book review

Caste Offers a New Word for Injustice in America, Not a New Way of Thinking

Photo: Penguin Random House

What is caste?

“Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions,” Isabel Wilkerson writes in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Caste is like the bones of an old house, “the studs and joists that we cannot see in the physical buildings we call home.” It is also like “our bones,” literal bones, the structural integrity of our innards kept mostly invisible without X-ray. Caste is like a detailed medical history. “Caste is a disease.” It is a sluggish poison, “an intravenous drip to the mind,” shoring up an “immune system” that is also vulnerable to its “toxins.” It is cellular, “molecular,” “neurological,” “cardiovascular.” Like subduction-zone activity below the Earth’s surface, caste is “the unseen stirrings of the human heart.” Caste is not, however, about “feelings or morality” (though it does “live on in hearts and habits”). Caste is drama, “a stage of epic proportions” with unremovable costumes and an uncorpseable script. Caste is onstage, “a performance,” and caste is, also, somehow, “the wordless usher in a darkened theater.” It is a magic “spell.” A corporation. A Sith Lord. A high-rise building with a flooded basement. Like in The Matrix, “an unseen force of artificial intelligence has overtaken the human species.” It is a ladder; we exist on its rungs. “Caste is structure,” whatever that means precisely.

What caste is not is “the R-word” — that is, race or racism. It is not reducible to race — nor gender, nor class. This Wilkerson realized during research for her first book, The Warmth of Other Suns, an intensely investigated, intimate narrative of manifold migration in 20th-century America. The Warmth of Other Suns, widely praised and an instant New York Times best seller, went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Heartland Prize for Nonfiction, among other accolades. Working on that book and learning about the Jim Crow underpinnings of what’s often flatly called “the Great Migration,” Wilkerson “discovered … that I was not writing about geography and relocation, but about the American caste system.” Her subjects sought asylum from something much more “insidious” than the age-old Negro question (“How does it feel to be a problem?” W.E.B. Du Bois writes in the well-trodden first chapter of The Souls of Black Folk). Black Southerners — sharecroppers, domestics, and above all ex-slaves and their children — were escaping a “legal caste system” borne of enslavement, mutated into Jim Crow during the calamitous transition from slavery to freedom deferred. “For this book,” the Pulitzer Prize winner writes, “I wanted to understand the origins and evolution of classifying and elevating one group of people over another.” For that purpose, “racism,” she concluded, “was insufficient.” And as she’s adapted her language, taking on the terms of caste — “the most accurate term to describe the workings of American society” — she beckons readers to do so, too. In that sense Caste is a ride-along, like all persuading histories. “Some of this may sound like a foreign language,” she warns. Foreign isn’t quite the word for it, or not the one I would use. Perhaps messy is, though.

Public conversations about race in America could use some messiness. We could stand to be more awkward amid too much PR. As Wilkerson succinctly identifies, “racism” — and “race” with it — has been so worked over in nomenclature it no longer, if ever it did, pricks the minds of the people who need to be schooled. Though defined sociologically as a compounding entity of bias and power, “racism has often been reduced to a feeling, a character flaw, conflated with prejudice, connected to whether one is a good person or not.” Wilkerson asks, “What does racist mean in an era when even extremists won’t admit to it?” Where are the teeth when a term like “white supremacy” is denounced by gods of mass culture, the likes of Taylor Swift or Donald Trump? In the wake of such rapid, online-propelled appropriation of the literal terms of radical political and cultural judgment, the language is no longer compelling. Just look at recent debates over the usefulness of the acronym BIPOC — “Black peoples and Indigenous peoples and peoples of color” or, as I prefer it, “Black and Indigenous peoples of color” — which exhibit anxiety over the seamless integration of a new racial term without accompanying enlightenment. While it used to emphasize the people Wilkerson might call “lower castes,” whose experiences in America may be unique from that of other people of color in the nation (“middle castes,” in Wilkerson’s terms), BIPOC has quickly become another means for white people, or the “dominant caste,” to run their racial sentiments on autopilot — extending blanket solidarity to “BIPOC co-workers” in workplaces with no apparent Native employees or, as often happened with the predecessor “POC,” applying the term in lieu of “Black.”

Caste takes precedence because of precedent — Wilkerson prefers the word caste because it is, in a word, ancient. She describes race as a strictly visible phenomenon, “a hologram,” “decoy,” or “front man” with respect to caste. Though the book includes evidence of race acting otherwise — like the 1922 case Takao Ozawa v. United States in which, Wilkerson writes, “the Court held unanimously that white meant not skin color but ‘Caucasian’” — these moments, per the book, only underscore how unqualified racial analysis leaves itself bound to the ambivalent whims of the American racial imagination. By contrast, caste is firm, “fixed and rigid,” so rigid it “shape-shifted to keep the upper caste pure by its own terms.” In the United States, 19th- and early-20th-century European immigrants such as the Irish entered the nation and were called “Negroes turned inside out” (Black people, in turn, were called “smoked Irish”) — not a century later whiteness evolved and enveloped them, folding their descendants and contemporary equivalents into the body politic. The ethnic, religious, and cultural makeup of the upper caste has changed since Plymouth Rock, but the necessity of a bottom caste has not. Despite race’s mutability, the American bottom caste, Wilkerson argues, is and has always been Black — or her preferred designation, “African-American.”

