What Caste Leaves Out

What Caste Leaves Out

Isabel Wilkerson’s account of racial oppression elides crucial differences between social inequality in South Asia and the United States—differences with real implications for emancipatory political projects.

B.R. Ambedkar in 1950 (Wikipedia Commons)

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
by Isabel Wilkerson
Random House, 2020, 496 pp.

In a letter written to W.E.B. Du Bois in 1946, B.R. Ambedkar, the Dalit scholar, activist, and statesman, expressed a keen interest in the plight of black Americans. “I have been a student of the Negro problem and have read your writings throughout,” he wrote. “There is so much similarity between the position of the Untouchables in India and of the position of the Negroes in America that the study of the latter is not only natural but necessary.” This was not empty sentiment. At roughly the same time that he wrote to Du Bois, Ambedkar was in the process of outlining several constitutional provisions on behalf of his political party, the All-India Scheduled Castes Federation. That document, which contained language aimed at eliminating caste discrimination in India, owed much to its American sources: the Reconstruction-era Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875, which Ambedkar had studied closely and believed afforded the kinds of state protections that Dalits were owed.

In the mid-twentieth century, at the same moment that Ambedkar was formulating his most strident critiques of Hindu caste, a group of American social anthropologists reversed his lens with a research program that sought to understand racial injustice through the conceptual language of caste. Though short-lived, the “caste school of race relations” made significant strides in understanding the structural and day-to-day specificities of racial inequality. The school exerted significant influence on other scholars (like Gunnar Myrdal, whose An American Dilemma was a landmark in the sociological study of race in America) as well as political events (like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s arguments against school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education). The caste school, however, faced significant criticism from its contemporaries. Its most prominent opponent was Oliver Cromwell Cox, the Trinidad-born Marxist sociologist who bluntly stated in 1945 that a “comparison between certain features of Brahmanic-Indian and Western society will show that caste relations are not race relations.”

These debates around the histories of caste in South Asia and race in the United States have largely faded from view. In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, the journalist Isabel Wilkerson attempts to change this. She argues that Americans must “recalibrate how we see ourselves” by understanding U.S. racial inequality as a caste system, and opposing it on these terms. Drawing on relevant evidence from the historical caste systems of India and Nazi Germany (the former quite a bit more than the latter, which accordingly guides my focus here), Wilkerson aims to persuade her readers that “to truly understand America, we must open our eyes to the hidden ...