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Is America Trapped in a Caste System?

Isabel Wilkerson compares American racism to structures of oppression in India and Nazi Germany.

Three-quarters of the way into Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson describes the humiliation suffered by Black passengers on a steamship in the American South before the Civil War. All women, and all free during slavery’s reign, they confounded the captain, who had to decide how to integrate them into the dining protocols aboard. The ship, a floating microcosm of antebellum society, followed social codes determined by the era’s prevailing hierarchies of class as well as race. The white passengers ate first, followed by the white crew, followed by the Black crew, whether enslaved or free. The Black passengers ate after everyone else, in the kitchen pantry rather than the dining room, standing up at the butler’s table rather than seated. Punished for not conforming to expectations that they be subordinate, they were treated worse than the Black laborers aboard, in bondage or not, who were of lower status.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
by Isabel Wilkerson
Random House, 496 pp., $32.00

This snippet of history is drawn from a study of Southern etiquette as a tool of white supremacist control, written in 1937 by Bertram Wilbur Doyle, an African American sociologist at a historically Black college in Tennessee. The anecdote captures Wilkerson’s view that for African Americans, class matters less than race and racism, its endurance foreclosing the possibilities of any true ascent in status—a tension that she seeks to illuminate by seeing through the lens of caste and casteism.

A hierarchy born millennia ago in the Indian subcontinent, as old as the creation stories of Hinduism, caste delineates identities based in religion, occupation, and kinship. The word itself comes from the Portuguese casta, meaning “breed” or “race,” via South Asia’s modern encounter with European colonizers, who codified caste and, according to many historians of empire, ossified its ancient system of ranking in recent centuries. Attempting to show the workings of caste beyond these origins, Wilkerson’s provocative book compares the experience of African Americans with the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany and the subjugation of Dalits, the lowest caste in India, so low as to be considered outside the caste system. (The word “dalit” means “broken down” or “oppressed.”) She likens caste to an “underlying grammar,” to architecture, to a computer operating system, and to a playwright assigning us all fixed roles. Or, to use her simplest, most effective analogy, “caste is the bones, race the skin.”

In an evocative style, with a keen eye for metaphor, Wilkerson is popularizing an idea first put forward almost a century ago and reasserted every generation since by some scholars. The notion that race is a form of caste has always been met with resistance from varied quarters, including from African American critics who found the comparison too bleak to bear, because they conceived of caste as too rigid to be overthrown. The hope of caste analysis is in making visible the invisible structures of oppression; the anxiety is that those structures, once recognized, will appear immovable.

Wilkerson’s epic first book, The Warmth of Other Suns, plunged readers into individual lives, plotting the arc across decades of several characters caught up in the Great Migration north by African Americans, their settings and their struggles re-created in vivid, almost omniscient detail through hundreds of hours of interviews and primary-source research and reporting. Caste is a different kind of book—not narrative, but an argument resting on anecdote and analogy, an extended essay in which Wilkerson mines a mighty bibliography of secondary sources, synthesizing research in history, sociology, medicine, psychology, and anthropology as well as a vast array of reporting by others, and supplementing it with impressionistic material from her own life.

The story she tells foregrounds upwardly mobile figures, whose abraded psyches and encumbered potential indicate the unseen boundaries of a caste society. She calls these men and women “shock troops at the front lines of hierarchy.” Like Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize–winning former national correspondent for The New York Times, they are “people who appear in places or positions where they are not expected,” people who “can become foot soldiers in an ongoing quest for respect and legitimacy in a fight they had hoped was long over.” The story of the steamboat passengers launches a chapter that catalogs indignities meted out in the present, to Wilkerson and others who are mobile in more than one sense. They’re each literally in motion, on trains and planes, and each is stopped by a hostile encounter: members of a Black women’s book club insulted on a Napa Valley wine tour in 2015; Wilkerson herself subjected to a flight attendant’s disbelief that she was flying first class; a Black baby slapped in 2013 by a white passenger, a stranger irritated by the infant’s cries with a change in altitude.

