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 work of a caste system that has gone unnamed but prevails among us to our collective detriment. . . .” There are important ways in which the caste–race analogy is apt. But a theory that sees American racial oppression first and foremost as a caste system cannot account for crucial differences between social inequality in South Asia and the United States—differences with important implications for emancipatory political projects.
The conceptual core of Caste is the idea that all caste systems, including the American one, are constituted by the fixed, hierarchical, hereditary, and violently policed separation of groups of people. This isn’t simply a historical exercise; Wilkerson populates her book with stories of how ordinary people experience caste today. Several chapters are dedicated to quotidian moments when “subordinate caste” individuals are painfully put in their place. Throughout Caste, Wilkerson uses this term—“subordinate caste”—as a substitute for “African American,” “dominant caste” for “white,” and “middle caste” for “Asian or Latino.” Caste, in her view, denotes a rigidity that the more fluid concept of race cannot capture, and she wants to provoke readers to see the truth of American inequality with fresh eyes.
Wilkerson’s knowledge of the “intrusion of caste in everyday life”—particularly the events that ensue when subordinate-caste individuals push up against entrenched hierarchy—comes in part from firsthand experience. She writes of being trailed, without explanation, by Drug Enforcement Administration agents through the Detroit airport; of being physically and emotionally bullied by dominant-caste men in business-class airplane cabins; of facing insulting skepticism at the idea that she might be a reporter for the New York Times. In some of the more illuminating scenes in the book, Wilkerson applies her powers of observation to similar inter-caste encounters between South Asians. She recounts a moment at a conference when she was talking with a Dalit scholar. Out of nowhere, an upper-caste woman unknown to either Wilkerson or her new acquaintance broke into their conversation and “chided the Dalit scholar with an air of condescension and superiority and proceeded to instruct the Dalit scholar on the Dalit behavior that the Dalit scholar had researched and written about.” For Wilkerson, the moment is not just cringeworthy; it is evocative of her own experience as a black American.
The problem of caste, however, extends far beyond these daily “intrusions.” Unlike the term racism, which she thinks unhelpfully points to a hard-to-discern prejudice in the hearts of particular individuals, caste “does not allow us to ignore structure. Caste is structure.” Wilkerson provides many examples of political, economic, social, and cultural institutions that have caused, and continue to cause, disproportionate harm to black Americans. The cumulative effect is caste-like, in the sense that being born black in America, much like being born a Dalit in India, significantly affects one’s life chances for the worse and keeps one at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
Wilkerson, a skilled communicator of complex historical events, links the concept of caste to American slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the post–civil rights era. She writes persuasively of the deep perversions that made American chattel slavery “seem normal and righteous,” the carnival-like atmosphere of lynchings in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (and the dystopian media industry that grew up around them), and how New Deal reforms like the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Wagner Act “excluded the vast majority of black workers—farm laborers and domestics—at the urging of southern white politicians.” Wilkerson also points to the legacy of these histories in contemporary life. Citing the empirical work of the sociologist David R. Williams, she argues that, “In the life-and-death world of medicine, African-Americans and other marginalized people are granted fewer procedures and poorer-quality care than whites across every therapeutic intervention.” The COVID-19 pandemic has caused untold suffering among black Americans, but this inequality of access to life-saving treatment is nothing new.
There are, then, some ways in which Wilkerson’s claims about caste as a daily reality and underlying structure in the United States are convincing. She devotes much-needed attention to other important overlaps between South Asian caste and American racial inequality, including the historical ubiquity and intensity of physical violence against subordinate-caste peoples. But the concept of caste can only go so far. The histories, operations, and modes of resistance associated with caste in South Asia and race in the United States teach us that the differences between these social formations are just as important as their similarities.
“The Indian concept of rankings,” Wilkerson writes, “goes back millennia and is thousands of years older than the European concept of race. The rankings were originally known as varnas, the ancient term for the major categories in what Indians have in recent centuries called the caste system.” The idea that the “original caste system of India” can be traced back thousands of years has some truth to it. The purusha sukta hymn of the Rig Veda, to which the varna hierarchy is often scripturally tied, dates to roughly 1500–1000 BCE. But the implication that caste in India is a direct inheritance from antiquity contravenes some of the most important scholarly work published on the subject in the last couple decades.
In his 2001 book Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, Nicholas Dirks argues that “caste, as we know it today, is not in fact some unchanged survival of ancient India, not some single system that reflects a core civilizational value,” but is instead “the product of an historical encounter between India and Western colonial rule.” Although caste has always been a dynamic phenomenon, shaped and reshaped by political power in precolonial times, there is significant evidence that British colonialism had a significant role to play in, to use historical anthropologist Susan Bayly’s phrase, “the making of a more caste-conscious social order.” The colonial census formalized caste categories and groupings as never before, insisting, for example, that every jati (kinship group) had by necessity to permanently belong to a varna. What is more, the colonial census worked with an eye toward communal modes of governance, where the distribution of goods and rights was carried out with reference to defined, enclosed communities—particularly religious communities. When, in the nineteenth century, abolitionists in the United States began to write about caste and Hinduism, it was because they learned of this hierarchical system via the British missionary apparatus, a colonial institution in its own right that sought to discredit the “heathen” religious traditions of South Asia.
