Understanding the enduring power of caste

Isabel Wilkerson’s naming of the malady facilitates space for a shift in thinking.


America has been struggling to understand its racial dynamics since the arrival of enslaved Africans more than 400 years ago. Today, with much of the world more polarized than ever, and certainly in our United States, there is a need for something to shift us from our fear and survival paranoid schizoid (us-vs.-them) position to an integrated form if we are to come out of this unusual democratic and societal unrest whole.

In her new book, Isabel Wilkerson says Adolf Hitler "marveled at the American 'knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death.' " Courtesy Random House

In her new book, Isabel Wilkerson says Adolf Hitler "marveled at the American 'knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death.' "

Yet, we’ve never had the lexicon to adequately describe the sociopolitical dynamics rooted in race and racism and their power to shape the thinking of all who originate in this country and all who enter its self-made borders whether forcefully or voluntarily. Enter Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize–winning, former New York Times Chicago bureau chief, and author of “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” (New York: Random House, 2010) with her second book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” (New York: Random House, 2020).

Ms. Wilkerson quickly gets to work in an engaging storytelling style of weaving past to present with ideas she supports with letters from the past, historians’ impressions, research studies, and data. Her observations and research are bookended by the lead up to the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath on the one end, and the impending 2020 presidential election on the other. In her view, the reemergence of violence that has accelerated in the 21st century and the renewed commitment to promote white supremacy can be understood if we expand our view of race and racism to consider the enduring power of caste. For, in Ms. Wilkerson’s view, the fear of the 2042 U.S. census (which is predicted to reflect for the first time a non-White majority) is a driving force behind the dominant caste’s determination to maintain the status quo power dynamics in the United States.

Dr. Constance E. Dunlap, George Washington University, Washington

Dr. Constance E. Dunlap

In an effort to explain American’s racial hierarchy, Ms. Wilkerson explains the need for a new lexicon “that may sound like a foreign language,” but this is intentional on her part. She writes:

“To recalibrate how we see ourselves, I use language that may be more commonly associated with people in other cultures, to suggest a new way of understanding our hierarchy: Dominant caste, ruling majority, favored caste, or upper caste, instead of, or in addition to, white. Middle castes instead of, or in addition to, Asian or Latino. Subordinate caste, lowest caste, bottom caste, disfavored caste, historically stigmatized instead of African-American. Original, conquered, or indigenous peoples instead of, or in addition to, Native American. Marginalized people in addition to, or instead of, women of any race, or minorities of any kind.”

Early in the book Ms. Wilkerson anchors her argument in Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sojourn to India. Rather than focus on the known history of Dr. King’s admiration of Mohandas Gandhi, Ms. Wilkerson directs our attention to Dr. King’s discovery of his connection to Dalits, those who had been considered “untouchables” until Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the Indian economist, jurist, social reformer, and Dalit leader, fiercely and successfully advocated for a rebranding of his caste of origin; instead of “untouchables” they would be considered Dalits or “broken people.” Dr. King did not meet Mr. Ambedkar, who died 3 years before this journey, but Ms. Wilkerson writes that Dr. King acknowledged the kinship, “And he said unto himself, Yes, I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States is an untouchable.” The Dalits and Dr. King recognized in each other their shared positions as subordinates in a global caste system.

Dr. Ebony Dennis, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst who practices in Washington

Dr. Ebony Dennis

In answering the question about the difference between racism and casteism, Ms. Wilkerson writes:

“Because caste and race are interwoven in America, it can be hard to separate the two. ... 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 to keep others beneath you.”

Reading “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” is akin to the experience of gaining relief after struggling for years with a chronic malady that has a fluctuating course: Under the surface is low-grade pain that is compartmentalized and often met with denial or gaslighting when symptoms and systems are reported to members of the dominant caste. Yet, when there are acute flare-ups and increasingly frequent deadly encounters, the defenses of denial are painfully revealed; structures are broken and sometimes burned down. This has been the clinical course of racism, particularly in the United States. In that vein, an early reaction while reading “Caste” might be comparable to hearing an interpretation that educates, clarifies, resonates, and lands perfectly on the right diagnosis at the right moment.


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