Isabel Wilkerson, a former journalist for the New York Times, won the Pulitzer Prize for her previous work, The Warmth of Other Sons: The Epic Story of America’s great Migration.
Caste is a brilliant, extraordinary piece of writing that will likely become a required reference for discussions about racism going forward. It took me many weeks to finish, partly because it is a lengthy, painfully detailed analysis of meticulously researched evidence, and partly because it impacted me such that I needed time to pause and reflect. It’s an academic treatise with 56 pages of notes at the end, yet it is one of the most powerfully emotional nonfiction books I’ve ever read.
Wilkerson defines “caste” as “an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places.” She then makes the case that, although caste systems are pervasive globally, the most consequential caste systems in history are the Indian caste system, the Nazi caste system, and the American caste system.
She begins with a discussion of “the arbitrary construction of human divisions,” pointing out that geneticists and anthropologists have long seen race as a man-made invention, a social concept, with no basis in science or biology. The human genome established that all human beings are 99.9 percent the same.
Wilkerson spent a great deal of time in India researching the caste system there, and she shares emotional personal stories as she, a black woman, identified with the “Untouchables” or “Dalits” there. Whereas the American system is a two-tiered hierarchy based on skin pigment, the Indian system is an elaborate “fretwork” based on region, village, and surname. Both systems cause perpetual oppression and dehumanization as those in the upper caste contrive methods to maintain their power.
Most of us are unaware that in the 1930s, the US was the source of racist theory that inspired Nazi atrocities. Early on, when they were looking for legal prototypes to legitimize eugenics and the goal of purifying the Aryan bloodline and subordinating and eliminating the inferior Jewish caste, the Nazis looked to US miscegenation statutes and methods of “racial hygiene.” Hitler admired the growing eugenics movement in the US that included Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, and Charles W. Eliot, the president of Harvard. We’ve read the horror stories of inhumane medical experiments conducted by the Nazis on their captives. Wilkerson goes into great detail describing how “in the United States, from slavery well into the twentieth century, doctors used African-Americans as a supply chain for experimentation, as subjects deprived of either consent or anesthesia.”
She references Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington (a book that I have read and recommended to others), describing one doctor puncturing a baby’s skull with cobbler’s tools to study seizures. That doctor, James Marion Sims, known as the father of American gynecology, also did gynecological surgeries on black women without anesthesia, because it wasn’t “painful enough to justify the trouble.”
Wilkerson goes on to describe what she calls the Eight Pillars of Caste:
- Divine Will and The Laws of Nature (Human caste positions are determined by a higher power, based on sacred texts interpreted by those in the upper caste.)
- Heritability (Some hereditary traits are more favorable than others, thus determining the fixed nature of caste.)
- Endogamy and the Control of Marriage and Mating (Lower castes are viewed as threats to the sanctity of pure upper caste bloodlines.)
- Purity Versus Pollution (Any transgressions of contaminating the purity of the upper caste are blamed on the lower caste.)
- Occupational Hierarchy: The Jatis the Mudsill (The lower caste must perform the most menial and demeaning tasks. “The mudsill is the bottom caste that everything else rests upon.”
- Dehumanization and Stigma (Lower castes are not seen as fully human or are punished for behaving as a human.)
- Terror as Enforcement, Cruelty as a Means of Control (Use of violence and terror, psychological and physical, to preempt resistance before it can be imagined.)
- Inherent Superiority versus Inherent Inferiority (The upper caste deserving of the best in a given society and the lower caste is deserving of their plight.)
Throughout each concept, Wilkerson weaves stories of famous people, ordinary people, and her own experience to effectively argue that the tentacles of caste are insidious, winding their way into every aspect of society. She explains the “zero-sum” thinking that illogically makes even those clinging to the bottom rung of an upper caste fight voraciously to maintain a position above the highest rung of the lower caste. She explains, through vivid retelling of several true and tragic stories, how “scapegoating” is seen as necessary to maintain the well-being of the upper caste, but ultimately leads to great detriment to those in all castes. She convincingly outlines the negative impact of caste on physical and mental health, infant mortality, and life expectancy.
Finally, Wilkerson does lead the reader to a positive place of imagining the possibility of a world without caste:
When an accident of birth aligns with what is most valued in a given caste system, whether being able-bodied, male, white, or other traits in which we had no say, it gives that lottery winner a moral duty to develop empathy for those who must endure the indignities they themselves have been spared. It calls for a radical kind of empathy… Radical empathy is not about you and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will. It is the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it.