Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
Isabel Wilkerson
Penguin Random House, $32 (cloth)

In the late 1940s, the Cold War was heating up. In the United States anticommunism had reached a fever pitch at the same time that antiblack violence had forcefully re-emerged in the form of lynching and race riots. At this auspicious moment, Lincoln University historical sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox published his 624-page tour de force, Caste, Class, and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics (1948). Cox’s book put class struggle, racial violence, and relentless political-class competition at the founding of the capitalist world-system in 1492, though it argued that these constitutive features had existed in nascent form since much earlier. Cox contended that economic exploitation was at the root of U.S. racial hierarchy. In particular, it was responsible for structuring relations among the white ruling class, the white masses, and Black people as a racialized class of workers.

The return to caste comes at a moment when wealth polarization, racial strife, and white supremacist revanchism are again on the rise.

Cox’s book refuted the “caste school” of race relations. For nearly a decade, Cox had challenged scholars who compared U.S. race relations to the caste system in India—caste being a religious-social structure that preceded the rise of capitalism. In a 1942 article, “The Modern Caste School of Race Relations,” Cox noted that, despite their claims to originality, researchers such as W. Lloyd Warner, Allison Davis, and John Dollard were simply recapitulating a caste hypothesis that had been “quite popular” in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Cox did not speculate why—in the context of the Great Depression, ascending fascism, and increased racial violence—the caste hypothesis had been “made fashionable” again. However, he noted that the resurgence of caste as a model for explaining the racial order in the United States separated race relations from class politics just when a racialized struggle over resources was intensifying.

Academia and popular media largely ignored Caste, Class, and Race, and it soon fell out of print. At the time U.S. discussions about race were dominated by Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944), an influential book that argued that caste defined the situation of the “American Negro.” According to Cox, Myrdal adopted the caste theory of race relations based on the assumption that Southern slavery, and thus all race relations emanating from Southern slavery, constituted a caste system.

The recent publication of Isabel Wilkerson’s widely acclaimed Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents returns to caste to explain U.S. racial hierarchy at a moment when wealth polarization, racial strife, and white supremacist revanchism are again on the rise. To be sure, there is a reason why caste has an enduring appeal as a framework to explain the organization of U.S. society. It offers a convenient explanation for the ongoing violence and discrimination against racialized peoples while avoiding biological conceptions of “race,” which, we are often reminded, is a “social construct.” Caste can be readily employed as shorthand for all forms of subjection emanating from systems of caste, class, and racism—regardless of history, context, geography, and form. Scholars who construe the United States as a caste system emphasize tradition, custom, attitude, and feeling as the sources of social intolerance, sidestepping issues such as capitalist exploitation and class-based antagonism. Following this logic, a social change in how we relate to one another is more feasible than overhauling a global political economy rooted in the hierarchical ordering of humanity.

One example of such an analysis can be found in Davis’s Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class (1941), which offered an understanding of ostensibly rigid modes of social ordering that went beyond class difference. The book showed that the Jim Crow economic order flowed from brutal social relations codified by racism, not the other way around. This position animates Wilkerson’s text and illuminates why she urgently wants to explain the “return to an old order” that occurred during Donald J. Trump’s presidency. “America has an unseen skeleton, a caste system that is . . . central to its operation,” she asserts. “Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions . . . the subconscious code of instructions for maintaining, in our case, a four-hundred-year-old social order.”

In her book, Wilkerson rejects Cox’s work and dismisses Caste, Class, and Race in three paragraphs as a “cantankerous critique,” a “contrarian view,” and “bafflingly misguided” about the oppressive nature of the caste system in India. Their disagreements, particularly their different readings of the literature on caste, reveal the stakes of how we analyze U.S. race relations today and the solutions that we offer in return.

In a book that combines memoir, travelogue, anecdotal evidence, historical vignettes, and a cacophony of similes and metaphors, Wilkerson presents the United States as a caste system made up of an upper, middle, and lower caste. The upper caste is the white majority (equated to the Indian Brahmin upper caste), the lower caste is the Black minority (equated to Indian Dalits), and the middle caste is comprised of undifferentiated “Hispanics” and Asians, striving to make it into the upper caste.

