Isabel Wilkerson ends her latest book with a powerful truth:
“A world without caste would set everyone free.”
The book is Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, and it should be required reading for everyone, particularly in the United States. Most people in the U.S. are aware of the nation’s history of slavery that was theoretically vanquished after the Civil War. As many historians and journalists have written, it wasn’t really, and there is a much deeper pathology at play. Wilkerson crystalizes the formation and perpetuation of the caste system that persists to this day in the U.S. through a detailed exploration of how it relates to caste systems in India and in WWII Germany in her latest book which is part personal essay, part investigative journalism, and part history text. As difficult as many of the stories she relates are, she also offers ideas on how we might address and reform this vicious hierarchy, though to do so will require effort on all our parts. To do so would also allow us to finally achieve the key ideal set forth in our Declaration of Independence, i.e., true equality of all people. While the founders didn’t actually mean everyone, or even all men, the ultimate ideal expressed is still one to which we should all aspire. Instead, we have to date been plagued by a system of equality that is based on inequality. In other words, for the favored members of society to be equal amongst themselves, all others must be unequal. This U.S. system has been based on caste since before the founding of the nation despite the advances in equality stated in the law.
Wilkerson breaks the book up into seven hard-hitting sections plus a hopeful epilogue including:
- Part One: Toxins in the Permafrost and Heat Rising All Around
- Part Two: The Arbitrary Construction of Human Divisions
- Part Three: The Eight Pillars of Caste
- Part Four: The Tentacles of Caste
- Part Five: The Consequences of Caste
- Part Six: Backlash
- Part Seven: Awakening
- Epilogue: A World Without Caste
While the dictionary has multiple gradations of the term caste, the sociological definition is:
- An endogamous and hereditary social group limited to persons of the same rank, occupation, economic position, etc., and having mores distinguishing it from other such groups.
- Any rigid system of social distinctions.
Wilkerson is very clear showing that racism in the U.S. is the foundation of an inviolate caste system defining a dominant caste (whites), a bottom caste (African Americans), and middle castes of various ethnic and racial groups vying for the favor of the dominant caste. Added to that, sexism and other means of discrimination are part of the caste definitions as well, but some are more fungible. Wilkerson illustrates many of her points through gripping stories from her own life as a professional African American woman as well as through the retelling of harrowing historical events. She uses her extensive journalistic expertise to dig deeply into the American caste structure. Through her work, she discovered that the Nazis modeled much of their caste system on the U.S. citing the following:
Thus began a campaign of ever-tightening restrictions. Jews were henceforth stripped of citizenship, prohibited from displaying the German flag, denied passports. With that announcement, “Germany became a full-fledged racist regime,” the historian George M. Fredrickson wrote. “American laws were the main foreign precedents for such legislation.”
As harsh as the Nuremberg Laws were, Wilkerson makes clear that the American laws were far worse in their broad scope forcing those with even the most minuscule connection to the scapegoated group to forever reside on the bottom rung of society. Systems focused on racial purity are based on complete fiction. From a biological perspective, there is no such thing as race. It is an entirely social construct, not one based in science. The human genome governing appearance is a spectrum of normal variation within the species, not a strict hierarchy, and appearance including various physical traits such as skin color, hair color, hair texture, eye color, stature, body type, etc., have no bearing on a person’s intellect or physical prowess. The human compulsion to force individuals into a rigid hierarchical assignment hurts everyone, although those forced to the lower levels of any hierarchy bear the brunt of societal consternation. In this, caste and cast are similar in that the caste system forces a person to be cast into a role that has no connection to their abilities, personality, or even their identity. Every caste system has certain elements or justifications in common which Wilkerson discusses at length as the pillars of caste. She lists them thus:
- One: Divine Will and the Laws of Nature
- Two: Heritability
- Three: Endogamy and the Control of Marriage and Mating
- Four: Purity versus Pollution
- Five: Occupational Hierarchy: The Jatis and the Mudsill
- Six: Dehumanization and Stigma
- Seven: Terror as Enforcement, Cruelty as a Means of Control
- Eight: Inherent Superiority versus Inherent Inferiority
No matter the trait, or traits, used to distinguish between rungs of the societal ladder, the justifications for maintaining it are surprisingly similar. And no matter which groups are stacked into the hierarchy, many at the top tend to live in fear, and those at the bottom live with constant torment. The fear at the top is of losing their exalted status. The torment at the bottom is bearing the burden of all of the misdeeds across the hierarchy.
In her exploration of how deep the tentacles of power reach into any caste system, she discusses how humankind has misinterpreted roles apparent in nature. A common example people use to justify brutal dominant behavior is supposedly modeled on the behavior of wolves. The idea that an alpha (or leader) must impose brutal physical dominance in no uncertain terms is not how it works in nature. The reality in a wolf pack is that an alpha leads by having earned the trust of the pack. The alpha doesn’t need to bully the other members of the pack because they trust the alpha to watch out for them despite some aberrant behavior seen in captivity. A more surprising member of the pack is the omega, or underdog, the lowest pack member. In nature, the omega often takes some abuse but in a non-threatening way, and in a very real sense, the omega is the glue that holds the pack together. Wilkerson discusses how the loss of the pack’s omega can completely destabilize the social structure until a new omega emerges. The important thing about a canid pack in nature that people miss is that the roles in the pack emerge based on internal personality of the individual pack members, not a hierarchy imposed based on some artificial characteristic or appearance.
In the U.S., the Civil War sparked the first major attempt to remove the caste system. Even though the Constitution was amended to start to address the disparity, those threatened by the loss of their dominant status enacted regional laws that effectively stalled that progress. As advances were made, further backlash was experienced as those afraid of losing dominance became more radicalized. To them, seeing others gaining any status at all was seen as a threat. Wilkerson suggests that the projections that show whites no longer being the majority in the U.S. by 2042 have sparked the latest attempts to further impose caste restrictions, particularly as they apply to voting rights.
As she begins wrapping up the book, Wilkerson shows through a heartfelt personal experience how she was able break through the caste structure and relate to someone on the opposite end of the spectrum on a human level. Exploring how we might address this on a national level, Wilkerson returns to Germany, a country that has shown remarkable courage in facing the horror it wrought during WWII through its caste system. Unlike the U.S. which routinely attempts to deny the evils of its past, Germany has made it policy not to glorify or deny its past atrocities. By recognizing the dangers they pose, they instead ensure that they don’t forget how easily “regular people” can be coopted and corrupted as this is the only way to prevent it from happening again.
There is a lot of work to be done, but in order for us to be truly free, we need to vanquish our caste system and never forget how and why it emerged.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson