Review: Caste is “the bones,” race “the skin” in America’s body of discontents
By Robert Thomas
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson offers a deep, scholarly dive into the foundations of human hierarchical organization.
“A caste system,” she defines “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 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 their assigned places.”
Wilkerson holds that caste is the infrastructure of our divisions, the architecture of human hierarchy. It is about power and who rules the earthly resources at whose expense.
She delineates caste from class: caste trumps class, which is based on socio-economic foundations.
Caste also trumps race, which does the heavy lifting for the American caste system. “In America,” Wilkerson asserts, “race is the primary tool and the visible decoy, the front man, for caste.”
She further notes 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 has long been scientifically proven to be a manmade invention with no basis in science or biology.
Wilkerson’s astute analysis to connect caste dots focuses on three major caste systems: India, Nazi Germany, and the United States. This section of the book is aptly titled “The Arbitrary Construction of Human Divisions.”
Her account of a June 5, 1934 meeting of Nazi bureaucrats who gathered to debate the legal framework for an Aryan nation, to turn ideology into law, which would become the Nuremberg Laws, is revelatory and chilling. The first topic on their agenda was the United States and what they could learn from it. They debated how to institutionalize racism in the Third Reich. According to Yale legal historian James Q. Whitman, “they began by asking how the Americans did it.” They “knew the United States was centuries ahead of them with its anti-miscegenation statutes and race-based immigration bans,” Wilkerson writes.
As for India, “This description of caste history from the 2017 Indian book Ground Down By Growth could be said of the American caste system with only a few word changes, as noted by parentheses: “The colonial powers officially abolished slavery in India (1843) and in the United States (1865), but this simply led to its transformation into bondage through relations of debt, what has been called ‘debt peonage’ by scholars.”
At this point in the book, the author deconstructs “The Eight Pillars of Caste,” “The Tentacles of Caste,” and “The Consequences of Caste.”
Pillar Number Seven, “Terror as Enforcement, Cruelty as a Means of Control,” offers timely insight:
The only way to keep an entire group of sentient beings in an artificially fixed place, beneath all others and beneath their own talents, is with violence and terror, psychological and physical, to preempt resistance before it can be imagined. Evil asks little of the dominant caste other than to sit back and do nothing. All that it needs from bystanders is their silent complicity in the evil committed on their behalf, though a caste system will protect, and perhaps even reward, those who deign to join in the terror.
The Tentacle titled “Dominant Group Status Threat and the Precarity” offered this gem from the scholar W.E.B. Du Bois about the American caste system which “drove such a wedge between black and white workers that there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests, kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest.”
In “The Consequences of Caste” the book offers another timely reminder regarding caste’s inevitable narcissism, which she defines as “a complex condition of self-aggrandizing entitlement and disregard of others, growing out of a hollow insecurity.” This applies to both individuals and nations. According to social theorist Takamichi, “Group narcissism leads people to fascism. An extreme form of group narcissism means malignant narcissism, which gives rise to a fanatical fascist politics, an extreme racialism.”
“The right kind of leader,” Wilkerson writes, “can inspire a symbiotic connection that supplants logic. The susceptible group sees itself in the narcissistic leader, becomes one with the leader, sees his fortunes and his fate as their own.” She quotes the psychologist and social theorist Erich Fromm: “The greater the leader, the greater the follower…. The narcissism of the leader who is convinced of his greatness, and who has no doubts, is precisely what attracts the narcissism of those who submit to him.”
In the “Backlash” section of Caste, Wilkerson examines the post-Obama presidency in the context of caste and its weaponized pry-bar, race. I found the detail in this analysis one of the most fascinating aspects of a very enlightening book. According to political scientist Ashley Jardina, who specializes in the behavior of the white electorate, “the symbolism of Obama’s election was a profound loss to whites’ status.” For many, according to political scientist Andra Gillespie, “the ability of a black person to supplant the racial caste system, (was) “the manifestation of a nightmare which would need to be resisted.”
“The caste system sprang into action,” Wilkerson writes. She quotes Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the eve of the 2010 election: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
The resurgence of the dominating caste system with the election of President Trump exposes what the author calls “the degree of reliable consistency of caste as an enduring variable in American life and politics.”
In the book’s epilogue, Wilkerson concludes with her most hopeful, but starkest reminder:
To imagine an end to caste in America, we need only look at the history of Germany. It is living proof that if a caste system—the twelve-year reign of the Nazis—can be created, it can be dismantled. We make a serious error when we fail to see the overlap between our country and others, the common vulnerability in human programming, what the political theorist Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.”
EVM Reviewer and board member Robert R. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.