Caste does not abandon racial terms. Wilkerson does not leave us to flounder with the labels she wants incorporated, though at times I wished she would. In a chapter called “The Intrusion of Caste in Everyday Life,” Wilkerson describes an interlude between “a white contractor,” “a white engineer,” and “a Black engineer,” “who happened to be African-American and a woman.” The characters retain these titles just until the very end of the story, which transforms the white engineer into “a dominant-caste man.” Maybe, in keeping with the book’s soft spot for metaphors of pathology (and metaphor in general), this is a spoonful of the old ways to help the new vocab go down. But as I progressed through this big book, saddled with terms I’m to understand are inadequate, I wondered why, a couple hundred pages in, I still wasn’t trusted with the training wheels off. Perhaps the many scenes selected from the primary pages of history, the chilling tales of caste at work, would have read less poignantly without the not-so-classical window dressing of whiteness and Blackness and, more rarely, other forms of racialized otherness. Or maybe Wilkerson acquiesces that the modality of race, perceived by senses in addition to sight, accounts for something caste cannot.

Blackness, for one. The book’s insistence on “African-American” for Black people within the nation’s borders reads old-school at best and, at worse, intensely awkward in contemporary contexts. Consider one endnote that refers to today’s regular police killings of “unarmed African-Americans,” citing the research group, Mapping Police Violence. However, Mapping Police Violence tracks victims who are, among other races, best described as “black.” The 2015 data cited by Wilkerson, for example, includes NYPD’s murder of David Felix, a Haitian man with schizophrenia. For anyone not accustomed to thinking diversely about Blackness, this might sound like the smallest of grievances, and yet it can hardly be unimportant to the book’s urge for more precise terminology. Caste proposes a remedy, yet its national articulation of present-day Black people raises more questions than answers. If Black immigrants reside in the upper reaches of the lowest caste — due to their actual and perceived difference from descendants of the American South — as outlined in chapter 16, how ought we to account for their representation as frequent victims of state violence? Where do we place their children, Black Americans whose descendants’ migrations do not fit the regional patterns explicated in The Warmth of Other Suns?

But this is not actually a problem for the interior life of the book, which doesn’t care much for post-’70s history, in which Blackness in America became more ethnically hybrid. It also mostly concerns itself with the South; the primary, and a good portion of secondary, research (including an oft-cited 1956 study of slavery by late historian Kenneth M. Stampp) emerges from the expanse of Jim Crow. And contemporary scenes tend toward autobiography. In scenes such as these, another awkwardly unavoidable term emerges, the C-word: class. In Caste, class is, like race, variable, its privileges “acquired through hard work and ingenuity or lost through poor decisions or calamity.” Caste is fascinated by scenarios in which white people misread Black affluence, bringing them low in the face of pedigree, education, and the fineness of their dress. In chapter 23, “Shock Troops on the Borders of Hierarchy,” Wilkerson shares three personal encounters at the scene of a plane’s front cabin. Though “I frequently have cause to be seated in first or business class,” she writes, the occasion “can turn me into a living, breathing social experiment without wanting to be.” She is judged, gossiped about, ignored by staff, accosted by a passenger who retrieves his luggage as if her body isn’t there, while the rest of the cabin watches silently. The chapter concludes with an incident that happened to someone else, David Dao, who was dragged by his legs down the aisle of a United Airlines plane at O’Hare. Dao, a Vietnamese-American physician, belongs to the racially and ethnically jumbled category of “middle caste,” according to Wilkerson, and therefore on a higher rung of the ladder, or higher floor of the apartment complex, than she. It is thus not clear what the proximity of these narratives is meant to illuminate. Deprived the terms of race, class, and gender, not much is revealed besides the cross-caste indignities of air travel.

I am being only a bit facetious, conforming to the language of caste in Caste, which I now suspect is more unyielding than caste itself, unprepared for anomalies that, if one spends enough time observing Earth, tend to amass into banalities. (In the case of the white officer, Eric Casebolt, who body-slammed a teenage Black girl at a McKinney, Texas, pool party in 2015, Wilkerson remarks that it “would be hard to imagine” an officer doing the same “with a young girl from the same caste”; the following chapter, however, includes the circumstances of Freddie Gray, who was killed by officers who shared his caste, as an example of “the otherwise illogical phenomenon” of intra-caste violence.) Caste could benefit from more, or maybe deeper, research on the histories of resistance movements, particularly the work of late Caribbean scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot, whose Silencing the Past appears as a bibliographic entry but is not cited in the body of Caste. As Trouillot writes in that book, historians, or readers of history, cannot assume that our inheritance of the past is identical to the past as it unfolded in its time. There is danger in drawing too fine a parallel.

Wilkerson knows this well enough when she ventures across the Atlantic for firsthand research into Indian caste and German Nazism, the other two castes she considers as formidable as America’s own. This is another benefit of caste language — historical comparison, getting America and Germany and the Indian subcontinent on the same page, which she stresses is a unique feat of her book. Though historical and cultural asides about how caste exists or existed in these places are numerous, anecdotes are selected by glint of their similarity to U.S. formulations of caste. If you thought the Nazis were awful, well, they learned it from Jim Crow, and even softened some aspects of U.S. caste deemed too severe for a German populace.

If caste is us, the book asks, how does one “dig up the taproots of hierarchy” without killing the tree, or torching the house, or whatever image one prefers. It would seem that it can’t be done, an answer fine by me. If caste is “who we are” — inside of us, deep, to the bone, in the nerves, at the heart of our matter — it leads to reason that the only answer to a problem of caste is self-immolation. But the book does not end on such a note, or anything like it. Instead, it finds comfort in sentimentality, faith that the answer lies in the heart — “the Last Frontier,” according to the final full chapter. I can’t blame Wilkerson, it’s a nice place to be, a place where we can believe people in power are one sincere interaction away from radical empathy. A place where the phrase “newly minted anti-racist, anti-casteist, upper-caste woman,” given to a family friend after she tells off a waiter who neglects their interracial table in favor of white patrons, rolls off the tongue without irony. The language is slightly different, but we’ve been here before, have we not?

Caste: A New Word for Injustice, Not a New Way of Thinking