For Wilkerson, such incidents suggest that race is a form of caste because they’re anchored in attitudes that Black people are less worthy and can therefore be mistreated with impunity. She identifies a stubborn belief in the inherent inferiority of those at the bottom (and, conversely, the inherent superiority of those at the top) as one pillar of any caste system. In all, she enumerates eight pillars of caste and links them to the way that race has been lived in the United States. Caste is etched in Scripture and therefore justified as divinely ordained. It is inherited. Terror is used to enforce it. Endogamy, or restricting marriage within the group, preserves it. An obsession with the polluting touch of the other characterizes caste consciousness, leading to elaborate and often absurd regulations to maintain purity. Occupational hierarchy also marks caste, and it operates through the dehumanization of those deemed lowest.

The concept of race, used to rationalize slavery and segregation, has outlived its exploitative purposes in the United States. It’s vestigial, like an appendix ever on the verge of rupturing. Our hard-wrested understanding that, biologically, race is a fiction calls for another analytical frame. Viewing race as a form of caste provides a way for Wilkerson to explain how and why race still traumatizes American society. The comparison comes perhaps from the need to reckon with persistent injustice.

Wilkerson connects the United States, the world’s most powerful democracy, with India, the world’s largest, through the stratifications that have given the lie to real democracy in both countries. Dalits were forbidden from learning to read and write, as enslaved Africans were. Both groups were denied a chance at education and the opportunity it represents. Custom, meant to reinforce degraded status, required both Dalits and African Americans to enter by back doors and to wear coarse, unattractive clothing. Attempts to remedy past handicaps, through affirmative action here and a system of “reservations” there, have provoked similar backlashes, ringing with cries of reverse discrimination. In sundown towns that made the presence of African Americans illegal after dark, Wilkerson sees the reflection of Indian villages still restricted to upper-caste people.

Hindu temples continue to be taboo territory for Dalits, as Mormon churches were for African Americans, who were also restricted to back pews in many other Christian churches. The source of the unequal treatment in nearly every sphere was, as Wilkerson argues, traced to scripture in both oppressive systems. According to the origin story in the Hindu holy book The Laws of Manu, the creator god Brahma fashioned the five main castes from different parts of his body, the highest caste of priestly Brahmins from his head, Dalits from below his feet. Generations of slaveholders meanwhile explained their mastery by citing the biblical story of Ham, whose descendants were cursed to eternal bondage after he saw his father naked, and whose dark skin was emphasized in exegeses dating from the Middle Ages.

In the brutality of Nazi Germany, Wilkerson also finds shocking similarities with American racism. The techniques and tools of torture in concentration camps echoed those found on American plantations, where the attics of the pens that housed the enslaved were outfitted with whips of cowhide, iron clamps, rotating stakes, a pulley-equipped contraption called the picket, and other elaborate instruments of pain. Jewish prisoners were strapped to wooden boards to be publicly flogged, made to count their own lashes, and sadistically told that they had miscounted. At the same moment in history, both regimes—Jim Crow and the Third Reich—conducted hangings as spectacle. Wilkerson discerns the true purpose of these staged punishments: sowing terror, to keep those who defy their assigned roles in inferior places. Nazi Germany, the modern epitome of evil, and the United States, widely cast as world defender of democracy since its victory against that evil, are usually paired in antithesis. Revealing a relationship of resemblance instead, Wilkerson offers a breathtaking riposte to America’s image of itself as a moral beacon to the world.

In one particularly compelling chapter, Wilkerson shows that the Nazis in fact took American laws restricting immigration and banning intermarriage as their model for the infamous Blood Laws announced at Nuremberg in 1935. She details a meeting in Berlin a year earlier, during which 17 Nazi legal scholars and government officials debated how to classify who was a Jew—to better know whom to exterminate and whom to disenfranchise in multiple ways, including by making it illegal for them to have sex with and marry “Aryans.” One man at the table, who had studied law in Arkansas and would soon publish the influential book Race Law in the United States, informed the group that intermarriage was a crime punishable with a 10-year prison sentence in many U.S. jurisdictions. Another had come armed with a table of American segregationist laws. Still another, taken with how fractions of ancestry preoccupied American legislators, insisted on discounting anyone one-sixteenth Jewish as Aryan because he didn’t, in the words of a historian cited by Wilkerson, “wish to be less rigorous than the Americans.” One moderate expressed concern that the Americans had gone too far with their “one drop” rule.

In the end, the architects of the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor used the “association clauses” in anti-miscegenation laws in Texas and North Carolina to determine who would be classified as Jewish: anyone with three Jewish grandparents or anyone with two Jewish grandparents who also “associated” further with their Jewishness by practicing Judaism or marrying within that faith. The link is direct: Jim Crow jurisprudence contributed to the antisemitic project in Germany; Hitler took the legal mechanics of “caste” from America.

