Isabel Wilkerson’s ‘Caste’ Is an ‘Instant American Classic’ About Our Abiding Sin
By Dwight Garner
Published July 31, 2020
Updated Aug. 3, 2020
BUY BOOK ▾
When you purchase an independently reviewed book through our site, we earn an affiliate commission.
A critic shouldn’t often deal in superlatives. He or she is here to explicate, to expand context and to make fine distinctions. But sometimes a reviewer will shout as if into a mountaintop megaphone. I recently came upon William Kennedy’s review of “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” which he called “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.” Kennedy wasn’t far off.
I had these thoughts while reading Isabel Wilkerson’s new book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” It’s an extraordinary document, one that strikes me as an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far. It made the back of my neck prickle from its first pages, and that feeling never went away.
I told more than one person, as I moved through my days this past week, that I was reading one of the most powerful nonfiction books I’d ever encountered.
Wilkerson’s book is about how brutal misperceptions about race have disfigured the American experiment. This is a topic that major historians and novelists have examined from many angles, with care, anger, deep feeling and sometimes simmering wit.
Wilkerson’s book is a work of synthesis. She borrows from all that has come before, and her book stands on many shoulders. “Caste” lands so firmly because the historian, the sociologist and the reporter are not at war with the essayist and the critic inside her. This book has the reverberating and patriotic slap of the best American prose writing.
[ This book is one of our most anticipated titles of August. See the full list. ]
This is a complicated book that does a simple thing. Wilkerson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting while at The New York Times and whose previous book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” won the National Book Critics Circle Award, avoids words like “white” and “race” and “racism” in favor of terms like “dominant caste,” “favored caste,” “upper caste” and “lower caste.”
Thanks for reading The Times.
Subscribe to The Times
Some will quibble with her conflation of race and caste. (Social class is a separate matter, which Wilkerson addresses only rarely.) She does not argue that the words are synonyms. She argues that 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.” The reader does not have to follow her all the way on this point to find her book a fascinating thought experiment. She persuasively pushes the two notions together while addressing the internal wounds that, in America, have failed to clot.
A caste system, she writes, 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 of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning.”
“As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance,” Wilkerson writes. She observes that caste “is about respect, authority and assumptions of competence — who is accorded these and who is not.”
Isabel Wilkerson, whose new book is “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.”
Isabel Wilkerson, whose new book is “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.”
Wilkerson’s usages neatly lift the mind out of old ruts. They enable her to make unsettling comparisons between India’s treatment of its untouchables, or Dalits, Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews and America’s treatment of African-Americans. Each country “relied on stigmatizing those deemed inferior to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement.”
Wilkerson does not shy from the brutality that has gone hand in hand with this kind of dehumanization. As if pulling from a deep reservoir, she always has a prime example at hand. It takes resolve and a strong stomach to stare at the particulars, rather than the generalities, of lives under slavery and Jim Crow and recent American experience. To feel the heat of the furnace of individual experience. It’s the kind of resolve Americans will require more of.
“Caste” gets off to an uncertain start. Its first pages summon, in dystopian-novel fashion, the results of the 2016 election alongside anthrax trapped in the permafrost being released into the atmosphere because of global warming. Wilkerson is making a point about old poisons returning to haunt us. But by pulling in global warming (a subject she never returns to in any real fashion) so early in her book, you wonder if “Caste” will be a mere grab bag of nightmare impressions.
Her consideration of the 2016 election, and American politics in general, is sobering. To anyone who imagined that the election of Barack Obama was a sign that America had begun to enter a post-racial era, she reminds us that the majority of whites did not vote for him.
She poses the question so many intellectuals and pundits on the left have posed, with increasing befuddlement: Why do the white working classes in America vote against their economic interests?
She runs further with the notion of white resentment than many commentators have been willing to, and the juices of her argument follow the course of her knife. What these pundits had not considered, Wilkerson writes, “was that the people voting this way were, in fact, voting their interests. Maintaining the caste system as it had always been was in their interest. And some were willing to accept short-term discomfort, forgo health insurance, risk contamination of the water and air, and even die to protect their long-term interest in the hierarchy as they had known it.”
