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.
Wilkerson’s Caste is only the most recent of a long line of writers who have referred to race and caste interchangeably. From the early-19th century, if not earlier, various writings in Europe and North America made broad references to caste to explain social hierarchies and inequities. One possible source of this was the circulation of ideas about caste through the travel accounts of Europeans. For instance, between 1827 and 1829, African American newspapers such as Freedom’s Journal published extracts from the writings of Reginald Heber, the bishop of Calcutta (Kolkata). John Heiton’s book Castes of Edinburgh published in 1859 used the term to describe that city’s social make-up. In 1827, one Mordecai (a pseudonym adopted by a correspondent to Freedom’s Journal) wrote against the editor of the New York Enquirer for his disparaging remarks against African Americans and wondered why he would not castigate the people of his own “caste” [whites] for their racial prejudice. In 1848, an article in The North Star (a paper run by the abolitionist and once enslaved Frederick Douglass) afforded a definition for caste as of prejudice against colour. The reference here was to a temperance organisation called the “Sons of Temperance” which was accused of practicing caste in this racialised manner. The North Star would also publish extracts from the Edinburgh Review on ‘The Prejudice of Caste – Proscribed Races of Spain and France’, in its 22 December issue in 1848. By 1849 even Chinese immigrants were folded into the framework of caste. Elsewhere, a letter written by an African American in The Christian Recorder of 7 October, 1865 noted, “The people of this section of Pennsylvania, eager to erase all prejudices, especially that of caste, which, much to be regretted, has been exhibited to an alarming degree, even among our own color, and anxious to obtain all the rights due to an American citizen and to prepare ourselves for these immunities, have formed themselves into a League, and, in order to show our appreciation of a talented and Christian gentleman, and one worthy of all the benefits that may be conferred by his people, it was unanimously resolved to name the association ‘The Garnett Equal rights League, No. 1, of the city of Harrisburg.’” Anglican educator and activist Charles Freer Andrews, who espoused both anti-racist and anti-caste views, suggested that race was a form of caste prejudice. The mutual entanglements of race and caste have persisted well into the present. Robert J. Cottrol, Raymond T. Diamond and Leland B. Ware’s 2003 work Brown v. Board of Education: Caste, Culture, and the Constitution and Andrea Geiger’s on Japanese immigrants in Subverting Exclusion: Transpacific Encounters with Race, Caste, and Borders, 1885-1928, published in 2011, are some examples that precede Wilkerson’s book.
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.
If Wilkerson tries to give caste a global history, then others have tried to do the same for race. The recent work of Geraldine Heng and others has revealed that race, like caste, has an older history that can be traced to the religious context of premodern Europe. Race, like caste, came to represent the deep-seated tendency for humans to create social hierarchies and inequalities. In the case of Europe this would result in the demonisation of “lesser races” such as Jews and Muslims.
Room for intellectual exchange and solidarity
The attempt to globalise entangled terms such as caste and race might yield scholarly and even political benefits. For one, there is tremendous potential for cross-fertilisation between the voluminous writings on race and caste covering anthropology, gender, queer and trauma studies, history, literature, and philosophy. There is plenty of room for intellectual exchanges at the intersections of critical race theory, slavery and dependency studies, subaltern history, Dalit, Black and womanist writings and theologies, diversity equity and inclusion studies, and various forms of anti-racist and anti-caste writing. There is much to be gained by bringing the anti-racist writings and activism of, for example, Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Cone, Kimberle Crenshaw, Frederick Douglass, W E B DuBois, Sarah Moore Grimke, bell hooks, Ibram X Kendi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Pauli Murray, Howard Thurman, Alice Walker, Theodore Weld, Cornel West, and Sylvia Wynter, into conversation with the anti-caste works of B R Ambedkar, V Geetha, Narayana Guru, Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, Kabir, Braj Ranjan Mani, Gail Omvedt, Bharat Patankar, Periyar, Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule, Raidas, and Sharmila Rege. The social reformer Jyotirao Phule who campaigned for the rights of the oppressed and exploited castes in Western India, keenly followed the developments in the United States, including the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 that ended slavery in Confederate states that had fought the civil war. The dedication page of his most well-known work, Gulamgiri or slavery (1873) recorded the following: “Dedicated to the good people of the United States as a token of admiration for their sublime disinterested and self-sacrificing devotion in the cause of Negro slavery; and with an earnest desire, that my countrymen may take their noble example as their guide in the emancipation of their Sudra brethren from the trammels of Brahmin thraldom”.