The comparisons that Wilkerson draws between the United States, India, and Nazi Germany target America’s sense of itself as special. The goal is to disillusion us about ourselves, and to build kinship. In a powerful declaration of affinity, Wilkerson comes to see herself as “an American untouchable,” as Dalits had baptized Martin Luther King Jr. during his visit to India in 1959. At the academic conferences on caste that she attends across the world, she registers the psychological conditioning that upper castes (like white Americans) receive in their own superiority and the subtle slights against Dalits (like those against Black Americans) that result.

Wilkerson arrives at the understanding of herself as a Black Dalit mainly through her reading of scholarship on caste and race. Her treatment of the Indian caste system lacks the density of harrowing examples that gives her rendering of injustices against African Americans such moral power. Wilkerson offers few detailed stories of Dalit oppression from India’s history or headlines, but instead broadly lays out the precepts of caste there as a backdrop to accentuate the American reality. Although the book circles again and again to devastating scenes of African American lynchings, for example, it doesn’t mention the ongoing lynchings of Dalits. The details, with victims plucked from jails to meet mob justice, echo the savage vigilantism directed against African Americans for more than a century. Nor does Wilkerson write about honor killings and other violence provoked by marriages across caste in India, where intermarriage rates are half what they are in the United States.

The Dalit resistance movement has long been inspired by African American liberation struggles, with the Dalit Panthers christening themselves in the 1970s in homage to Black Power. Wilkerson sketches the history of the affinity, one that stretches back to letters exchanged in 1946 between the prominent African American scholar and civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois and Bhimrao Ambedkar, the Dalit leader and intellectual who helped write India’s constitution. But Ambedkar is one of only two Dalits named in Caste (the other is an editor quoted in passing) and one of fewer than a handful whose individual lives are evoked.

Throughout the book, Wilkerson compresses people namelessly into a single indelible image. She uses this poetic technique to render a range of characters, from a Jewish woman in a fur coat thrown into a pigsty by the Nazis to a Black child who was only allowed to enter an Ohio swimming pool in 1951 in an inner tube to keep his body from touching the water and then only after the white swimmers got out. Einstein is the only Jewish person named. A young Dalit scholar and activist, encountered at an academic conference, is compacted to a telling detail: He wears sneakers that are too big for him, because his self-esteem has been so shattered by caste that he can’t muster the courage to ask for the right size. The scholar, who told me he recognized himself in the anonymous miniature portrait, is Suraj Yengde, a writer and a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, whose book Caste Matters (named in homage to his mentor Cornel West’s landmark Race Matters) was published to acclaim and wide coverage in India more than a year ago.

As Wilkerson points out, Dalits read Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, and they know the words to “We Shall Overcome.” They have been electrified by Black Lives Matter. But African Americans tend to hear less about the plight of Dalits, a fact that Yengde rued in a recent public dialogue, echoing a Dalit Panther leader. In this context, where a global spotlight illuminates one group’s persecution while the other’s recedes into obscurity, naming matters.

By neglecting individualized Dalit experience, by skipping stories about the violence against lower castes in India, Wilkerson misses an opportunity to achieve a more radical goal: to build popular and more reciprocal solidarities on a global level—between the resistance movements against anti-Blackness here and casteism there, for one. Ironically, her approach embodies one aspect of the American exceptionalism she challenges: It centers the United States, using the world outside our borders mostly as reference point, as foil to show Americans that we are not better.

A larger question is why Wilkerson is one of so few today to imagine American racism as a form of caste. A scholarly tradition linking oppression in the United States to the Indian concept of caste dates back to the 1930s, when it began to dominate social scientific thinking about race, attracting funding from corporate philanthropies and attaining influence. Bertram Wilbur Doyle belonged to that tradition, which emphasized the importance of custom, mores, and ritual over analyses of class in the attempt to grapple with the nature of American injustice.

Wilkerson drew on some of that scholarship for The Warmth of Other Suns, as she traced how race limited the mobility of her characters from the Jim Crow South even as they migrated north, and in Caste she devotes a fascinating chapter to a Black anthropologist couple, Allison Davis and his wife, Elizabeth, who went undercover for two years in a Mississippi town to study segregation. Its social codes forced them to meet their co-authors, a white couple, in a car parked on a backwoods road to discuss their findings, all the while under surveillance by the local sheriff. Wilkerson contends that in a deeper sense, too, the Davises were victims of the very system they documented in their ethnography Deep South, published in 1941—that their book, delayed and forgotten for generations, met with that fate partly because of criticism from other African American social scientists, who had internalized the psychology of caste, posing questions about their project that they wouldn’t have put to white academics.