In Wilkerson’s view, a caste system is

an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it.

Thus, race is merely the tool of—or “shorthand” for—a more deeply embedded “invisible guide.” In her definition, race amounts to little more than the ascription of value to physical traits. This value judgment is dictated by the group that has accrued social benefits such as respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, and consideration.

In Wilkerson’s definition, race amounts to little more than the ascription of value to physical traits. Yet she conflates caste and race throughout the text.

Despite the distinction Wilkerson draws between caste and race, she employs them interchangeably—and virtually indistinguishably—throughout the text. In so doing she reproduces one of the key errors Cox attributed to the caste school: “in the process of defining Negro caste we have defined Negro race, and the final accomplishment is a substitution of words only.”

Wilkerson claims that the caste system is about power, not “feelings or morality.” However, insofar as the book draws on her own experiences as a Black professional in the United States, it suggests that perception, judgment, and assumptions sustain structural inequality. This is because, for her, the stereotypes and messaging that uphold caste derive from an “automatic, unconscious, reflexive response to expectations.”

For example, in her discussion of scapegoating, Wilkerson presents the perception of Black poverty as a more significant problem than Black poverty itself. “Little more than one in five African-Americans, 22 percent, are poor,” she argues, “and they make up just over a quarter of poor people in America, at 27 percent.” However, when the news portrays poor people, Black families account for 59 percent of those depicted. This, she contends, “shape[s] popular sentiment” and makes “black [a] synonym for poor.” Wilkerson does not discuss why a disproportionately high number of Black Americans are impoverished or what reproduces this inequality. The chapter title “The Heart Is the Last Frontier” sums up Wilkerson’s view: self-reinforcing attitudes and behaviors sustain caste. Thus, social change only requires shifting the behaviors and attitudes of those positioned as superior. Radical change must then flow from “dominant caste” individuals who recognize the plight of the “subordinate caste” and choose to reject the system. Cox, on the other hand, posits that any effort to change the racial order of the United States must attack the racially hierarchical political economy, not perceptions and attitudes.

Wilkerson’s reasoning allows her to position Nazi Germany, India, and the United States as comparable caste systems, claiming that each society’s perceptions of and attitudes toward those at the bottom maintained its respective social hierarchies.

Wilkerson focuses on Nazi fixation with purity of blood in determining who was Aryan. Chapters such as “The Euphoria of Hate” and “The German Girl with the Dark, Wavy Hair” give the impression that negative perception was as important to upholding the Nazi “caste system” as was the extermination of Jews and other undesirable populations. These chapters are perhaps the least rigorous and compelling sections of the book, neglecting responsible historical analysis. As Sunil Khilnani notes, “the final objective of Nazi ideology was to eliminate Jewish people, not just to subordinate them.”

Wilkerson’s analysis of caste in India is similarly superficial insofar as she treats the Indian caste system as essentially unchanged over some 4,000 years. She neglects to mention, for example, that British colonial rule used existing caste distinctions as instruments of colonial domination, much as it had in Africa, to impose a more rigid social structure. Ignoring these historical dynamics, she describes caste’s function in India today through her own observations: “I could see that the upper-caste people took positions of authority, were forthright, at ease with being in charge, correcting and talking over lower-case people,” she explains. “On the other hand,” she continues, “the Dalits, as if trained not to bring attention to themselves, sat in the shadows, on the periphery. . . . asking few questions, daring not, it seemed, to intrude upon an upper-caste domain or conversation.” These descriptions draw on secondary sources, alongside anecdotal evidence and personal observations gathered during a brief trip she took to give a talk there. Indeed, she confesses: “I spoke none of the Indian languages, knew nothing of the jatis, and was in no position to query anyone as to the section of village from which they came.”

