Does America have a ‘caste’ system? Isabel Wilkerson explains.

Why We Wrote This

As Americans grapple with racism, author Isabel Wilkerson offers a different way of framing the issue. She sheds light on the underlying structure that fosters race and class divisions, so that it can be seen and dismantled. 

Joe Henson/Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Author Isabel Wilkerson appears with her book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.”

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Isabel Wilkerson brings her trenchant examination of American society into the national conversation about race. Her latest book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” which was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as her “most important book club selection ever,” argues that the United States is a caste-based society. 

“Caste is the underlying structure of hierarchy that exists in many cultures,” Ms. Wilkerson says. “The cue can change with whatever society we’re talking about. For some it might be religion, for others geography. In the United States, the overarching instantaneous signal of where a person belongs is what a person looks like in terms of what we call race. Caste is the bones, and race is the skin.”

She continues, “Caste is those things that we cannot see, that we have so absorbed that we don’t even question. I’m putting language to what we as people born to a hierarchy know in our bones. We’ve absorbed it for so long that we don’t think about it.”

The word racism does not appear in “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” says Isabel Wilkerson of her bestselling 2010 debut, an epic account of the 20th-century Great Migration of 6 million African Americans from the South to the North. “What they were experiencing was more comprehensive, more repressive, which is why I thought ‘caste’ was the more appropriate word.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist’s riveting second book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” builds on that insight to argue that racism alone does not explain America’s social divisions. Ms. Wilkerson makes the persuasive case that the United States instead ought to be understood as having a race-based caste system, one whose hierarchies, though artificial, are remarkably enduring. She recently spoke with the Monitor.

Q: Why haven’t we thought of the U.S. as having a caste system? Most people hearing “caste” probably think of India.

Once you look into it, you realize how appropriate it is for understanding how our society works. [The word was] primarily the preserve of academics but did not filter to the mainstream. Anthropologists and sociologists were using that term to [describe] what they were documenting when they studied how the Jim Crow laws and culture worked in the South.

Q: Can you say more about the relationship between caste and race?

Caste is the underlying structure of hierarchy that exists in many cultures. The cue can change with whatever society we’re talking about. For some it might be religion, for others geography. In the United States, the overarching instantaneous signal of where a person belongs is what a person looks like in terms of what we call race. Caste is the bones, and race is the skin.

Q: How does class fit in? 

Class is the education, the clothes, the accent: the changeable things we have some measure of control over. If you can act your way out of it, then it’s class. If you cannot, it’s caste. 

Caste is those things that we cannot see, that we have so absorbed that we don’t even question. I’m putting language to what we as people born to a hierarchy know in our bones. We’ve absorbed it for so long that we don’t think about it.

Q: You write about how the lowest members of the dominant caste are invested in the system. How does that dynamic play out?

When people feel under threat, that they have little to rely on other than whatever advantage might accrue based upon where they happen to be [in the hierarchy], then they will hold fast to that.

Q: How does the election of President Donald Trump look when seen through that framework?

The question is: Which interests are people voting for? People who are in the dominant caste but working class might resist policies to help working people, out of a sense that they might help those who have been deemed beneath them. Looking through the lens of caste, they actually are voting in their own interest if maintaining standing over time in a hierarchy is the priority.

Q: How do those you refer to as the middle castes, say, Latinos and Asians, navigate the caste system in America?

I would posit that Indigenous people would be considered literally outside of the caste system because they were violently forced off their land, essentially exiled from the framework that I’m speaking about. African Americans entered the system at the bottom as enslaved people. Then there’s the dominant group, which has been in position from the beginning but whose composition has changed over time depending on who fit the definition of who could be considered “white” in the United States. 

The middle castes are the people who fall in between. That’s also a changing group depending on how immigration is unfolding at any given time. Those in the middle have to navigate a preexisting order.

Q: You studied India’s caste system and that of Germany’s Third Reich. What stands out?

I found many parallels to our own country, even though of course all three countries are wildly different. There was this through-line of how hierarchy manifested itself in the impulses to rank, to enforce, to maintain the purity of the dominant group.

What brought me to Germany was really Charlottesville, a moment in our country in which the symbolism of the Confederacy and Nazism converged. How is it that the ralliers there connected these two disparate cultures? I was stunned to discover that German eugenicists were in dialogue with American eugenicists in the years leading up to the Third Reich. The books written by American eugenicists were big sellers in Germany. The Nazis actually sent researchers to the United States to study the Jim Crow laws, to study how the United States had subjugated African Americans, its subordinated class.

Q: Do you have hope that America’s caste system can be dismantled?

My goal was to put a light on it; there’s no hope of fixing it unless you can see it. None of us alive created it, but once you become aware, then what are we going to do to recognize how these man-made divisions have kept us apart? I have hope for people being openhearted enough to see how much we have in common.

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