Books by white authors became the canonical ones framing race as a form of caste. Predominant among them was the monumental two-volume An American Dilemma, published in 1944. Commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation, and written by the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, with help from Allison Davis and other American researchers, it famously declared: “The American Negro problem is a problem in the heart of the American.” With its emphasis on the heart—on emotion, on attitudes and folkways that are the trappings of caste—the book averted its gaze from the economic structures of oppression, in which the corporate philanthropy underwriting it was embedded.

An American Dilemma, and the work of the Davises and Doyle, faced criticism from African American thinkers who worried that they had not paid enough attention to the role of capitalism and empire in the invention of race. These critics included the novelist Ralph Ellison and the Trinidadian-born sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox. Writing at the outset of the Cold War, Cox drew on Marx and was penalized for doing so, but his insight into race as a systemic problem in the United States was ahead of its time by about two decades. His 1948 book, Caste, Class, and Race, challenged the prevalent thinking of the day, which saw racism as a problem of beliefs and psychology and tended to discount the role of class. Seen in retrospect as an important early theorist of racial capitalism, Cox believed that the origins of race as a concept as well as of racist laws, institutions, and behaviors were to be found in imperial capitalism, as a strategy of colonial planters to justify their exploitation of the enslaved.

Wilkerson does not locate Cox in this tradition. She sympathetically characterizes the Davises’ detractors as afraid to face the notion of caste because “if their status was seen as a fixed one, there might be no hope of rising above it.” Their thinking was that caste, as lived and understood in South Asia, was seen as sacred, determined by one’s actions in past lives, and was therefore fatalistically not resisted. Cox did maintain that, but he rejected caste as the frame for understanding race in America for a more fundamental reason: He believed that racism was instead rooted in colonialism and an extractive economic system. Wilkerson, who examines neither class nor empire closely in this book, dismisses him without mentioning that aspect of his argument.

Caste is not as static and uncontested as the critics of “the caste school of race relations” imagined. There’s a robust tradition of resistance against caste that includes Ambedkar and the Dalit Panthers, as Wilkerson emphasizes. Caste also bends in other ways that Wilkerson doesn’t convey. Many people in contemporary India don’t perform the traditional occupations expected of their caste. Historically, groups of people have moved from one part of India to another and reinvented themselves, maneuvering themselves up the rungs. And migration out of India has also challenged the way caste works.

Depending on the particular place and context, it can be more fluid than Wilkerson herself often portrays it to be in Caste. “In India, it is said that you can try to leave caste, but caste never leaves you,” she writes. For Dalits who “manage to make it across the ocean, caste often migrates with them.” But movement across the globe has also given rise to people who are so intersectional as to complicate the categories, people who sit at the crossroads defying expectations, the kind of “shock troops” who are precisely Wilkerson’s subject. The mother of Vice President–elect Kamala Harris, for example, was a Brahmin woman who, after coming to America, married a Black man from Jamaica, breaking all rules about endogamy as a pillar of caste. Caste and race have been lived, renegotiated, and remixed side-by-side in the Caribbean, where Donald Harris is from and where Cox was from, for nearly two centuries.

In my own family, who all left Calcutta for the Caribbean four to five generations ago—with half a million indentured others who replaced enslaved Africans on sugar plantations, in what historians have described as “a new system of slavery”— there is contradiction, recombination, and self-invention. If the emigration passes given to my ancestors by the British are to be believed, I’m descended from cowherders and servants, members of the laboring castes one rung above Dalits, now classified in India as “other backward castes”; several Kshatriya “warriors”; and a sole Brahmin, a woman. If endogamy is how caste gets reproduced, their exit from India and new lives in the West Indies signaled a functional annihilation of caste. In their journeys, they were crowded for three months in the cargo holds of ships that brought them to plantations. There they lived in communal barracks, where they couldn’t maintain rules about purity and pollution. Crossing the seas was, by itself, supposed to make a person outcaste according to Hindu orthodoxy.