It is these perfunctory observations of the Indian caste system that ground Wilkerson’s comparison to the “caste” system she sees in the United States. Throughout the text, she uses the work of radical Dalit scholar B. R. Ambedkar—dubbed “the MLK of India”—to justify her comparison of Black Americans and Indian Dalits. In an undelivered speech published in 1936, Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar argued that the Hindu religion sustained a distinctive caste system in India. Brahminism was the primary organizing principle of Indian society; religion was inextricable from laws, rules, regulations, and customs. He explained that the division of labor, and the “hierarchy in which the divisions of laborers are graded one above the other” was based on the Hindu “dogma of predestination.” Individual preferences and considerations do not dictate occupations; rather, occupations are viewed as “callings” based on one’s heredity and standing in the caste hierarchy.

Wilkerson employs perfunctory observations of the Indian caste system to ground a comparison to the “caste” system she sees in the United States.

The system, Ambedkar contended, does not prescribe racial divisions but rather a social organization of society that is “a notion . . . a state of mind.” Accordingly, he believed that the destruction of caste required an ideational change. He suggested that the caste system had hindered the lower classes of Hindus from engaging in sustained protest, writing that they “[became] reconciled to eternal servitude, which they accepted as their inescapable fate.” Thus, he believed it was necessary to “kill the Brahminism [to] help to kill Caste, which [was] nothing but Brahminism incarnate.”

With little regard for the important historical, cultural, and religious contingencies that led Ambedkar to this conclusion, Wilkerson seizes on his suggestion that social revolution and intellectual regeneration are precursors to meaningful political and economic change in India. And, by ignoring Ambedkar’s interest in the origins of caste, Wilkerson misapplies his analyses to the United States. This is the source of her disagreement with Cox.

Wilkerson dismisses Cox on his wrongheaded contention that, in India, “one caste does not dominate the other.” Yet she misrepresents his larger position. Cox was not observing the complete absence of lower-caste resistance in India’s caste system—“ancient, provincial, culturally oriented, hierarchical in structure, status conscious, nonconflictive, nonpathological, occupationally limited, lacking in aspiration and progressiveness, hypergamous, endogamous, and static”—but rather something distinct from a system of interracial antagonisms rooted in the imperatives of capital. He wrote that African Americans never saw the social and material arrangements originating in slavery and Jim Crow as normative; they constantly fought back. By contrast, in India the protracted struggle around caste did not occur until the late colonial and postcolonial era.

Cox observed that India’s caste system was distinct from the U.S. system of interracial antagonisms rooted in the imperatives of capital.

History is on Cox’s side; race relations in the United States have always been contested and unstable. The staggering number of slave rebellions, urban uprisings, and racial insurgencies that pepper U.S. history attest to this ongoing racial antagonism. So too, he argued, do the “irregularity of interracial practices and discrimination,” and the constant “attacks on the color line” by Blacks as well as whites “who disregard rule favored by the ruling class.”

The reality that racism in the United States is rooted in exploitation and has thus continually met resistance complicates Wilkerson’s thesis that U.S. race relations constitute a caste system. In Precolonial Black Africa: A Comparative Study of the Political and Social Systems of Europe and Black Africa, from Antiquity to the Formation of Modern States (1987), the Senegalese historian and anthropologist Cheikh Anta Diop explained that social revolutions did not take place in precolonial Black African caste societies for several reasons. First, advantages and disadvantages, “deprivations of rights and compensations,” in these caste systems balanced out. For example, while lower caste laborers had a lower social status, they were not deprived of the fruits of their labor and were permitted to amass wealth. Second, the conception of honor in these caste systems dictated that the superior caste could not exploit the lower castes without “losing face” in the eyes of others; on the contrary, the former was expected to assist the latter materially in exchange for “social precedence.” Finally, the caste system was relatively stable due to “the hereditary transmission of social occupations, which corresponded, in a certain measure, to a monopoly disguised by a religious prohibition in order to eliminate professional competition.” Inheriting a trade, consequently, took on religious significance. In other words, in precolonial Africa, unlike in India, the division of labor precipitated religious rationalization, not the other way around.

