This article in Himal Southasian journal by Michael and Varghese reviews Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Caste: the Origin of Our Discontent. The authors make a thorough critique of Wilkerson’s comparison of caste and race, and reveals its deficits. But in doing so they reveal exactly what she got right (in bold).
The global branding of caste
Isabel Wilkerson’s recent book fails to unpack caste, but hints at potential for new solidarities.
Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste is an ambitious text. It attempts to upgrade the categorical status of caste from its historic roots in a Southasian context to that of a universal framework for understanding social hierarchy and inequality worldwide. Wilkerson argues that caste constitutes the “underlying grammar” that shapes not just race, but gender, ethnicity, immigrant status, sexual orientation, age and religion. She outlines the architecture of this global caste system through eight pillars that draw sustenance from religious justification, inheritance through birth, restrictions on marriage, notions of purity or pollution, the preservation of occupational hierarchies, targeted dehumanisation, enforcement through terror and violence, and the stereotyping of biological superiority and inferiority. While the term “caste” has typically been used to describe social hierarchies on the Subcontinent, Wilkerson expands its use analogically to include the operation of race in the United States and Nazi Germany. The author argues that caste continues to stoke racial tensions in the US, where the election of the nation’s first Black President Barack Obama in 2008 was followed by White upper-caste backlash that ended with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Unfortunately, in making such a claim, Wilkerson abandons offering a nuanced treatment of caste in favour of focusing on racial inequality in the United States.
The history of caste in Southasia, certainly older than that of race around the world, and subject to thousands of years of commentary and practice, does not receive the treatment it deserves. There is little information on the various manifestations of caste in Southasia as it finds expression in histories of jati (an endogamous unit defined by occupation, ritual status, and access to resources and power), migration, religion, gender, politics, capital and class. While the enslaved formed a minority in North America, Dalits (who were then considered untouchable, positioned outside the caste system and confined to occupations such as tanning, scavenging, and handling the dead) and Shudras (occupying the ‘lowest’ tier of castes and serving as cultivators, barbers, and oil-pressers) together constituted the majority in India. This majority continues to experience marginalisation in terms of access to resources, rights and dignity. The ‘graded hierarchy’ of the caste system has been thrust among them too, with each caste claiming its superiority over the one below it in the fight for the ‘leftovers’. The reader is left uninformed about the role of land and labour in the creation of these social hierarchies, or the long-term trauma arising out of the intergenerational violence experienced at the hands of White and high caste supremacies. The reader is also left wondering about the diverse ways in which race and caste were institutionalised in law, society, politics and culture, and how Wilkerson’s argument about race and caste relate to the experiences of, for instance, Native Americans in the United States.
The flattening of caste
Ultimately, Wilkerson portrays caste mostly in terms of untouchability, experienced by Dalits, without actually addressing the internal hierarchies and entanglements within Dalits and Shudras that impede the formation of wider solidarities. Historically, these marginalised castes have been denied the right to acquire an education or to accumulate wealth. They continue to be poorly represented in higher education, the bureaucracy, and leadership in politics and business. The rich history of writing, activism, and everyday life that populate Dalit or caste studies is also largely ignored, barring a few references to B.R. Ambedkar. Anti-caste activism has a long history, involving individuals and communities in almost every sphere of social activity. Furthermore, caste continues to evolve in complex and unpredictable ways that don’t always intersect neatly with the histories of race. Painting Indians as Dalit and non-Dalit in the manner of Black and White in the US does a disservice to the majority of the victims of casteism. The struggles of millions of Dalits and Shudras over thousands of years fails to receive the attention it deserves – readers would have certainly benefited from learning about this rich history in the face of structural inequality and high-caste supremacy. Ultimately, in taking this approach, Wilkerson concedes rigour in description, comparison, and analysis, providing a rather flattened account of caste. However, her comparative treatment of ‘lower’ castes (African Americans, Jews and Dalits) raises thought-provoking questions about history, law, affirmative action, violence, trauma, overt and implicit bias, microaggressions, healing and hope. Perhaps, these will be addressed by others in future writings on the subject.