Isabel Wilkerson’s World-Historical Theory of Race and Caste

In Wilkerson’s view, racism is only the visible manifestation of something deeper, a hidden system of social domination.Illustration by Anthony Russo

As the summer of 1958 was coming to an end, Martin Luther King, Jr., was newly famous and exhausted. All of twenty-nine years old, he had been travelling across the country for weeks promoting his first book, “Stride Toward Freedom,” a memoir of the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott—a protest that, at three hundred and eighty-two days, was the most sustained mass action in American history. It had led both to a Supreme Court decision that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional and to retaliatory bombings of Black churches. The book tour was meant to mobilize support for the movement’s next phase, but days after his first event he’d been kicked, choked, and arrested by the Montgomery police. And now, in Harlem on September 20th, he was being denounced as an Uncle Tom for not appearing at a Black-owned bookstore whose politics conflicted with the mainstream image he was trying to project. So he sat at a table with a pile of books at the white-owned Blumstein’s department store on West 125th Street. It was a store that didn’t even sell books—a store whose management refused to hire Black clerks until a boycott forced the issue. The staff had put his signing table at the back, by the shoes.

“Is this Martin Luther King?” a woman in sequinned cat-eye glasses asked when she got to the table. He said yes, and she plunged a steel letter opener deep into his chest.

Later, King viewed his months of recovery as a period of productive recalibration. It became clear to him how much stamina he would need to withstand the battles and backlashes ahead. He marked the end of his convalescence by going to India, the birthplace of a man whose self-discipline he had admired since he was in theology school: the late Mohandas Gandhi, the leader of the mass movement that secured India’s independence from the British, in 1947. King had most recently enacted Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence by publicly forgiving his would-be assassin, a woman who struggled with mental illness.

King liked to say afterward that he’d gone to India as a pilgrim. Arriving home, though, spiritual lessons weren’t what he wanted to share. He was more animated by the concrete political steps that leaders had taken to redress the wrongs of India’s age-old caste system. Gandhi fought for the right of “untouchables”—known today as Dalits—to gain entry to Hindu temples that had long barred them as “impure.” “To equal that, President Eisenhower would take a Negro child by the hand and lead her into Central High School in Little Rock,” King wrote. The Indian Constitution of 1950 had officially abolished untouchability, declared caste discrimination a crime, and created affirmative-action quotas for Dalits and indigenous tribes—in part because a formidable Dalit thinker and leader, B. R. Ambedkar, had played a crucial role in writing it. “Today no leader in India would dare to make a public endorsement of untouchability,” King told reporters. “But in America, every day some leader endorses racial segregation.”

In “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” (Random House), Isabel Wilkerson contends that the brutal Indian system of hierarchy illuminates more about American racial divides than the idea of race alone can, and early in her book she relays a story that King told about his India trip. He was visiting a school for Dalit children when the principal introduced him as “a fellow untouchable.” The comparison made King flinch—but then its truth overwhelmed him. “In that moment, he realized that the Land of the Free had imposed a caste system not unlike the caste system of India and that he had lived under that system all of his life,” Wilkerson writes. “It was what lay beneath the forces he was fighting in America.”

This story is almost certainly apocryphal, borrowed from a sermon that one of King’s mentors gave more than two decades earlier. In later years, King took little interest in how the idea of caste might apply in his own country. But the anecdote at once lends a civil-rights hero’s weight to Wilkerson’s bold thesis and provides the model response to it: a lightning flash of insight about the mechanics of white supremacy. In her view, racism is only the visible manifestation of something deeper. Underlying and predating racism, and holding white supremacy in place, is a hidden system of social domination: a caste structure that uses neutral human differences, skin color among them, as the basis for ranking human value.

“Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred; it is not necessarily personal,” she writes. “It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.” The caste model moves white behavior away from subjective feelings (what motivates these people to do what they do) and into the objective realm of power dynamics (what they do, and to whom). The dynamic that concerns Wilkerson the most is how a dominant caste stops a low-ranking caste from gaining on it.

The most enduring caste system, India’s, turned a division of labor into a division of lineage. In the Laws of Manu and other ancient Hindu texts, caste was inscribed with rigid precision, slotting occupations into four varnas, or ranks—priest, ruler-warrior, merchant, laborer—and a fifth category, outcastes (another old name for today’s Dalits). Caste as a lived Indian reality, though, is crueller than any study of scriptural texts would indicate; it’s also more fluid. Each varna comprises innumerable subcastes, or jatis, and, over generations, some jatis have climbed up the ranks as others have slipped down. New occupational groups have been incorporated into the system as others have vanished. In the nineteenth century, the hierarchy, vicious enough by its own design, was entrenched by taxonomies imposed by the British Raj—categories used as instruments of colonial control. What fascinated King, during his sojourn in the subcontinent, was how the newly independent state intended to weaken the caste order by insuring entry for low-caste citizens into schools, universities, and government jobs. What fascinates Wilkerson, like many progressives before her, is the ossified model—heritable hierarchy in its purest form.

