Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents — Book Review

Review of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson (Random House, 2020)

“Anything that causes the negro to aspire above the plow handle, the cook pot, in a word the functions of a servant, will be the worst thing on earth for the negro. God Almighty designed him for a menial. He is fit for nothing else.” —Governor James K. Vardaman of Mississippi

I begin with this quote by Governor Vardaman in order to address a primary question I asked myself as I began reading Caste: why talk about “caste” or “caste-ism” instead of “race” or “racism”? How does using the word “caste” illuminate the problem? Isabel Wilkerson’s answer is that “caste” speaks more specifically and powerfully to the institutional, societal nature of racism. Looking back at Governor Vardaman’s quote — he served as governor from 1904 to 1908 and as senator from 1913 to 1919 — under the paradigm of “racism,” we might focus on Vardaman as an individually egregious racist. Under the paradigm of “caste-ism,” we will see Vardaman’s statement as a societal problem. In what kind of society can a governor make such statements and be applauded and upheld by the electorate? Only in a society where voters give systemic support to the opinions expressed by Vardaman; only in a society with a caste system firmly in place.

Wilkerson says that “Caste and race are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive. They can and do coexist in the same culture and serve to reinforce each other. Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin. Race is what we can see, the physical traits that have been given arbitrary meaning and become shorthand for who a person is. Caste is the powerful infrastructure that holds each group in its place” (19). She also notes that “Caste is fixed and rigid,” whereas “Race is fluid and superficial” (19) as, for instance, with periodic redefinitions of who qualifies as “white” in the United States.

Isabel Wilkerson is a distinguished writer, having won a Pulitzer Prize in journalism in 1994, and a National Book Critics Circle Award for The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010). Caste is not remarkable for new facts. As Wilkerson acknowledges, scholars have been comparing racism and caste-ism at least as far back as Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944). What Wilkerson so valuably contributes is an extensive knowledge of what previous scholars have said on the subject, a fine writer’s ability to use interesting comparisons and metaphors to get the reader to reframe thinking about race, the power of story to reach the reader logically and emotionally, and an ability to bring these findings to bear in a powerful way that speaks to our time. The book just came off the press in August and includes material about Covid-19 — in other words, everything up to the West Coast fires and the death of Justice Ginsburg and whatever crisis rocks the country next week.

According to Wilkerson, “Caste does not explain everything in American life, but no aspect of American life can be fully understood without considering caste and embedded hierarchy” (324). The core idea of this book is to view American caste-ism side by side with India’s caste system and the caste system in Nazi Germany, 1933-1945. From the comparisons, Wilkerson extracts a set of Eight Pillars of Caste, ideologies that pertain to all three systems:

1. Divine Will and the Laws of Nature

2. Heritability

3. Endogamy and the Control of Marriage and Mating

4. Purity versus Pollution

5. Occupational Hierarchy

6. Dehumanization and Stigma

7. Terror as Enforcement, Cruelty as a Means of Control

8. Inherent Superiority versus Inherent Inferiority

Each of these points has its own chapter — there are thirty-one shortish chapters in the book — with illustrative stories, examples, and illuminating analyses. There is also considerable discussion of how the pillars fit together and reinforce each other. I found it very helpful to think through racism as caste-ism, to break the problem down in this way.

As just one example, in the “Purity versus Pollution” chapter there is a section on the use of public swimming pools and beaches in America. “Well into the twentieth century,” writes Wilkerson, “African-Americans were banned from white beaches and lakes and pools, both north and south, lest they pollute them, just as Dalits were forbidden from the waters of the Brahmins, and Jews from Aryan waters in the Third Reich” (117). She tells about how, in the early 1950s, when Cincinnati agreed to let black swimmers into some of its public pools, “whites threw nails and broken glass into the water to keep them out” (117); how in 1919 a seventeen-year-old black swimmer in Lake Michigan was stoned and drowned for wading past the imaginary white line at a public beach (118); how a public pool in Pittsburgh solved the “problem” by keeping black people out until September, giving the maintenance crew the off season for “sufficient time to properly cleanse and disinfect [the pool] after the Negroes have used it” (119).

In a final story on the public waters issue, Wilkerson tells about how, in 1951, a Little League baseball team in Youngstown, Ohio, won the city championship, and decided to celebrate with a picnic at the municipal pool. The pool officials prohibited the team’s one Black player from getting in the water — or even inside the fence around the pool. Under protest of the team, the pool supervisor finally allowed the Black player to come inside the pool fence and be towed around the pool on a small raft, once, while being continually warned not to touch the water (120). This kid was better off than the one who got stoned and drowned, but how heartbreaking for a child to be shamed and ostracized in front of his teammates like this — a burden to bear for the rest of his life.

Ok, that happened in the 1950s, you may be saying. We don’t have segregated pools now. Well, that’s sort of true, but we still have incidents involving pools and race, such as the McKinney, Texas, pool party of 2015, in which a white officer slammed a fifteen-year-old Black girl in a swimsuit to the ground and waved his gun at teen Black boys in the group (236). You can read about it online and watch the video. And of course we have the more recent McKloskey couple in St. Louis, who brandished firearms at Black Lives Matter protestors this past June, and were then featured in a video during the Republican Convention, warning viewers that electing Joe Biden “would bring crime, lawlessness and low quality apartments into now thriving suburban neighborhoods,” an indirect way of saying “white people, protect yourself against a Black and brown invasion.” As Wilkerson says, “Caste, along with its faithful servant race, is an x-factor in most any American equation, and any answer one might ever come up with to address our current challenges is flawed without it” (72).

