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  • Writer's pictureTracie Guy-Decker

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent

When I finished reading Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste a few days ago, I considered writing a very brief response for this blog: This book is amazing. You should read it.

I stand by my initial impulse. Isabel Wilkerson’s work is beautiful and nuanced and insightful and important. Still, I find it useful for my own learning to write these responses to what I read, so here goes.

Wilkerson compellingly argues that America operates with a caste system akin to the Indian Hindu caste system or the caste system manufactured, implemented, and maintained by the Nazis during the reign of the Third Reich. This framework of caste helps fundamentally explain the distinction between race and racism and class, which is sometimes offered as “the real problem”: though a change in financial fortunes can change a person’s class, caste is inescapable.

Caste is fixed and rigid. Race is fluid and superficial, subject to periodic redefinitions to meet the needs of the dominant caste in what is now the United States. While the requirements to qualify as white have changed over the centuries, the fact of a dominant caste has remained constant from its inception—whoever fit the definition of white, at whatever point in history, was granted the legal rights and privileges of the dominant caste. Perhaps more critically and tragically, at the other end of the ladder, the subordinated caste, too, has been fixed from the beginning as the psychological floor beneath which all other castes cannot fall. (p. 19)

Wilkerson is not the first thinker to apply the framework of caste to American society, and in fact, she helpfully draws on and shares the stories of those who came before her. (Notably, Wilkerson devotes substantial pages to the work and struggles of Allison Davis, an anthropologist of the subordinate caste whose work documenting caste in the American South in the 1930s was overshadowed and discounted in his lifetime.) Though it may not be novel in anthropological circles, Wilkerson is the first thinker I have read who made this explicit claim, and it blew my mind.

By naming caste as a factor—the factor—at work in social hierarchy in America, so much begins to fall into place. White-skinned Jews’ pursuit of whiteness described by Eric Goldstein in the Price of Whiteness (see my response to that book) makes even more sense when seen as a proactive move on behalf of a middle-caste group to achieve higher caste status. The pattern of poor white voters seemingly inexplicably voting against their own self-interest (even to the point of shortening their own lives as documented by Dr. Jonathan Metzl in Dying of Whiteness, currently on my TBR shelf) becomes wholly explicable: “in the voting booth, many people … . align themselves not with those whose plight they may share, but with those whose power and privilege intersect with a trait of their own. People with overlapping self-interests will often gravitate toward the personal characteristic that accords them the most status. Many make an existential, aspirational choice. They vote up, rather than across, and usually not down.” (327-328)

When applied to the rise of Donald Trump, caste explains—and could have predicted—what so many pundits failed to see coming in 2016. After a subordinate caste man made it to the White House, the caste system reasserted its fundamental principle that the worst member of the dominant caste is still higher than the best member of the subordinate caste.

As a Jewish reader, I found the inclusion of Nazi Germany in Wilkerson’s comparative caste analysis deeply instructive. She uses these three distinct caste systems (India, America, Nazi Germany) to distill what she calls the “pillars of caste.” Interestingly, Wilkerson makes plain the similarities are not always coincidental. Nazi ideology and policy were explicitly modeled after American race laws, policies, and culture: “on that day in June 1934, as seventeen Reich bureaucrats and legal scholars began to deliberate what would become unprecedented legislation for Germany [the Nuremberg Laws], they were scrutinizing the United States, and they had done their homework.” (81) The Nazis studied not only American jurisprudence, but American culture, including white folks’ casual acceptance and even embrace of lynchings and other acts of terror perpetuated on members of the subordinate caste. Wilkerson, quoting historian Eugene DeFriest Betit, notes, “Hitler especially marveled at the American ‘knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death.’” (81)

As Wilkerson sketches the parallels I felt a sinking recognition. The Nazis “wondered how the United States had managed to turn its racial hierarchy into rigid law yet retain such a sterling reputation on the world stage. They noticed that in the United States, when it came to these racial prohibitions, ‘public opinion accepted them as natural.’” (83). That sense that the racial hierarchy is natural, is common sense, is still at play today. That truth is laid bare for me in Wilkerson’s contrast between modern-day Germany and the U.S. Quoting Susan Neiman, author of Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, Wilkerson answers the question Southern Americans, thinking about Confederate monuments sometimes ask about German memorials to its Nazi past: “There aren’t any. Germany has no monuments that celebrate the Nazi armed forces, however many grandfathers fought or fell for them.” (346) Wilkerson goes on to note, “In Germany, there is no death penalty. ‘We can’t be trusted to kill people after what happened in World War II,’ a German woman once told me. In America, the states that recorded the highest number of lynchings, among them the former Confederate States of America, all currently have the death penalty.” (346)

While I’m writing about the comparison between the treatment of the subordinate caste in America (those of African descent) and the subordinate caste in Nazi Germany (those of Jewish descent), it bears exploring that comparison in white Jewish American minds. I have often heard a form of Jewish exceptionalism around the Shoah in Jewish spaces. Statements like ‘you can’t compare the Holocaust to slavery,’ and even ‘nothing can be compared to the Shoah. Comparing what happened in WWII to other moments in history is antisemitic.’ I’ve heard versions of this Oppression Olympics from all sorts of white Jewish people: a young person who told me that dealing with antisemitism on campus is worse than dealing with racism, and an older person who told me that comparing the Shoah to slavery and its legacy is somehow disrespectful to those we lost. With the tool of caste analysis, this Oppression Olympics suddenly falls into understandable and predictable (if disheartening) patterns: “The dominant caste tends to resist comparison to lower-caste people, even the suggestion that they have anything in common or share basic human experiences, as this diminishes the dominant-caste person and forces the contemplation of equality with someone deemed lower.” (272) It is hard to face, but it seems clear to me that at some level, the resistance to the comparison comes from a subconscious desire to protect of white Jews’ status as members of the dominant caste.

Woven into this sociological and anthropological analysis are very personal stories from Wilkerson’s own life and from other subordinate-caste individuals from the American and the Indian caste systems and some dominant-caste folks who’ve made attempts to dismantle or resist the demands of caste. Like other forms of systemic oppression, caste manifests in multiple realms: internal, interpersonal, institutional, and systemic or cultural. Wilkerson’s text masterfully weaves together examples and analysis of all four, and that’s part of its brilliance. Wilkerson never let me forget that the patterns of caste she’s tracing have real, negative consequences in real people’s lives and have for centuries. Her analysis is so well-balanced with stories of internal and interpersonal manifestations of it, I felt as though I was truly internalizing her analysis as I absorbed chapter after chapter (rather than needing to turn concepts over in my mind to find how they fit as I sometimes do).

Wilkerson is a master of her craft, but also of the concepts she elucidates. The stories she relays have stayed with me, as have the concepts she unpacked from those stories and from history. It is rare and appreciated when a single book can offer such a comprehensive framework for understanding social phenomena I’ve been working to understand for years. I came away not only understanding the world better, but also myself, and I’m truly grateful for the opportunities that understanding will help me see and create.

In other words, this book is amazing, and you should read it.

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