In her novel “Americanah,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie suggested that “maybe it’s time to just scrap the word ‘racist.’ Find something new. Like Racial Disorder Syndrome. And we could have different categories for sufferers of this syndrome: mild, medium and acute.”
Wilkerson has written a closely argued book that largely avoids the word “racism,” yet stares it down with more humanity and rigor than nearly all but a few books in our literature.
“Caste” deepens our tragic sense of American history. It reads like watching the slow passing of a long and demented cortege. In its suggestion that we need something akin to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, her book points the way toward an alleviation of alienation. It’s a book that seeks to shatter a paralysis of will. It’s a book that changes the weather inside a reader.
While reading “Caste,” I thought often of a pair of sentences from Colson Whitehead’s novel “The Underground Railroad.” “The Declaration [of Independence] is like a map,” he wrote. “You trust that it’s right, but you only know by going out and testing it for yourself.”
Follow Dwight Garner on Twitter: @DwightGarner.
The Origins of Our Discontents
By Isabel Wilkerson
474 pages. Random House. $32.
A version of this article appears in print on Aug. 4, 2020, Section C, Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: American Hierarchy And How It Poisons. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
READ 75 COMMENTS
Oprah Winfrey sent a book on caste to 100 US CEOs but Indians still won’t talk about it
Isabel Wilkerson’s book ‘Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents’ is creating a storm everywhere but India. And it finally studies caste as a problem, not a system.
DILIP MANDAL 23 August, 2020 9:33 am IST
Oprah talks about Isabel Wilkerson's book | Instagram/oprah
Oprah talks about Isabel Wilkerson's book | Instagram/oprah
Text Size: A- A+
Oprah Winfrey’s book clubs are legendary. So, when Oprah sent out a new book to 100 American CEOs and 400 leaders soon after the transformative #BlackLivesMatters protest and called it the most important book club selection ever, the world had to pay attention. And when that book mentions ‘India’ 136 times, it becomes mandatory reading for us. And yet Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent by Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American author Isabel Wilkerson, a book that The New York Times calls an ‘Instant American Classic’ is not stirring up Indian public debate or hitting our bookshelves.
Wilkerson is not the first Western scholar to focus on India’s caste system. She is the latest entrant in the list of Célestin Bouglé, Max Weber, Louis Dumont, Émile Senart, McKim Marriott, Nicholas Dirk, Gail Omvedt, Rosalind O’Hanlon, Susan Bayly, Joan P. Mencher, the Rudolfs and many more. But what sets Wilkerson apart is that she brings her lived Black identity to the understanding of caste as a pathology.
The Washington Post headline says that the author “knows that effective discussions about race require new language”. In The New Yorker, Sunil Khilnani writes that the author illuminates and collapses a complex history of White supremacy in the US and the caste system in India. In The Guardian, Fatima Bhutto writes, “It is a painfully resonant book and could not have come at a more urgent time.”
It’s strange that other than Mumbai Mirror and Swarajya, no Indian media platform has reviewed or published excerpts from the book yet. Similarly, no TV channel (we are actually hoping for too much) has discussed it yet. Let’s hope that this epistemic gap will be fulfilled sooner or later. Especially because the word ‘caste’, which is an Indian construct, finds as many as 1,469 mentions in Wilkerson’s book, including in the title. Our very own Manu, the famous or infamous author of Manusmriti, has been mentioned six times in the book. The book also mentions Jyotirao Phule, B.R. Ambedkar, M.K. Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and so on. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent notes how Martin Luther King Jr. was introduced to the students of a Kerala school as ‘fellow untouchables’ from the US.
Also read: Cisco case shows big corporates, market forces can’t fix caste bias. Govts must intervene
Combining life and text
If it’s difficult to address caste in the US, it is even more so in Indian academic traditions. The study of caste in India often reduces the concept to a hermeneutic reading of ancient Sanskrit texts. If you do not know Sanskrit, you are not qualified enough to study caste and have to rely on translations of those texts considered ‘sacred’ by twice-born Hindus. So, almost all caste studies carry the burden of quoting from Purusha Sukta of Vedas, this or that smriti and some Puranas.