Wilkerson does an excellent job showing us how it’s not sufficient to say “I’m not racist, let’s just go forward in a colorblind fashion.” We are, she says, like the buyers of an old home. We are not responsible for the way the foundation was laid, but now, as the current occupants of the house, we are responsible for repairing it and making it safe to live in. Safe for all of us who are occupants.

So, what do we do to make it safe? And not just safe, but a place where the occupants can flourish? Here are two places to begin. Start with the premise that we are all equal and brothers and sisters in God’s sight. Access to safe neighborhoods, good schools, nutritious food, and reasonable health care should be available to all. It is not possible to instantly, or perhaps ever, create these basic conditions for everyone, but when we think about public policy, when we vote, when we act as a community, we should think about everyone as part of a collective, not “us” and “them,” and we should seek to provide everyone with these baseline ingredients for opportunity.

Second, we all need to learn more about the United States’ history of… I was going to say “race relations,” but a more accurate term for what I mean would be “white supremacy.” The more I learn, the more committed I am to actively promoting equal opportunity and equal access, and the more I recognize that without citizens actively pursuing these goals they will not be volunteered by most of those living with privilege.

Caste is a rich, well-researched and engagingly written meditation on one of the most important subjects of our time. I encourage you to read it.

 

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is available on Amazon in hardcoverKindle, and audiobook.

 

Scott Moncrieff is a Professor of English at Andrews University.

Book cover image courtesy of Random House.

 

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10771
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Sounds like a ‘needed’ read!

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Thank you Scott, for that review. Caste has been with us since the earliest days of biblical history recorders - thinking first of Moses’ writings which shaped the future of women (not necessarily PREscriptive, but DEscriptive). He recorded Bible descriptions of women and their marriageability, often depending on whether or not she has had sex - no mention of the level of men’s ‘standing’ in this regard. There were levels of women’s marriageability (“virtue”): first wives who had dowries, jewels, agreements, and their own tents; second tier wives who were perhaps damaged goods/or had previous marriages, with no dowry; concubines who were there for convenience or business contracts (they could sort of come and go); slave ‘wives’ who were there for sex and had no rights at all. Caste over the eons of time has shaped our thinking on many, many subjects of which we are often not even aware. It’s hard to fight all this backstory.

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There is more to caste than just bones, race and skin. Sex plays an important role in caste as evidenced in the Indian culture. In a psychoanalytic article about caste, it has been opined that the casteist caste live in constant insatiable urge to have sex only within their class which leads to complex issues of incest. Their women deal with constant tension because of the sexual obsession of their own men. The men fear that their daughters would have sex with those outside of their caste and for this reason, fathers kill their daughters and brothers kill their sisters should their women follow the desires of their heart. At the core is the same issue that Cain failed to master, a God-given gift gone wild and unmanageable. In Cain’s case the untamed sibling rivalry while in the caste system, the untamed sexual drive.

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I am grateful for Scott Moncrieff’s book reviews that continue to contribute to the conversation on race. We have much to ponder. Please stay tuned for a discussion on this book in early November, when Dr. Moncrieff has graciously agreed to join a Friday Forum discussion.

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I think the article may have ignored that there are gotra agreements that prohibit incest and are enforced by violence and murder just as much, but it’s not surprising to me, given that it’s a psychoanalitic article ;).

The above are more common than you’d think.

There’s a broader tendency for higher caste males to have sex with lower cast females simply for fun and dominance, much of which is rape or pressure-driven sex. In many cases, rape can be an oppressive tool, which both police and upper-caste women turn blind eye on, given that it’s done as a dominant expression of male sexuality and not in a scope of marital contract.

https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/india-news-heres-why-caste-matters-when-a-dalit-woman-is-raped/361253

It’s actually goes a bit further, since certain castes and communities perpetuate specialization roles. In certain castes there’s a generational lock into sex work and entertainment specialization, like in Nat and Bedia families. In Bedia, the preference for pregnancy is actually a girl, which their families set up to prostitution from a very early age.

So, there’s a lot more of sex between castes than you may think. The issue is always a marriage and children. Of course, you will also hardly every hear about lower caste males sleeping or raping upper caste females, because that spells out death.

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That doesn’t really translate into a caste. Caste is more of a socioeconomic specialization that may coinsides with some physical characteristics, rather than chunking up women by their dowry.

I think something I found interesting in Asian, African, and African-American communities to have “colourism”. Something perhaps @elmer_cupino would be aware of in filipino culture with morenos. There’s similar tendency in Middle-East, Africa, Asia and Far East.

What’s peculiar is that such tendencies predates European Colonialism, which no doubt capitalized on it. But, this tendency is likely due to the lower castes spending more time working in the sun than the masters. Hence higher castes had lighter skin that associated with status and caste. And that was further accented through various make up and skin bleaching that turned into an industry of its own… to this very day.

So, there are also a lot of misconceptions about caste system that get repackaged into racism, especially in this book.

Castes as a concept is a mix between lineage, cultural preferences, specialization within lineage and clans, and maintaining overarching societal order by perpetuating these cultural specializations through cultural and marital purity.

For example, Judaism traditionally has a hierarchical caste system. It’s not the same as in India, but it’s driven by simar concepts of lineage specialization that maintains cultural purity. So, if Kohen marries a divorced woman, for example or even a Jewish convert, the status of the Kohen is downgraded.

Adventism actually has similar restrictions on cultural purity when it comes to marriage between non-Adventists. It doesn’t follow strict caste and lineage specialization, but it’s an element of maintaining cultural purity which is similar.

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