None of this is to suggest that British colonialism created caste, or to exonerate upper-caste Indians for systematic injustices perpetrated against Dalit-Bahujan peoples. The scholarship makes clear that South Asian educational, political, and economic elites often participated in and derived the most symbolic and material benefit from colonial rule. Rather, my point is to outline how caste is related to the modern world—an idea that is entirely missing from Wilkerson’s account. The effect of the omission is not merely a partial understanding of the caste system; it is the elision of important differences between anti-caste and anti-racist politics. We simply cannot account for the actions of a figure like Ambedkar without bearing in mind that he operated within a colonial context.
If modern caste oppression has a particularly important relationship with colonialism, then modern racial subjugation has a particularly important relationship with a related, though distinct, phenomenon: capitalism. Wilkerson briefly mentions the seminal twentieth-century figure to articulate this claim in the context of caste-race debates in America: Oliver Cromwell Cox. Curiously, though, she focuses on Cox’s rather limited views of Hindu caste—he clearly overstated the fatalism and passivity of lower-caste peoples in the subcontinent (in part because he relied exclusively on British colonial sources)—at the expense of his generative discussions of the relationship between racism and capitalism. “‘Race relations’ developed in modern times as our own exploitative system [“bourgeois society”] developed,” Cox wrote. “Moreover, race relations or problems are variants of modern political class problems—that is to say, the problems of exploitation of labor together with the exploitation of the other factors of production.” Wilkerson admirably reconstructs the history and horrors of chattel slavery and Jim Crow, but there is a profound limitation in doing so only in terms of caste. In Caste, Cox’s thesis that the enslavement and subordination of black people and the development of capitalism are intertwined receives no sustained engagement. This is a missed opportunity, both because Cox’s attention to the racism-capitalism nexus was taken up by a distinguished tradition in black social thought and because the imbrication of race and the economy formed the context in which anti-racist political action took place. If we cannot understand Ambedkar without taking the colonial state into account, then we cannot understand a figure like Martin Luther King Jr. without factoring in the exploitative thrust of capitalism.
Writers such as Du Bois, Eric Williams, C.L.R. James, and Cedric Robinson called attention to how the exploitation of black labor was foundational to the production of immense wealth in America and beyond. “Black labor became the foundation stone not only of the Southern social structure, but of Northern manufacture and commerce, of the English factory system, of European commerce, of buying and selling on a world-wide scale,” Du Bois wrote at the beginning of Black Reconstruction in America. Others have extended these insights to the period after the formal abolition of slavery. To take just one recent example, in Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor puts forward the notion of “predatory inclusion” to capture the relationship between low-income black Americans and the Federal Housing Administration in the 1970s, after the formal demise of redlining. Federal policy mandated that the “American dream” of homeownership become more inclusive, but this policy was tethered to a private real-estate sector rooted in both residential segregation and predatory lending practices. Cases like these, which suggest that unregulated American capitalism is particularly exploitative of black Americans, are absent from Wilkerson’s book.
When Wilkerson highlights a moment when she spontaneously told a black Transportation Security Administration agent that Ambedkar is “the Martin Luther King of India,” there is some political obfuscation at play. The guaranteed representation of Dalits in the legislative, executive, and bureaucratic branches of the state was absolutely central to Ambedkar’s political project. In the 1930s and 1940s, he offered theoretical arguments and practical proposals suggesting that state action, guided by Dalit representation, could both establish the image of Dalits as equal Indian citizens and refashion an oppressive caste society. Ambedkar’s innovations were shaped by a context in which an independent India could reimagine and repurpose colonial-era representative institutions in the service of Dalit emancipation.
King operated under very different circumstances. As early as Strive Toward Freedom (1958), his account of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King suggested that “the inseparable twin of racial injustice was economic injustice.” He recalled that, even as a boy, he “could never get out of [his] mind the economic insecurity of many of [his] playmates and the tragic poverty of those living around [him].” After the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, King moved even more firmly in the direction of this critique. He argued that the material means to live a dignified life needed to be universally available, whether through jobs or a basic income scheme; mobilized nonviolent direct action against businesses that refused to hire black Americans; and called for an alliance between civil rights and labor interests sufficiently powerful to compel an equitable distribution of income and wealth. In short, King’s ideas and strategies, particularly from 1965 to 1968, were shaped by his insight that legal civil rights victories were not enough. As philosopher Tommie Shelby has written, the King-led black freedom movement understood that it needed to “move beyond ending humiliation to ending poverty, prohibiting labor exploitation, and creating greater economic fairness.”
Ambedkar did not ignore the harms of capitalism and Dalit poverty, and King did not fail to recognize the potential of radically reworking democratic institutions. But while they were both combating systems of oppression, Ambedkar and King were engaged in distinct forms of emancipatory politics. We cannot fully account for why they chose the ideas and paths they did if we treat caste in India and race in America as more similar than the historical evidence indicates that they are.
Adopting caste as a transnational historical category generates some important insights, but pressing it too far risks confusing different political circumstances. When we conceptualize and resist racial subjugation first and foremost because it is a caste system, we risk losing vital, context-born insights that might aid and energize our political endeavors.
Hari Ramesh is College Fellow in Social Studies at Harvard University.