The election of Barack Obama in 2008 might have been heralded as a the final triumph of the Civil Rights Movement, and with some reason. Millions of Americans voted for a well-spoken African American man whose middle name was Hussein, which prompted speculation that the United States had finally put to rest the ghosts of history and begun a post-racial society.
But the ghosts of history are not so neatly exorcised. President Obama was repeated lynched in effigy while white critics — including a future president of the United States — openly questioned the legality of the election on the charge that he was not an American citizen. President Obama himself charted a moderate, technocratic approach to governance that won a second term, again with historic numbers of people voting for him, even as some white people who voted for him the first time began to grumble that that he was playing the race card. Discontent has only grown in the years since President Obama left office. Celebrations of diversity and conversations about appropriation have prompted bitter accusations of bias and deep-seated identity politics being weaponized against marginalized people.
For my part, I have spent the last few years working to educate myself, particularly by reading scholarship by African Americans, including Carol Anderson’s White Rage and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning. These books peel back the curtain on the painful history of race in America in ways that clearly demonstrate the historical roots of structural issues, often while providing a vocabulary to talk about race. However, they also tend to cover similar ground. What Isabel Wilkerson brings to the table in Caste, a beautiful book layered with history, reportage, and metaphor, is a big picture assessment of how structural racism works and why everyone ought to care.
The second chapter of Caste captures each of these elements. This chapter, “An Old House and an Infrared Light” begins with an extended metaphor of a housing inspector evaluating a bowing of a ceiling. “With an old house,” Wilkerson writes, “the work is never done, and you don’t expect it to be.” When the storm comes, your basement floods, but you can’t just ignore it because “whatever you are ignoring will never go away…ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction.” The United States is this house. Whether one was there when it was built does not matter. If you live here now, it is your responsibility to deal with it.
Unaddressed, the ruptures and diagonal cracks will not fix themselves. The toxins will not go away but, rather, will spread, leach, and mutate, as they already have. When people live in an old house, they come to adjust to the idiosyncrasies and outright dangers skulking in an old structure. They put up buckets under a wet ceiling, prop up groaning floors, learn to step over that rotting wood tread in the staircase. The awkward becomes acceptable, and the unacceptable becomes merely inconvenient. Live with it long enough, and the unthinkable becomes normal. Exposed over the generations we learn to believe that the incomprehensible is the way that life is supposed to be.
At this point one might be forgiven for asking what, exactly, caste is and what it has to do with the function of race in the United States. If you have heard of caste, you probably know it as an archaism of Indian society where certain Hindu texts established a four- or five-fold social hierarchy. Brahmin (priests and teachers) were the highest caste, Kshatrya (warriors and rulers) were the second, Vaishya (farmers, traders, merchants) the third, and Shudra (labourers) the lowest formal caste. Beneath these were the Dalit (untouchables), regarded as impure. The history of the caste system is somewhat more complex in that it developed in the modern sense through the canonization of certain Brahmin texts in 19th century British India that hardened the lines of social categories. Nevertheless, the caste system in India came to be accepted as an eternal truth about social hierarchy.
Wilkerson juxtaposes this social model against the systems of the United States and Nazi Germany. The fact that Nazi Germany looked to the Jim Crow south as a model for its legal restrictions is at this point well-documented, but Wilkerson’s inclusion of India allows her to go beyond those two explicitly racial ideologies and their legal restrictions. All three developed a caste system designed to eternally reshape the social hierarchies of their populations, and thus allow her to offer a concise definition of the phenomenon:
A caste system is 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 on 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.
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 is 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.
The problem in the US, Wilkerson suggests, is that while the worst of the Jim Crow legal restrictions are gone, the caste structures remain in place. Some problems come from out and out racism, but she also offers anecdotes where the way someone treated her changed once he stopped seeing her as a black woman and started seeing her as Isabel Wilkerson — that is, as a person. This, she says, is the problem of caste. It conditions people to assume that she (as a woman, as a black person) is someone who can and should be ignored, thereby priming the environment for micro-aggressions and causing constant stress that leads to negative health consequences, to say nothing of reproducing the caste system.
Oddly enough, the instinctive desire to reject the very idea of current discrimination on the basis of a chemical compound in the skin is an unconscious admission of the absurdity of race as a concept.
I found Caste to be entirely compelling. Wilkerson simultaneously avoids pointing fingers at any one person while pointing fingers at everyone: “A caste system persists in part because we, each and everyone one of us, allow it to exist” She acknowledges in her epilogue (“A World Without Caste”) that the United States is heading toward a caste-induced identity criss that is already leading to “anticipatory fear” about the changing demographics. I often think about these fears and the ways in which they have been stoked for monetary and political gain over the past few years. Wilkerson elegantly points out that a rejection of caste will set everyone free, but when she (correctly) argues out that the only way to destroy the caste system is for everyone to reject its authority, I worry that there are too many people invested in seeing the old house come down around them for no other reason than that they believe the house is theirs and theirs alone.
I have again reached a point of the semester where my reading of books has outstripped writing them. I still have hopes of writing about Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy in some form — I liked it, but also wanted to unpack a few things in the series about belief that I found interesting — and have firm plans to write about Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire and Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire, both of which are excellent. By contrast, I didn’t have nearly as much to say about Alexandros Papadiamantis’ The Murderess, a 19th century Greek novella that offers a grim commentary about the value of women…by following a bitter old woman who kills little girls. I also recently finished Boris Akunin’s The Coronation, a novel about his detective hero Fandorin who I was told was a Russian Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, but who just wasn’t, and Un-Su Kim’s The Plotters, a Korean mystery centered on an assassin-for-hire who who doesn’t always follow the plots. The Plotters had several clever ideas and scenes — receiving hospitality and words of wisdom from a target, commentary about business capitalism taking over the assassin business, and perpetually under-estimated women — but it never really came together for me enough to want to write about it.