D.P. Mukerji argues that unless sociological training in India is grounded in Sanskrit, or any such language in which traditions have been embodied as symbols, social research in India will be a pale imitation of what others are doing.
Sociologist Gail Omvedt has started a new tradition of studying caste by looking at the text produced by non-Brahmin authors such as Chokhamela, Janabai, Kabir, Ravidas, Tukaram, the Kartabhajas, Phule, Iyothee Thass, Pandita Ramabai, Periyar, and Ambedkar.
Wilkerson carries this tradition forward and quotes extensively from the works of Ambedkar and contemporary authors such as Suraj Yengde, Anand Teltumbde, Gurram Srinivas, V.T. Rajshekhar, Chandra Bhan Prasad, Kalpana Kannabiran, Yashica Dutt and Mohan Dass Namishray. You will probably not find such a socially diverse bibliography in any book on caste written by Indian masters of sociology.
Wilkerson’s work is also important because she does not depend too much on textual readings, but goes on to study the problem herself and carries out ethnographical work in India. This intersection of text, lived experience and ethnographic study gives her a perspective that makes her work stand out.
Also read: Lights, camera, caste – An Ambedkar photo made it to Bollywood after 38 yrs of independence
Studying caste as pathology
Wilkerson’s book situates caste here and now — and studies its roots and symptoms.
Unlike many Western authors who have looked at caste as an exotic oriental thing, or those sociologists who have seen caste as an ideology (Dumont describes caste as a binary system of pure and profane, Bouglé sees caste as a system based on separation, hierarchy and interdependence whereas Dirk defines caste more as a modern colonial construct), Wilkerson sees caste as pathology, a problem of gigantic proportion that has impacted and is still impacting millions of people and making their life miserable. At the same time, caste places millions of others in a privileged position.
While seeing caste as a pathology, Wilkerson provides a definition of casteism: “Any action or structure that seeks to limit, hold back, or put someone in a defined ranking, seeks to keep someone in their place by elevating or denigrating that person on the basis of their perceived category, can be seen as casteism.”
If we juxtapose this definition with what Nehru said in The Discovery of India on caste, then we can understand the contrast. Nehru wrote: “In the constructive schemes that we may make, we have to pay attention to the human material we have to deal with, to the background of its thought and urges, and to the environment in which we have to function. To ignore all this and to fashion some idealistic scheme in the air, or merely to think in terms of imitating what others have done elsewhere, would be folly. It becomes desirable therefore to examine and understand the old Indian social structure which has so powerfully influenced our people.”
While Nehru and Gandhi also emphasised on not harping too much on the idea of equality, because it is an alien idealistic scheme, they stressed on examining and understanding the caste system. This is exactly what all the masters of Indian sociology — from G.S. Ghurye to M.N. Srinivas and Andre Beteille — have done it all these years. They have analysed and studied caste not as a problem, but as a system.
What caste needed all along was a perspective from below — because it doesn’t exist in sociological petri dishes, it’s all around us.
Also read: Black Lives Matter must fire up India’s anti-caste movement to fight its central villain
Perspective from below
Wilkerson has a vantage point on the problem of caste because of her unique location. She gives numerous examples from the past and present to illustrate how she and other Black Americans are being viewed and treated differently, sometimes knowingly and most times, unknowingly. She asserts: “It’s [caste’s] invisibility is what gives it power and longevity.” Unlike Dumont or Bouglé and many other Western authors, Wilkerson has a better handle on the topic because she has a standpoint (the idea of standpoint in sociology has its root in feminism) of the oppressed.
That defines her focus and stock of knowledge, which translates into a narrative that is unique and powerful. She writes: “Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you….For this reason, many people—including those we might see as good and kind people—could be casteist, meaning invested in keeping the hierarchy as it is or content to do nothing to change it, but not racist in the classical sense, not active and openly hateful of this or that group.” No Ghurye or Srinivas or D.P. Mukerji could have written these lines — not because they did not have the knowledge of the caste system, but because they do not have the standpoint of a Black or a Dalit woman.
The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has written books on media and sociology. Views are personal.