Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Image of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
Release Date: 
August 4, 2020
Random House
Reviewed by: 

“Caste . . . provides a new and more nuanced diagnosis of an ancient and chronic disease, a template for recognizing its symptoms—even among those who only distantly feel their effects—and a springboard to action in mitigating its effects in the absence of a miracle cure, or a panacea of absolution.”

In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the landmark civil rights case whose 7-2 defeat in the Supreme Court codified the principle of “separate but equal” in United States law for 58 years, Albion Tourgée, the lead attorney bringing suit against Louisiana’s Separate Car Act, pursued a legal argument that seems curious today. Rather than insisting that his client, Homer Plessy—a light-skinned, mixed-race, French-speaking Creole—deserved to sit in the railcar seat he paid for based on rights guaranteed to all Americans under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Tourgée argued that his client’s property rights as a seven-eighths white man had been violated when he was removed from the whites-only car. Tourgée contended that Plessy’s majority whiteness was itself property that entitled him to the privileges reserved for the white race and exempted him from the deprivations and indignities accorded to the black race.

Given that the Plessy suit emerged in a post-Reconstruction South redeemed by terror, and a nation increasingly embracing North-South white reconciliation above all other concerns, Tourgée’s peculiar defense seems, in context, not so much racist as realist.

In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, a landmark new study of the power of racial distinctions in America, Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson makes a convincing case that Plessy, Tourgée, and other opponents of racial segregation were taking on a system far more intractable and enduring than any particular law such a suit aimed to challenge. The foe they faced—and the one we continue to struggle with today—is a racial caste system as entrenched as India’s that has persisted and predominated in this country for four centuries. Even as it may appear to shape-shift, advance, or recede over time, Wilkerson argues with staggering precision, clarity, and conviction that caste cuts far deeper than any local or federal law, prevailing attitude, or temporary cultural drift.

Part historical inquiry, part essay, part sociological analysis, part memoir, Caste draws heavily on the powerful mingling of narrative, research, and visionary, sweeping insight that made Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns the definitive contemporary study of African Americans’ 20th Century Great Migration from the Jim Crow South to northern, midwestern, and western cities. It deepens the resonance of that book (a seemingly impossible feat) by digging more explicitly into the pervasive racial hierarchy that transcends region and time, and further explains why Blacks who fled segregation and terror in the South found so much of the same in their new homes.

Wilkerson’s focus is somewhat broader in Caste, and less narratively driven, in what amounts, essentially, to a book-length essay. In as shattering a shot across the bow of American exceptionalism as one can imagine, Wilkerson helps readers understand the nature of a caste system and how it manifests itself in the United States by comparing America’s racial hierarchy to the millennia-old Hindu caste system in India and the one rapidly installed in Germany during the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich.

Wilkerson draws on the work of several scholars of the Hindu caste system to explain how the lowest of subordinate groups, the Dalits, are regarded, and taught to regard themselves as “Untouchables,” contaminants to others in the social hierarchy, from the nearest subjugated groups (fiercely protective of their non-cellar dweller status) to the rarified air of Brahmin elites.

Caste also build on the indispensable work of scholar James Q. Whitman in Hitler’s American Model, an eye-popping exposé of how Hitler’s lieutenants consciously developed their new racial laws based on careful study of America’s Jim Crow system of racial subjugation, segregation, and exclusion.

Wilkerson also explores how caste systems persist to lesser degrees in other societies, and how America’s has proven unique among western social hierarchies in its extreme focus on the invented notion of race—particularly the “one drop of blood” theory that was the single issue Albion Tourgée tried to contest in his ill-fated Plessy argument. “While all the countries in the New World created hierarchies with Europeans on top,” Wilkerson writes, “the United States alone created a system based on racial absolutism, the idea that a single drop of African blood, or varying percentages of Asian or Native American blood, could taint the purity of someone who might otherwise be presumed to be European, a stain that would thus disqualify the person from admittance to the dominant caste.”

Wilkerson reminds us that this hierarchy is not just the basis of our social systems, but also the forced labor system that built the country, whose necessity United States senators are as apt to champion in 2020 as they were in 1858.

While Caste is not a memoir per se, Wilkerson’s judicious use of a few personal anecdotes (and her remarkable gift for rendering them with searing intensity) to illustrate specific aspects of how the caste system impacts even Pulitzer Prize winners and New York Times bureau chiefs in the subordinate caste provides some of the book’s most powerful moments. Apart from any overt political resistance, Wilkerson explains how her mere presence in white spaces as an accomplished black professional woman has created conflict. “From the start of the caste system in America, people who were lowest caste but who had managed somehow to rise above their station have been the shock troops on the front lines of hierarchy,” she explains. “People who appear in places or positions where they are not expected can become foot soldiers in an ongoing quest for respect and legitimacy in a fight they had hoped was long over.”

Wilkerson also writes compellingly about what the caste system does to all of us—not just its “untouchables.” She explains how white rage and insecurity over the systemic shock of Barack Obama’s election (as a president that most whites did not vote for), and the looming inevitability of 2042—the year when whites, according to most predictions, will cease to be America’s majority race—have led both to backlash and social and personal instability among lower-class whites. “In places with a different history and hierarchy, it is not necessarily seen as taking away from one’s own prosperity if the system looks out for the needs of everyone,” she writes. “A caste system builds rivalry and distrust and lack of empathy toward one’s fellows. The result is that the United States, for all its wealth and innovation, lags in major indicators of quality of life among the leading countries in the world.”

Most of all, Caste is a book not so much about what caste systems are as about how they’re built, how they’re sustained, how the colossal white lies that support them are propagated and cultivated, under what circumstances the power of caste systems surge, and also how resistance grows and can lead to their dismantling.

Much of what will draw readers to this book are the explosive conflicts of the current moment, from the national confrontation with institutionalized police violence against Black Americans, to the massive white mobilization against the impending loss of their majority status that has brought us Trumpism, to a pandemic that has disproportionately affected African Americans and unmasked the corrosive consequences of the caste system that are as devastating as they are irrefutable.

“The virus exposed both the vulnerability of all humans and the layers of hierarchy,” Wilkerson writes. “While anyone could contract the virus, it was Asian-Americans who were scapegoated for it merely because they looked like the people from the part of the world that the virus first struck. And as the crisis wore on, it was African-Americans and Latinos who began dying at higher rates. Preexisting conditions, often tied to the stresses on marginalized people, contributed to the divergence. But it was the caste-like occupations at the bottom of the hierarchy— grocery clerks, bus drivers, package deliverers, sanitation workers, low-paying jobs with high levels of public contact— that put them at greater risk of contracting the virus in the first place. These are among the mudsill jobs in a pandemic, the jobs less likely to guarantee health coverage or sick days but that sustain the rest of society, allowing others to shelter in place.”

Like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Caste is far more than a volume written simply to be added to a virtue-signaling bookshelf that adds an ostentatious veneer of wokeness to an upper-caste home. Nor is it a manifesto for reversing longstanding racial injustices. Rather, it provides a new and more nuanced diagnosis of an ancient and chronic disease, a template for recognizing its symptoms—even among those who only distantly feel their effects—and a springboard to action in mitigating its impact in the absence of a miracle cure or a panacea of absolution.