Tuesday, 15 March 2022

"Caste" by Isabel Wilkerson: Book Note


“Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson (Book Note)

Last week (March 2022) I read Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Random House, 2020)  Wilkerson is an African-American journalist. Caste compares race relations in the US with caste-based divisions in India and with the Nazi creation of Jews as a subordinate caste. It is not a systematic, scholarly comparison, rather a rumination that illuminates US race relations by looking at caste in these two other societies. To make her point, throughout the book Wilkerson refers to whites as “members of the dominant caste” and to Blacks as “members of the subordinate caste.”

Isabel Wilkerson


While some commentators on Caste whom I read in the media thought that Wilkerson’s use of the terminology of caste was quite original, it wasn’t to me. In my 1995 book, Human Rights and the Search for Community, I wrote “In modern Western society distinctions of caste have been rendered unclear and disreputable by the ideologies of equality and individual autonomy. Nevertheless, stratificatory practices based on unacknowledged notions of honor and shame persist” (p. 135). I then went on to argue that to be either Black or female was to be considered shameful. I drew heavily on Orlando Patterson’s 1982 book, Slavery and Social Death, in attempting this analysis; he spoke of timocracy, honor-based social gradations which accorded more honor to whites than Blacks.

While perhaps three people read my book, many thousands more have read Wilkerson’s, and rightly so. She has a way with words, referring, for example, to Southern agricultural plantations as forced labor camps (p. 47), to enslaved Africans as hostages (p. 43), and to lynching as ritual killings (p. 41). She also tells us that the image of the plump black Mammie, as portrayed by Hattie McDaniel in the 1939 movie, Gone with the Wind, was a fiction. Most if not all enslaved African women would have been very thin, because they were all malnourished, a deliberate choice of their owners (p. 138).

In India, Wilkerson tells us, some upper-caste teachers refuse to grade the papers of Dalit students, because they would actually have to touch the same paper as the students. A Dalit immigrant to the US tells Wilkerson of an upper-caste female office-worker who refused to pour her own water from a jug sitting near her desk, rather walking down the hall to get a Dalit to pour it for her (p. 176). In sociological terms, this is status anxiety.

Status anxiety is also the reason that police often stop and arrest Black people in fancy cars. Members of the lowest caste—in the US, Nazi Germany, and India—are “not permitted to bear the symbols of success and status reserved for the upper caste” (p. 160). The boundaries of caste must be very carefully monitored (p.216). So we can’t acknowledge, for example, that in Boston in 1721, the dominant caste minister, Cotton Mather, got the idea of inoculation for smallpox from an African slave named Onesimus (p. 231).

 Wilkerson has conducted very serious research but presents it in a very readable way. She especially notes the ways that privileged people bear themselves and assume that they will be listened to. At conferences about caste in India where all participants are supposed to be opposed to caste distinctions, she can nevertheless recognize which people come from the upper castes (the priestly Brahmin caste in particular) and which from the lower or out-caste (Dalits; literally meaning “broken people” [p. 26]). The former talk over the latter, or tell them what they should think.

Wilkerson intersperses her text with anecdotes from her own life as a member of the subordinate (African American) caste. She recounts an instance where she is in a restaurant with a member of the dominant (white) caste and the waiter ostentatiously ignores them, serving an entire meal to a table of dominant-caste people before he gets around to even giving them their bread. Her dominant-caste friend eventually stands up and accuses the waiter of racism in a loud voice that everyone in the restaurant can hear: Wilkerson herself would never have done such a thing (pp. 265-69).

Turning to contemporary politics, Wilkerson argues that to understand the 2016 election, we must understand that lower-class whites are willing to sacrifice their short-term economic welfare to preserve their long-term caste status (p. 324).

Wilkerson includes two interesting sections on Nazism in Caste. In her chapter on monuments and memorials, she points out that Germany is not infested with statues of Hitler and his cronies, as the US South is infested with statues of Robert E. Lee and his cronies. Presumably, there were such statues in Germany until the end of WWII, but they were taken down.

Wilkerson also discusses the archived minutes of a meeting in 1934 at which senior Nazis discussed a report on US racial laws that they hoped to use in drafting their own racial laws. One senior Nazi is horrified by the “one drop” rule in some US states, by which one drop of “Negro” blood is enough to render you a permanent member of the subordinate caste. Another Nazi wants to know if people can’t have the benefit of the doubt if they are half-Jewish and half “Aryan,” and be allowed to enjoy some Aryan privilege. Such would have been impossible for a person of mixed racial background in the US South, indeed even now anywhere in the US.

This book is well worth reading: very insightful, making one (at least me) think again about things one thinks one has known for many decades.


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