Diop further argued that Aryans gave divine character to property such that, in the Indian caste system, large portions of the population would be excluded from society and from right of ownership. “It was through its concern with ownership of material goods,” he held, “that the Aryan spirit of genius impressed its mold on the caste system.” Moreover, while there was a cultural basis for caste in Africa and ownership relations undergirding the caste system in India, neither of these caste societies were based on racial or ethnic separation. Similar to Cox, Diop illuminated that caste must be understood in its historical and contextual specificity, and that a caste system is not necessarily exploitative. For this reason, classifying the United States—a society in which exploitation and antagonism are essential and endemic—as a caste system is obfuscating rather than illuminating.

Diop illuminated that caste must be understood in its historical and contextual specificity.

While capitalism and colonialism arose within a much longer history of caste in India, this was not the case in the United States. The rise of the capitalist global order occurred contemporaneously with racial ordering in the United States, with narrations of racism shifting alongside changes in the political economy. Just as caste—in India and elsewhere—cannot be reduced to exploitation, neither can the social relations of racial capitalism in the United States be characterized by caste, despite similar forms of oppression.

The origins, historicity, and context of ascriptive hierarchy matter. Understanding them offers the key to dismantling the system. Wilkerson is perhaps correct that changing attitudes and social practices could eradicate the Indian caste system, which originated in the belief in predestination before the rise of capitalism. But this approach does not easily transfer to the United States, where racial oppression is sutured to capitalist exploitation and structures every aspect of the lives of Black Americans.

In his 1962 book, Capitalism and American Leadership, Cox argued that economic exploitation came before beliefs about specific groups of people. He wrote:

Since any conception of a people as being capitalistically exploitable tends to breed universal contempt for them, it seems manifest that the very spirit of the system must subside if respect for backward peoples is to be assured.

Those that benefit the most from capitalism will utilize any method that allows them to continue to exploit labor from those in lower classes. This includes racial prejudice. Cox believed U.S. race relations were more fundamentally labor relations, despite the mainstream misunderstanding of racism as psychological.

Cox believed U.S. race relations were fundamentally labor relations, despite the mainstream misunderstanding of racism as psychological.

For this reason, Cox contended that Cold War anticommunism worked to preserve the capitalist-rooted racial order, especially in the charge that the demand for equal rights for Black Americans was communist activity. This was the context for the caste school’s decision to evade a critique of capitalism. It also helps to explain the marginalization of Cox’s book in the late ’40s. In the postwar era, texts sympathetic to socialism were generally marginalized. Those who did engage the book tended to dismiss the text as too polemical, deterministic, and unscientific.

Cox was not alone in positioning modern race relations within the larger system of capitalist exploitation. His work belongs to more than a century of scholarship and advocacy that made the same case—a significant body of literature conspicuously absent from Wilkerson’s Caste. For example, W. E. B. Du Bois’s “The African Roots of War” (1915) examines the imperialist rivalry for African resources. The struggle to the death for African resources and labor had begun to “pay dividends” centuries earlier through the enslavement of African peoples, the subsequent conflation of color and inferiority, and the reduction of what was routinely referred to as the “Dark Continent” to a space of backwardness ideally suited for pillage. In “Toward a Brighter Dawn” (1936), Louise Thompson Patterson held that Black women were subjected to “triple exploitation” as workers, women, and Blacks. This was most manifest in their relegation to domestic labor, their confinement in laundries and tobacco factories with horrible working conditions, their experience of discrimination in relief and relief work, and in their reduction to “Bronx Slave Markets” where they had to auction off their labor for “pennies on the dollar” during the great depression. The political economy of Black women’s suffering was inextricable from both the drive to war and the rise of fascism; all emanated from the social relations of racial capitalist imperialism.

