Isabel Wilkerson knows that America has a race problem, but she wants Americans to go beyond talking about race and start talking about caste. She especially wants to break up conversations about racism and hatred, which she sees as distractions from the bigger issue. After all, hatred (of black people) is an emotion for individuals (mostly white) to deal with. But caste is an all pervasive system that our country can only dislodge with collective action.
“Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal,” Wilkerson writes in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (affiliate link). “It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.”
A longtime New York Times reporter and author of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (affiliate link), Wilkerson offers a disturbing conclusion about why America’s racial relations are so hard to fix. But her theory is so original that it offers the hope of shaking things up enough to make real progress.
The source of racial discrimination and oppression, socially determined race identity, is not like class, where people can and do move from one class to another. Instead, race as it has developed in America over four centuries is maddeningly rigid. And this hardened racial hierarchy in America is as malicious as caste identity in two other places that made no bones about building a stratified racial structure founded on a despised group at the bottom: the 3,000-year old caste system of Hindu India, and the Jewish exclusion and genocide system of Adolf Hitler’s 12-year Third Reich.
(Disturbingly, after Hitler gained power, Nazis studied Jim Crow laws from southern U.S. states to inspire their own anti-Jewish measures at the start of the Holocaust. In some cases, as Wilkerson explains, Hitler’s legislative advisers actually found American racial restrictions to be too extreme.)
To make it clear that race is more like caste, Wilkerson presents Eight Pillars of Caste common to all three societies: Divine Will and the Laws of Nature, Heritability, Endogamy and the Control of Marriage and Mating, Purity versus Pollution, Occupational Hierarchy: the Jatis and the Mudsill, Dehumanization and Stigma, Terror as Enforcement, Cruelty as a Means of Control, and Inherent Superiority versus Inherent Inferiority.
When you think of race as caste, it helps explain why black Americans have suffered so much discrimination for so long, even as waves of immigrants, some once despised, have achieved higher status. Whether you go all the way back to 1619 as Wilkerson does, or merely to the Civil War and Reconstruction when slaves were freed and black Americans earned the legal right to equality, caste shows why no amount of progress has been enough to disrupt a system of hierarchy where African Americans are always at the bottom.
Caste Is Why America Can’t Have Nice Things
Wilkerson reminds us of all the suffering that persistent racial hierarchy has caused for black Americans, with economic data, stories from history, and anecdotes from herself and people she’s known. This effectively reinforces the seriousness of America’s racial violence and discrimination problem. The way our country has treated our black citizens contradicts our country’s most deeply held beliefs on freedom, fairness and equality.
And given that eventually most immigrant groups have been absorbed into the dominant caste when they were redefined as white (Catholics from Ireland or Italy for example), caste oppression of black people isn’t likely to resolve itself over time. Wilkerson imagines a plausible scenario where today’s Latinos and Asians are absorbed into whites in the future, leaving black Americans, again, stuck at the bottom — and stuck there into an endless future.
It’s easy to understand Wilkerson’s frustration that, no matter how much education they achieve, how much wealth they amass, or how many awards they win, black people are always subject to the highest degree of racial prejudice from whites. And sadly, often from immigrants too.
But it’s not only black Americans who suffer in our nation’s caste system. Because providing taxpayer-funded services to the general public would mean white people having to pay for things that benefit black people, conservatives have successfully been able to argue against investment in America’s public goods. That why our country is stingier than other rich nations in spending on healthcare, education, and social services that benefit all our citizens.
Caste is why we can’t have nice things.
The problem is as urgent today as it has been anytime in the last 150 years, as this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests made clear. But what to do about it?
Wilkerson asks white people to take more of an active role. It’s not enough to reject racism or to support political change. White Americans should find ways to disrupt the racial caste system and topple the eight pillars of caste in their personal lives too, at workplaces, restaurants, churches and everywhere else. That means crossing the color line to seek out black people as friends, colleagues, congregation members and even husbands and wives.
Only radical integration can disrupt a system so powerful and entrenched as caste.
Overall, I rate the book highly for both content and style. Wilkerson writes journalistically with plenty of common analogies to make new points clear and vivid. Caste is compelling to read and hard to put down.
Trump’s Racism a Feature or a Bug?
Of course, every book about society, culture and politics these days also has to talk about Donald Trump. Maybe soon that won’t be the case. But for now, those of us who are horrified by 45 appear to have an endless appetite for chewing over how such a clownish monster won the presidency in 2016 and almost won in 2020.
I’m no exception, and I’m glad that Wilkerson examined Trump and his appeal as a piece of evidence in her theory of an American caste system.