To complicate matters even further, many Indians shipped as “coolies” to the Caribbean followed a heterodox branch of Hinduism influenced by a sixteenth-century saint who believed that ethical behavior rather than bloodlines determined caste, that it wasn’t inherited but earned. Most Caribbean Indians don’t even know what castes their ancestors belonged to—but the sway of that saint may explain why so many of those who claim to know have anointed themselves Brahmins. Our sense of self is so uncertain, our history so particular, that when Equality Labs, an American Dalit advocacy group, produced a report in 2018 documenting the persistence of caste discrimination among South Asian immigrants in the United States, it threw out survey data from descendants of indenture.

At the same time, the report found that a disturbing percentage of Dalits in the United States have experienced verbal or physical violence and ostracism by fellow immigrants from India in schools, workplaces, and places of worship. In a high-profile case currently in the U.S. court system, a Dalit engineer has sued Cisco Systems for employment discrimination by his boss, an upper-caste Indian immigrant. The vast majority of the Indian immigrants in the United States (about 90 percent, according to a recent report) are upper caste, but that has not always been the case. Equality Labs asserts that many of the earliest immigrants from India were Dalits, because they were not troubled by the Hindu tenet that crossing the seas robs one of caste.

South Asian immigrants in the United States have long occupied a fertile territory where caste and race crash into each other, the collision sparking multiple possible trajectories of identity. There is a rich history of them throwing in their lot with Black communities while also trying to distance themselves from them. Wilkerson tells the well-known story of a World War I veteran who, at a time when only whites and Blacks could be naturalized as U.S. citizens, was rebuffed in his argument before the Supreme Court that Indians, as descendants of Aryans, were white. Missing from her analysis, however, are the untold stories of South Asian migrants, as far back as a century ago, who agitated for change alongside and married Black people.

In her final anonymous set piece, Wilkerson describes meeting a Brahmin in India who arrives at an awakening about the injustice of caste and decides to shed the sacred thread bestowed on Brahmin boys during their rite of passage into adolescence. The image reminded me of a detail I found in the few existing memoirs by indentured Indians and in British colonial archives: Brahmin men bound for colonies where they would become plantation workers let their threads slip into the river, relinquishing their caste identities. I can’t know if theirs was a moment of awakening. It may have been much more a moment of reckoning with the system of imperial capitalism they were about to enter as bonded laborers. I offer this personal history to suggest how caste might be dismantled. In our case, it took a system—a system as total as the plantation, a penal, exploitative, racialized system of indenture erected and administered by British colonialism.

How we escape our chains, whether of caste or race, depends on how we understand their origins and their relationship to each other. For Cox and others who saw racism as a systemic problem created by capitalism, that system needed exploding. Cornel West, who fuses an analysis of class and empire with his Christian faith in free will and the human spirit, calls for dismantling three systems: the police, Wall Street, the Pentagon. By contrast, those who saw race as a form of caste have emphasized the need to change attitudes and beliefs that have been so subconsciously planted as to make us almost automatons of prejudice. As Wilkerson so movingly conveys, the irony of systemic oppression is that it robs both the subordinate and the dominant of their individualities, implicated in structures larger than themselves.

Although Wilkerson uses the vocabulary of a systemic problem, the solutions she suggests are not systemic. In her final section, Wilkerson instead offers stories of individual awakenings to empathy as the way to try to transcend caste, to struggle against its intransigence. She recounts the story of a contractor wearing a MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN cap who entered her basement to check on a leak. At first, he was chilly and monosyllabic, but softened when she spoke to him of her mother’s recent passing. He had lost his mother, too. This moment of seeing themselves in each other, as grieving children, gives her hope. The example of Einstein, who joined anti-lynching campaigns when he immigrated to America in the 1930s, does too. “Each time a person reaches across caste and makes a connection, it helps break the back of caste,” Wilkerson writes.

For any who still entertain the notion of the United States as special, an ideal more than a nation state, and a place of equal opportunity, this book illuminates who we truly are by connecting us to a concept that many Americans view as foreign, feudal, backward. African Americans have not needed such a trope to understand the peril in which Black life exists. In Caste, Wilkerson disabuses the “innocent” with many searing examples. One that starkly captures the pain in “the heart of the American” involves a Black, 16-year-old Ohio girl who won her school district’s essay contest in 1944. Asked what to do with Hitler after the war, she replied succinctly: “Put him in a black skin and let him live the rest of his life in America.”