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Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent
Isabel Wilkerson

Random House

August 2020

Other

When Paul Fussell published Class in 1983, its subtitle took aim at one of the time's more cherished and rigidly adhered-to American lies: A Guide Through the American Status System. A wry literati whose research was probably mostly limited to what he could discern from his office at Rutgers, Fussell nevertheless discovered something fundamental about Americans and class distinctions:

When, recently, asked what I am writing, I have answered, "A book about social class in America," people tend first to straighten their ties and sneak a glance at their cuffs to see how far fraying has advanced there. Then, a few minutes later, they silently get up and walk away. It is not just that I am feared as a class spy. It is as if I had said, "I am working on a book urging the beating to death of baby whales using the dead bodies of baby seals."

In some ways the idea that there were no class distinctions in America was a relatively new development. For most of the nation's history, it was relatively easy to find writers referring to class. In fact, many particularly enjoyed excoriating the behavior of the proletariat or studying the mores of the aristocracy with a jeweler's precision. But the Great Depression and World War II's massive draft, followed by the GI Bill and the nation's first experience with widescale prosperity (at least for its White citizens), created a kind of leveling as millions moved into the middle class. This was accompanied by the projection of an image of mass egalitarianism that was rooted in some truth—a booming economy, new highway system, sprawling suburbs, and easy credit did give many once working-class people a taste of heretofore unknown wealth—but allowed part of the country to pretend it had always been thus.

Photo by ASTERISK on Unsplash

Despite years of research showing the slowdown of social mobility and the siphoning off of wealth from the middle to the upper-middle classes—not to mention the evidence in front of people's eyes—there persists a great forgetting that American is not immune to class distinctions. Hopefully, Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson's bracing and thoughtful new book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents will help the country see itself not as a projection of wish fulfillment but closer to its true form.

A free-flowing and impassioned work of living history, Caste is not particularly academic or a chronological study of how racism supports class structures. Much like her landmark 2010 study of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, Caste is a more personal, pointillist look at how this history is lived by those who experience it. So instead of, say, diving deeply into early Colonial slave culture and showing that influenced the Founding Fathers and so on, Wilkerson takes a non-chronological approach. She looks at different facets of the American racial caste system, ties them to examples in other countries, and interleaves those sections with wrenching personal accounts, drawn from her own experience and that of others. With this approach she shows how the restrictions of caste bind and diminish those it is structured to keep at the bottom.

This is an effective, if sometimes surprising approach that can usually help illuminate her argument. In one chapter, she parses the differences between caste and class this way: "Wealth and class may have insulated some people born to the subordinate caste in America but not protected them from humiliating attempts to put them in their place or to remind them or their caste position." She follows this with numerous examples of the ways that wealth and celebrity fail to protect Black Americans from being deemed threats. One of the more vivid examples describes how, in 2013, the actor Forest Whittaker, when trying to leave a deli after seeing a longer line than he wanted to wait in, was embarrassingly blocked and frisked by a worker.

One aspect of social taxonomy that Fussell stayed away from was race. But as Wilkerson writes, race is not only important to understanding the American class system, it is crucial. Talking about America's "shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid", she says there are essentially only two notable corollaries in human history: Nazi Germany and "the lingering, millennia-long caste system of India." For Wilkerson, each system relied on stigmatizing people deemed inferior "to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement."

While South Africa would seem worthy of inclusion in that grim list, Wilkerson argues otherwise. She views apartheid, as ugly as it was, as being closer to a European-style hierarchy in which "the white minority had an incentive to grow its power and numbers by granting honorary whiteness to those deemed close enough." She convincingly contrasts this relative flexibility in outlook to America, which she calls exceptional:

[America] alone created a system based on racial absolutism, the idea that a single drop of African blood, or varying percentages of Asian or Native American blood, could taint the purity of someone who might otherwise be presumed to be European, a stain that would thus disqualify the person from admittance to the dominant caste.

Wilkerson uses phrasing like "the dominant caste" or "the subordinate caste" throughout. This is a simple but effective way of reinforcing her primary argument, which is that the racially-drawn barriers in American life can be as viciously guarded as those keeping India's Untouchable caste, or Dalits, from moving out of the few and demeaning roles forced upon them. In some of the more impactful moments from Caste, Wilkerson describes meeting Dalits and finding an unexpected bond in how they are treated by their respective systems of hierarchy.

These kind of connections and considerations are not new to Wilkerson, they have just been mostly ignored by a larger culture that seems eager to forget. She quotes legal scholars Raymond T. Diamond and Robert J. Cottrol, who compared America's "black-white distinction" to "the Hindu caste system" as a similar "social hierarchy determined at birth, and largely immutable, even by achievement." That sense of impossibility of escape permeates much of Caste.

This is not to say Wilkerson has written a hopeless book. Caste is filled with stories of how American racial hierarchy brutalizes those it has determined are of lesser value. Many of these will be familiar (at least to those with open eyes), but the artfully persuasive manner in which she structures them is still stingingly painful. Yet, Wilkerson ultimately gives her book a guardedly optimistic conclusion, even though the personal anecdote she draws upon for it—an encounter with a white contractor that goes awry in a depressingly familiar fashion—could have easily gone the other way and relied, as such encounters so often do, on the forbearance of a member of the subordinate caste. A country that truly did not have a caste system like that which Wilkerson is describing would not be so woefully predictable.

Caste is another in a series of gauntlets that writers have been throwing to the ground to contest the many perniciously persistent myths around race and class in America. Time will tell whether enough people are willing to pick it up and accept Wilkerson's challenge to see clearly at least some version of what the social hierarchy truly is.

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