My one beef is that she repeats with little questioning the liberal Democratic theory that white people mostly voted for Trump because they’re racist. She does point out that, ever since LBJ signed civil rights legislation in the 1960s, Republicans have gotten a majority of white votes except when southerner Jimmy Carter was elected. This does seem to be an example of caste voting.
But apparently because Trump was so bad, and so much more obviously racist than previous Republican presidential candidates, so this argument goes, if white people continued their historical patterns of voting Republican and didn’t break with their candidate in the one instance of Trump, it made white voters especially racist. And in this view, that applies especially to white people who are poor, the class at the bottom of the dominant caste, who have little to recommend themselves to a larger society except being white.
Is it race or class? For Wilkerson, race/caste work together with class, but in the end, low-class whites always choose caste. More than any other group of white people, poor whites suffer from “dominant group status threat,” according to political scientists cited by Wilkerson. This means that poor whites are so worried about falling out of the upper caste that they will work harder than any other whites to distinguish themselves from the black people who are the only ones below them.
And that’s why they voted for a real estate con man from New York City with a history of stiffing working-man contractors, even against their own economic interests.
Maybe. Or maybe not.
Other experts theorize that whites overwhelmingly voted for Trump not because they thought his racist dog whistles spoke to their values, but rather in spite of Trump’s obvious bigotry. In this argument, Trump’s racism was not a feature, but a bug — racial appeals were not why all white voters supported Trump, but an embarrassing aspect of his personality that some or many white voters had to dismiss and try to explain away.
This applies especially to white people at the bottom of the dominant caste, those most insecure in their social and economic status. Most poor white people live in rural areas, and rural economies have been decimated by 50 years of corporate globalization that has sent their factory jobs overseas and forced their farms to consolidate under big agribusiness. White rural people are experiencing real hardship that they don’t necessarily connect to race, but instead, to the actions of liberal elites who promoted globalization and free trade.
In fact, people who’ve studied the issue like Democratic Party organizer Jane Kleeb, author of Harvest the Vote: How Democrats Can Win Again in Rural America, have found that rural white people are not irredeemably racist. But while many white rural voters are uncomfortable with numerous things about Trump, including his racism, those negatives aren’t enough to make rural voters vote against him because race is not their main issue.
Their main issue is their own wellbeing, and they see Trump’s opponents, big city liberals, as not merely unconcerned about rural problems but positively hostile to everything about rural America.
Not that Trump was ever going to do anything to help rural white people. But at least he talked about bringing jobs back from overseas or renegotiating bad trade agreements like NAFTA, a wildly unpopular measure that rural people associate with Democrats. Under this more sympathetic argument, white rural voters were willing to overlook the Republican leader’s clear racism and vote for Trump anyway as a protest against the coastal technocracy and its party, the Democrats.
Heartland whites see Democrats not only as the party of urban minorities but more as the party of the educated coastal elite, the same elite that’s been sending all the rural jobs overseas for decades through corporate-friendly free trade agreements, whether it was under Bill Clinton, Obama or Hillary Clinton. Remember that the latter referred to rural white voters as a “basket of deplorables,” and that Republicans turned this insult into a rallying cry for rural whites.
Painting all white Republicans as purely caste voters allows Wilkerson to quickly dismiss the opposing theory, namely that some white working people had good economic reasons to vote against Democrats. Republicans pander for rural votes and do little to actually help. But Democrats don’t even bother to pander. Voting for Trump, though unsatisfying, was the best way to vote against Democrats.
Sadly, Wilkerson waves this theory away quickly, with a few quotes from experts friendly to her view, and then leaves rural white America indicted as hopelessly benighted caste voters.
Other thinkers on American politics, especially on the progressive left, have shown that poor rural whites are not stuck on racism. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Jim Hightower and other populist Democrats have joined Nebraska organizer Kleeb in predicting that with the right approach, rural whites could become powerful allies of urban black people to fight their common enemy of wealth inequality pushed by technocratic oligarchy and bankrolled by Silicon Valley and Wall Street.
I couldn’t find the word “technocrat” once in Wilkerson’s text, which tells me that she’s not interested in this theory. That’s a shame, because a workers alliance based on class that crosses race could be the most powerful hammer of all to topple the pillars of American caste.
It’s not Marxism, but simply empiricism, to observe that black Americans are not the only ones who suffer from wealth inequality in an economy where the average CEO earns 312 times more than the average worker today versus 20 times more in 1970.
Black people may suffer the worst from disparities of wealth and income. But those whites who also suffer could just be willing to shed their fake identity advantages of caste to unite with black Americans to gain real advantages in fairness and prosperity.