Cox’s assessment was also corroborated by the 1946 United Nations petition, An Appeal to the World: A Statement on the Denial of Human Rights to Minorities in the Case of Citizens of Negro Descent in the United States of America and an Appeal to the United Nations for Redress. Wilkerson briefly discusses letters exchanged between Ambedkar and Du Bois about the petition, highlighting that the scholars connected the plight of Dalits and African Americans and expressed reciprocal sympathy for the other group’s unique oppression. But her narrative lacks any substantive engagement with An Appeal to the World, which underscored that economic domination, disenfranchisement, and failure of the federal government to enforce African Americans’ equal protection under the law were the linchpins of Black suffering in the United States. Given the failures of the U.S. government, Black Americans turned to the U.N. for relief. Thus, the exchange between Ambedkar and Du Bois was as much about strategies for redress as it was about the common plight of Dalits and African Americans.

After World War II the pathbreaking petition, We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief from a Crime of the United States Government Against the Negro People, filed with the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1951, even further established the ties between capitalist exploitation and racial antagonism. For example, the petition exposed that the United States had derived $4 billion of “superprofits” from systematic exploitation of African Americans. Such superprofit was the “substantial motive” to commit genocide against African Americans. Worse still, the “seven and a half billion dollars of booty from abroad” brought the superprofits wrested from oppressed people to $11.5 billion a year.

In keeping with the argumentation of Du Bois, Thompson Patterson, and the two UN petitions, Walter Rodney’s groundbreaking work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972) argued that “the simple fact is that no people can enslave another for centuries without coming out with a notion of superiority, and when the color and other physical traits of those people were quite different it was inevitable that the prejudice should take a racist form.” Taking inspiration from Rodney, Manning Marable explained in How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America (1983) that the material conditions of Black people were a direct result of the racially hierarchical economic history of the United States. Black Americans were, and continue to be, victims of both economic and racist exploitation; as such “the U.S. is not just a capitalist state, but with South Africa, is a racist/capitalist state.” Making an adjacent argument about the conjuncture of racialism and economic organization, Cedric Robinson popularized the term “racial capitalism” in Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, published that same year. Meanwhile, as Peter James Hudson explains, Black South Africans were examining “the political economy of white supremacy in South Africa.”

Caste’s dismissal of racial capitalism offers a decontextualized, ahistorical, and inaccurate description of racial antagonism.

In 1998 the Black Radical Congress was founded to combat capitalism and its “structural incapacity” to ensure the basic human needs of Black people worldwide; its superexploitation of Southern workers; its state terrorism against, and mass incarceration of, Black people; and its refusal to allow Black and oppressed people self-determination. Most recently, in two works—The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in 17th Century North America and the Caribbean (2018) and The Dawning of the Apocalypse: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, Settler Colonialism, and Capitalism in the Long Sixteenth Century (2020)Gerald Horne has shown that from about the sixteenth century onward, racial hierarchy and white supremacy became the ideological glue allowing disparate European nations and peoples to justify confiscating resources, land, and labor from those on the darker side of the color-line. He saw this as a kind of militarized identity politics. Wilkerson’s book ignores this scholarship.

Caste’s dismissal of any analysis of racial capitalism, and descriptive assessment of “caste” instead, offers a decontextualized, ahistorical, and inaccurate description of racial antagonism, caste, and class. Wilkerson’s emphasis on caste makes no mention, let alone critique, of capitalism; the word does not appear once in the text.

As Anthony Monteiro notes in his review, “Wilkerson argues that race discourse and research must move from race to caste, from material relations of race and class oppression and exploitation to beliefs, values and ideas.” There is “no discussion or even recognition of political economy, that is, the modes of production, the ways people make livings and the contradictions therein.” This neglect is exacerbated by Wilkerson’s reliance on cherrypicked anecdotes and historical vignettes that confuse structure, experience, ideology, and sentiment, leaving readers with a jumbled conflation of the political, economic, and social.