Writing with calm and penetrating authority, Wilkerson discusses three caste hierarchies in world history—those of India, America, and Nazi Germany—and excavates the shared principles “burrowed deep within the culture and subconsciousness” of each. She identifies several “pillars” of caste, including inherited rank, taboos related to notions of purity and pollution, the enforcement of hierarchies through terror and violence, and divine sanction of superiority. (The American equivalent to the Laws of Manu is, of course, the Old Testament.) In Wilkerson’s first book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” which documented the Great Migration of American Blacks in the twentieth century, she wrote about past lives with finer precision and texture than most professional historians have done. So she must have considered the risks involved in compressing into a single frame India’s roughly three-thousand-year-old caste structure, America’s four-hundred-year-old racial hierarchies, and the Third Reich’s twelve-year enforcement of Aryanism. Even on her home terrain, where she focusses on what she calls the “poles of the American caste system,” Blacks and whites, her analysis sometimes seems more ahistorical than transhistorical, as temporal specificities collapse into an eternal present. But this effect is consonant with the view of history she presents in her book—one involving more grim continuity than hopeful departures, more regression to the mean than moments of progress.

In the nineteen-thirties, Allison Davis, a pathbreaking African-American social anthropologist whom Wilkerson calls her spiritual father, risked his life to examine the interplay of caste and class in Natchez, Mississippi. The work that he and his collaborators ultimately produced, “Deep South” (1941), was the first systematic, empirical study of post-Reconstruction life in the region. Confirming the work of other social theorists of the time, they concluded that the structures that kept Blacks immiserated and imperilled were so entrenched that they constituted a caste system. When Gunnar Myrdal incorporated their research into his own classic report, “An American Dilemma” (1944), the idea of caste fully entered the twentieth-century American conversation about race.

Twenty years after Myrdal published his report, and five years after King travelled to India, the dream of seeing aggressive anti-discrimination legislation in America was realized: President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. Wilkerson emphasizes the recoil that followed this victory. No Democratic contender for President has won the majority of the white vote since. In her analysis, the arc of the political universe bends toward caste, as progressive legislative or electoral victories activate the threatened dominant group. Had observers better grasped white anxieties unleashed by the growth of America’s nonwhite population and the two-term Presidency of Barack Obama, Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 would have come as no surprise. In the voting booth, Wilkerson argues, whites across the board set aside considerations like gender affinity and such class concerns as access to health care in order to support a man who had signalled his commitment to the continued dominion of their caste.

Trump didn’t need to tweet out “You will not replace us.” Throughout American history, Wilkerson says, white-supremacist ideas deemed taboo have simply gone undercover. When, in the early years of the twentieth century, the Postmaster General banned the grotesque postcards that certain whites liked to send, featuring the corpses of the lynched (“This is the Barbecue we had last night”), the cards kept on circulating in envelopes. With Trump, a twenty-first-century version of these clandestine networks produced what Wilkerson sees as a “consolidation of rank among the historic ruling caste” following the disruption represented by a Black First Family.

The Obamas have been touted, in some circles, as proof of progress toward racial equality. The experience of élite Black Americans is central to Wilkerson’s account, but for the opposite reason. She sees in their attempts to transcend their assigned place in the hierarchy a natural caste experiment—and a failed one at that. Regardless of their wealth or refinement, the system tries to shove them back down. To illustrate this phenomenon, she ranges across disciplines from sociology to economics to medicine, interspersing her analysis with what she calls “scenes of caste,” among them wrenching personal ones.

One evening, violating caste’s pre-written script, she is flying first class. As she stands in the aisle and waits to disembark, the lone African-American passenger in the cabin, a white man retrieving his bag from an overhead compartment thrusts his full weight onto her body, while other travellers watch, their faces determinedly blank. “Over the course of American history, black men have died for doing far less to white women than what he did to me,” she writes. The men and women in the cabin would have suffered no material consequence for defending her, she notes, yet every one of them chose “caste solidarity over principle, tribe over empathy.”

One of those impassive witnesses, the lead flight attendant, is a Black man, and she imagines his own caste calculations. This low-caste man doesn’t know what power the upper-caste man might possess. To defend a low-caste woman, even if it is his professional responsibility to do so, could bring negative consequences. “In a caste system,” she concludes, “things work more smoothly when everyone stays in their place, and that is what he did.”

In Wilkerson’s book, one senses that each word choice has been carefully weighed, and her tone remains measured even when describing her own assault. But she conveys a particular frustration with those members of her caste, from the flight attendant to the Black police officers involved in the deaths of Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, who try to rise by rejecting their own. The caste system, she says, in an echo of Malcolm X, has always rewarded “snitches and sellouts.”

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