race, the power of story to reach the reader logically and emotionally, and an ability to bring these findings to bear in a powerful way that speaks to our time. The book just came off the press in August and includes material about Covid-19 — in other words, everything up to the West Coast fires and the death of Justice Ginsburg and whatever crisis rocks the country next week.
According to Wilkerson, “Caste does not explain everything in American life, but no aspect of American life can be fully understood without considering caste and embedded hierarchy” (324). The core idea of this book is to view American caste-ism side by side with India’s caste system and the caste system in Nazi Germany, 1933-1945. From the comparisons, Wilkerson extracts a set of Eight Pillars of Caste, ideologies that pertain to all three systems:
1. Divine Will and the Laws of Nature
3. Endogamy and the Control of Marriage and Mating
4. Purity versus Pollution
5. Occupational Hierarchy
6. Dehumanization and Stigma
7. Terror as Enforcement, Cruelty as a Means of Control
8. Inherent Superiority versus Inherent Inferiority
Each of these points has its own chapter — there are thirty-one shortish chapters in the book — with illustrative stories, examples, and illuminating analyses. There is also considerable discussion of how the pillars fit together and reinforce each other. I found it very helpful to think through racism as caste-ism, to break the problem down in this way.
As just one example, in the “Purity versus Pollution” chapter there is a section on the use of public swimming pools and beaches in America. “Well into the twentieth century,” writes Wilkerson, “African-Americans were banned from white beaches and lakes and pools, both north and south, lest they pollute them, just as Dalits were forbidden from the waters of the Brahmins, and Jews from Aryan waters in the Third Reich” (117). She tells about how, in the early 1950s, when Cincinnati agreed to let black swimmers into some of its public pools, “whites threw nails and broken glass into the water to keep them out” (117); how in 1919 a seventeen-year-old black swimmer in Lake Michigan was stoned and drowned for wading past the imaginary white line at a public beach (118); how a public pool in Pittsburgh solved the “problem” by keeping black people out until September, giving the maintenance crew the off season for “sufficient time to properly cleanse and disinfect [the pool] after the Negroes have used it” (119).
In a final story on the public waters issue, Wilkerson tells about how, in 1951, a Little League baseball team in Youngstown, Ohio, won the city championship, and decided to celebrate with a picnic at the municipal pool. The pool officials prohibited the team’s one Black player from getting in the water — or even inside the fence around the pool. Under protest of the team, the pool supervisor finally allowed the Black player to come inside the pool fence and be towed around the pool on a small raft, once, while being continually warned not to touch the water (120). This kid was better off than the one who got stoned and drowned, but how heartbreaking for a child to be shamed and ostracized in front of his teammates like this — a burden to bear for the rest of his life.
Ok, that happened in the 1950s, you may be saying. We don’t have segregated pools now. Well, that’s sort of true, but we still have incidents involving pools and race, such as the McKinney, Texas, pool party of 2015, in which a white officer slammed a fifteen-year-old Black girl in a swimsuit to the ground and waved his gun at teen Black boys in the group (236). You can read about it online and watch the video. And of course we have the more recent McKloskey couple in St. Louis, who brandished firearms at Black Lives Matter protestors this past June, and were then featured in a video during the Republican Convention, warning viewers that electing Joe Biden “would bring crime, lawlessness and low quality apartments into now thriving suburban neighborhoods,” an indirect way of saying “white people, protect yourself against a Black and brown invasion.” As Wilkerson says, “Caste, along with its faithful servant race, is an x-factor in most any American equation, and any answer one might ever come up with to address our current challenges is flawed without it” (72).
Wilkerson does an excellent job showing us how it’s not sufficient to say “I’m not racist, let’s just go forward in a colorblind fashion.” We are, she says, like the buyers of an old home. We are not responsible for the way the foundation was laid, but now, as the current occupants of the house, we are responsible for repairing it and making it safe to live in. Safe for all of us who are occupants.
So, what do we do to make it safe? And not just safe, but a place where the occupants can flourish? Here are two places to begin. Start with the premise that we are all equal and brothers and sisters in God’s sight. Access to safe neighborhoods, good schools, nutritious food, and reasonable health care should be available to all. It is not possible to instantly, or perhaps ever, create these basic conditions for everyone, but when we think about public policy, when we vote, when we act as a community, we should think about everyone as part of a collective, not “us” and “them,” and we should seek to provide everyone with these baseline ingredients for opportunity.
Second, we all need to learn more about the United States’ history of… I was going to say “race relations,” but a more accurate term for what I mean would be “white supremacy.” The more I learn, the more committed I am to actively promoting equal opportunity and equal access, and the more I recognize that without citizens actively pursuing these goals they will not be volunteered by most of those living with privilege.
Caste is a rich, well-researched and engagingly written meditation on one of the most important subjects of our time. I encourage you to read it.
Scott Moncrieff is a Professor of English at Andrews University.
Book cover image courtesy of Random House.
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