In Wilkerson’s book, oppression and exploitation are understood through indignities that starkly remind the Black elite of their Blackness. The class perspective offered throughout Caste—shown through anecdotes such as being slighted in the first-class cabin of a flight, facing mistreatment from white workers who are beneath Wilkerson in terms of class but above her based on “caste,” and living in an affluent neighborhood but not being treated with the dignity afforded her white neighbors—is particularly ironic given Wilkerson’s failure to account for how class structures race relations in the United States.

Wilkerson suggests that Black poor and working-class populations suffer less than Black elites.

Wilkerson’s elitism is conveyed through her outrage when Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, with a “two-year certificate as a radiology technician [who] had risen to the governor’s mansion by accident of succession,” publicly berates then-President Barack Obama, “a graduate of Columbia and of Harvard Law School [who] had made a methodical march from state senator to U.S. senator to the Oval Office.” Likewise, in focusing on the “health penalty” suffered by privileged African Americans and the lower life expectancy for ambitious and affluent “lower caste” persons, Wilkerson positions the Black elite—as opposed to the masses of poor and working-class Black people—as not only the true victims of “caste,” but also the subjects that best reveal its workings. Wilkerson suggests that Black and other minority poor and working-class populations suffer less than Black elites because their isolation from the upper echelons of society shields them from discrimination at the hands of whites, who penalize “successful” Black people for defying the “roles assigned them in the hierarchy.” While noting that Black elites suffer hypertension and stress, Wilkerson seems oblivious to the catastrophic “health penalty” of those poor communities—for example, Louisiana’s “cancer alley”—that owe to environmental racism, housing discrimination, and occupational hazard.

For Wilkerson, the “thievery of caste” most brutally affects the upwardly mobile, when it “steal[s] the time and psychic resources of the marginalized, draining energy in an already uphill competition.” She effectively positions her poor experiences on first class flights, a slight by a waiter at a restaurant, and having her New York Times credentials questioned as a comparable type of violence to lynching, police brutality, and even the breakup of enslaved families.

Despite its best intentions, Caste offers few tools to help contend with the threat of fascism that has reappeared during Donald Trump’s presidency, the rise of white nationalism as an acceptable form of politics, the strengthening of the police state, and the government’s neglect and criminalization of the Black poor and working classes. The book offers little insight into the persistent domestic rebellions throughout the United States—the demands to end police murder and occupation, to serve justice for victims of state violence, and to defund the police. It doesn’t help explain why, for example, COVID-19 infections and deaths have affected this country unequally, with Black and poor Americans most ravaged by the virus and the economic fallout of the lockdowns.

Instead, Caste recapitulates the representational function of the Black elite, whereby their political and social agenda stands in for the Black community as a whole. It calls for the eradication of meanness, daily affronts, and disregard that undermine merit and hamper the best Black people from achieving their dreams as the key step toward a society beyond race and caste. Here, Cox’s critique of Myrdal resonates: “[Myrdal writes] ‘Negro strategy would build on an illusion if it set all its hope on a blitzkrieg directed toward a ‘basic’ factor.’” The latter comports with Wilkerson’s desire for empathy, acceptance, and meritocracy as the generalizable solution for the structural and material violence of modern U.S. racial capitalism.

Caste neither illuminates nor speaks to the origins, exigencies, or urgency of our time. Its celebration in the mainstream media is cause for concern because it reflects the continued priority of elite preferences over the realities, needs, and struggles of ordinary people. It is akin to books such as Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Race—books that emphasize white peoples’ emotions and behaviors as the source of inequality, thereby circumventing fundamental issues such as resource allocation, labor exploitation, and economic dispossession. This re-centering of dominant voices and desires comes at the expense of those whose marginalization is, quite literally, a matter of life and death. If, as Wilkerson and DiAngelo suggest, the eradication of exploitation and oppression in the United States is contingent upon the dominant white “caste” demonstrating more empathy, abandoning their privilege, and adopting a better attitude, then the suffering of the overwhelming majority will undoubtedly continue unabated. As Frederick Douglass enjoined in 1857, “who would be free, themselves must strike the blow. . . . If there is no struggle there is no progress.”