Such tendencies have been at work not just in the United States and India, but also in South Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific, and other places in the Global South. Unfortunately, Wilkerson does not explore these confluences, their tensions, or point to the possibilities for future collaboration. There are notable predecessors to this. Cedric Dover published Half-Caste (1937), a book that drew on the writings of W E B Dubois and other Black intellectuals to call for creating racial solidarities between communities of colour. Dover, who was born to an Indian mother and an English father, tried to promote Afro-Asian solidarity as part of a worldwide struggle against racism. More recent examples of such exchanges include the following: The disagreements between anti-caste activist and author Gail Omvedt and the sociologist Andre Beteille in 2001 over whether caste and race could be treated interchangeably, and Ashwini Deshpande’s work on the economics of caste and gender discrimination that came out of her engagements with William A Darity Jr, an African American scholar at Duke University.
Indeed, this is one of the missed opportunities of the book, raising the possibilities for new transnational solidarities of the oppressed, something Phule alluded to earlier. Such collaborations have been in the making for some time involving a host of actors – African Americans, Jews, nationalists, anticolonialists, Dalits, pacifists, anarchists and their white allies. Mapping these intellectual exchanges and networks holds much potential for creating new global solidarities of the oppressed. Examples of these include the 1911 Universal Races Congress, the UNESCO statement on Race in 1950, and the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance at Durban in 2001 (where Dalit activists launched an unsuccessful campaign to classify caste as race).
Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste certainly merits a read, if for nothing else because it reminds us that there is much work that remains to be done.
Cosmopolitan activists like Charles Freer Andrews echoed this aspiration on a global scale when he proclaimed at a meeting of Christian ministers in England: “I long for the day when untouchability shall be removed, not only in India, but in South Africa, the Southern States of America and everywhere where Christians refuse to worship with their brethren whose complexion is slightly darker than their own.” In 1959, the First Southwide Institute on Nonviolent Resistance to Segregation resolved, “We make common cause with the oppressed and submerged peoples of the world – particularly the unfreed peoples of Africa and the former ‘untouchables’ of India. We call upon them to adhere to the principles of nonviolence in our common world struggle.” In the 1970s, the Dalit Panther movement which had emerged in India to combat caste discrimination and atrocities drew inspiration from the Black Panthers in the United States. Recently, in 2020 Brandeis University started Caste: A Global Journal on Social Exclusion. These developments echo Wilkerson’s hope for an awakening in people that will cause them to throw off the yoke of caste. She reminds her readers, “ we are all indeed one species, all interwoven, more alike than different, more interdependent on one another than we might otherwise want to believe”. Wilkerson provides the example of a 16-year-old African American girl who in 1944, participated in a student essay contest about what should be done with Hitler. She won the contest with a single sentence: “Put him in a black skin and let him live the rest of his life in America”.
Caste continues to evolve in complex and unpredictable ways that don’t always intersect neatly with the histories of race.
This is the closest Wilkerson comes to providing any blueprint for achieving anti-caste activism on a global scale. It also serves as a timely reminder to audiences in Southasia. It suggests that at the level of the individual, there can be no healing from the “disease” of caste or any other form of social inequality and hierarchy, until we begin to empathise with the suffering of others by incarnating the pain of their daily existence in our lives. It also calls for each of us to unlearn our privilege and deepest biases, along with our investments in structures of inequity, exploitation, exclusion, hatred and violence. Forming local and regional solidarities out of such projects of individual self-transformation would raise the possibilities for the success of global initiatives on equity and inclusion. Against such a backdrop, Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste certainly merits a read, if for nothing else because it reminds us that there is much work that remains to be done. Perhaps it will create the space needed for a larger conversation around the world about social hierarchy and inequality and about how we might learn from the rich experiences of diverse oppressed peoples in confronting this persistent human tendency. The possibilities for creating new solidarities between anti-caste and anti-racist thinking and activism might provide a new impetus for the pursuit of justice, equity and inclusion on a global scale.