In 1959 the civil rights leader Martin Luther King visited India, at the invitation of prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. During his time on the subcontinent, King would come face to face with one of the most iniquitous aspects of Indian society. In Kerala, he was invited to address a school for Dalits, the lowest caste within India’s complex system of social stratification. Even today, Dalits remain confined to occupations considered impure, such as leather tanning, and are ostracised as “untouchables” by the higher castes. The principal of the Dalit school, King later recalled in a sermon, introduced him as “a fellow untouchable from the United States of America”.
The anecdote neatly sets up the premise of Isabel Wilkerson’s important book Caste: The Lies That Divide Us, even if it is, according to the historian Sunil Khilnani, “almost certainly apocryphal”. American racism, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Wilkerson argues persuasively and often very movingly, is best understood as a caste system comparable to those of India or Nazi Germany. Caste is a “social hierarchy determined at birth”, a fixed assigning of social rank that sticks with an individual even after death (segregated cemeteries were the norm in the American South until the civil rights era). “Caste is the bones, race the skin,” Wilkerson writes, her prose generally eschewing terms such as “white” and “black” in favour of less familiar turns of phrase, such as “upper” and “lower” caste. Ultimately, caste is premised on the “inborn superiority of the dominant caste and the inherent inferiority of the subordinate”.
Wilkerson eloquently unpacks the concept of caste as a series of rigidly enforced, inescapable laws. These laws are ordained by God: British and American slavers justified their monstrous enterprise by referring to the Biblical curse of Ham, which purportedly damned the dark-skinned descendants of Noah’s son. They ban marriage between castes: this would undermine the unyielding boundaries between them. Imaginary hygienic norms impose a firewall between upper and lower castes, particularly around water. “Whatever you do, don’t touch the water,” the lone African-American member of a victorious Little League baseball team is ordered, as he is dragged around a whites-only pool on a raft, the “compromise” reached after his white teammates spent an hour splashing around to celebrate their win as the child watched from the fence.
Though Caste is billed as a study of three countries, Wilkerson is writing first and foremost about the US. Her thesis has, not surprisingly, proven controversial on the American right. Yet her comprehensive research reveals that there is nothing new about viewing American racism through the prism of caste. She cites a 19th century Virginia slaveholder as remarking that poor whites had “little but their complexion to console them for being born into a higher caste”. American caste reinvents itself, evolving to fit the time and place but never disappearing. Created to justify enslavement, “a living death passed down for twelve generations”, it mutated into the upper caste solidarity that made Lyndon B Johnson the last Democrat to win the presidency with a majority of the white vote. In the days before the 2020 election, during which white resentment once again emerged as a central issue in American politics, Wilkerson’s analysis has never been timelier.
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She eloquently dismantles the concept of race. The US took Welshmen, Croatians and Ukrainians and made them all “white” upon arrival in the New World, while Igbo, Akan and Mandinka people were kidnapped and shipped to the US as chattels, where they had the totalising label of “black” imposed upon them. “There are no black people in Africa,” Wilkerson is told by a Nigerian-born playwright in London.
As powerfully argued as her view of the US is, comparisons to the caste systems of India and Nazi Germany are laboured, collapsing diverging experiences into the same frame of analysis. Sparse references to the treatment of Jews by Nazi Germany feel a touch myopic (the Nazis sought to exterminate the Jews, not to turn them into a permanent underclass of menial workers, per Wilkerson’s fifth pillar of caste). Indian writers such as Arjun Appadurai have similarly accused Wilkerson of misunderstanding the specificities of the caste system in India.
Wilkerson’s is not a new argument. She draws on a wide range of sociological literature, in particular Allison Davis’s pioneering 1941 study Deep South. Yet in the mettle of its polemical and fiery prose, Caste is clearly aimed at presenting a framework for understanding the US that hitherto had been confined to academia to a mass audience: Wilkerson mixes variously cogent allegories about houses, viruses and Russian permafrost with references to The Matrix and a number of heartbreaking personal anecdotes about her own experiences of the caste system. Accordingly, Caste is best understood not as a book about Nazi Germany or India, as it is billed, but about the US, and one that uses imperfect analogies to present a familiar story in an unfamiliar and eye-opening way.
Caste: The Lies That Divide Us
Allen Lane, £20, 496pp
This article appears in the 04 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, American chaos