America’s Caste System

By Isabel Wilkerson, originally published at The Guardian.

In the winter of 1959, after leading the Montgomery bus boycott that arose from the arrest of Rosa Parks and before the trials and triumphs to come, Martin Luther King Jr and his wife, Coretta, landed in India, at Palam Airport in New Delhi​, to visit the land of Mohandas K Gandhi, the father of nonviolent protest. They were covered in garlands upon arrival, and King told reporters: “To other countries, I may go as a tourist, but to India, I come as a pilgrim.”

He had long dreamed of going to India, and they stayed an entire month. King wanted to see for himself the place whose fight for freedom from British rule had inspired his fight for justice in America. He wanted to see the so-called “untouchables”, the lowest caste in the ancient Indian caste system, whom he had read about and had sympathy for, but who had still been left behind after India gained its independence the decade before.

He discovered that people in India had been following the trials of his own oppressed people in the US, and knew of the bus boycott he had led. Wherever he went, the people on the streets of Bombay and Delhi crowded around him for an autograph. At one point in their trip, King and his wife journeyed to the southern tip of the country, to the city of Trivandrum in the state of Kerala, and visited with high-school students whose families had been untouchables. The principal made the introduction.

“Young people,” he said, “I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.”

King was floored. He had not expected that term to be applied to him. He was, in fact, put off by it at first. He had flown in from another continent and had dined with the prime minister. He did not see the connection, did not see what the Indian caste system had to do directly with him, did not immediately see why the lowest-caste people in India would view him, an American Negro and a distinguished visitor, as low-caste like themselves, see him as one of them. “For a moment,” he later recalled, “I was a bit shocked and peeved that I would be referred to as an untouchable.”

Then he began to think about the reality of the lives of the people he was fighting for – 20 million people, consigned to the lowest rank in the US for centuries, “still smothering in an airtight cage of poverty,” quarantined in isolated ghettoes, exiled in their own country.

And he said to himself: “Yes, I am an untouchable, and every negro in the United States of America is an untouchable.” At that moment, he realized that the land of the free had imposed a caste system, not unlike the caste system of India, and that he had lived under that system all of his life. It was what lay beneath the forces he was fighting in the US.

What Martin Luther King Jr, recognized about his country that day had begun long before the ancestors of our ancestors had taken their first breaths. More than a century and a half before the American Revolution, a human hierarchy had evolved on the contested soil of what would become the United States – a concept of birthright, the temptation of entitled expansion that would set in motion what has been called the world’s oldest democracy and, with it, a ranking of human value and usage.

It would twist the minds of men, as greed and self-reverence eclipsed human conscience and allowed the conquering men to take land and human bodies that they convinced themselves they had a right to. If they were to convert this wilderness and civilize it to their liking, they decided, they would need to conquer, enslave or remove the people already on it, and transport those they deemed lesser beings in order to tame and work the land to extract the wealth that lay in the rich soil and shorelines.

To justify their plans, they took pre-existing notions of their own centrality, reinforced by their self-interested interpretation of the Bible, and created a hierarchy of who could do what, who could own what, who was on top and who was on the bottom and who was in between. There emerged a ladder of humanity, global in nature, as the upper-rung people would descend from Europe, with rungs inside that designation – the English Protestants at the very top, as their guns and resources would ultimately prevail in the bloody fight for North America. Everyone else would rank in descending order, on the basis of their proximity to those deemed most superior. The ranking would continue downward until one arrived at the very bottom: African captives transported in order to build the New World and to serve the victors for all their days, one generation after the next, for 12 generations.

There developed a caste system, based upon what people looked like – an internalized ranking, unspoken, unnamed, and unacknowledged by everyday citizens even as they go about their lives adhering to it and acting upon it subconsciously, to this day. Just as the studs and joists and beams that form the infrastructure of a building are not visible to those who live in it, so it is with caste. Its very invisibility is what gives it power and longevity. And though it may move in and out of consciousness, though it may flare and reassert itself in times of upheaval and recede in times of relative calm, it is an ever-present through-line in the country’s operation.

This article was originally published at The Guardian, and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.

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5 Responses to America’s Caste System

  1. It’s a little shocking and disappointing to find this book review posted at The Harmonist without comment. Did the poster bother to read the book before posting this third-party review? Or did the presence of the word “caste” create a Pavlovian response of posting it here?

    First, let’s state what should be obvious. In a harmonious society, differences must be accommodated, but this should not be taken as license giving one varna or ashram or social stratum or gender or profession the permission to exploit and abuse others.

    Next, let’s state what should be almost as obvious. Neither the United States, nor India (pre-Muslim, pre-Victorian, or post-independence) has conducted itself without the stain of racial prejudice and the oppression of some of its citizens. Neither society is a shining example that should be used to correct the other.

    However, let’s now talk about Wilkerson’s book. Certainly she makes a noble and well-intentioned effort to help readers see American systems of oppression in a fresh light, using an angle of analysis that might get past the internal defense mechanisms that privileged Americans have long learned to employ. The problem is that, if you have close firsthand experience with either the American or the Indian systems of oppression, you’ll see just how shallow and superficial her analysis becomes at times, which for the discerning reader may actually undermine her cause and make readers less likely to acknowledge the real problems of structures of racism in both societies.

    For example, Wilkerson doesn’t adequately explain how Asian-Americans fit into the supposedly caste-divided U.S. system. We know that, far from being a monolith, Asian-American wealth is one of the greatest examples of income inequality in the nation. Asian-Americans aren’t barred from wealth and success — far from it — but they aren’t the monolith of wealth and education that some mistakenly assume. And yet, their presence as role-models even for the supposed “top” white caste problematizes Wilkerson’s analysis, yet she fails to address this complication. Are Asian-Americans akin to the British in India, untouchable yet in some ways “atop” the castes? Or are whites the Brahmins, in which case the Asians as “model minorities” able to surpass the whites suggests that Wilkerson’s model of India doesn’t really fit the U.S. situation as much more than a catchphrase without real interpretive substance.

    Furthermore, Wilkerson’s presentation of caste doesn’t properly account for independent India’s responses toward the scheduled/backward classes in India. And what of those Indians who’ve converted to Buddhism or Christianity to pivot out of the whole system (to remove social opprobrium AND in many cases to secure benefits India allows to those outside the system)? And what about the Muslims living in the midst of it all? Comparing Black Americans to India’s untouchables may seem like a catchy gimmick at first, but is it a serious tool for analyzing the two cultures? Wilkerson doesn’t make it so, at least not for those who will see through her superficialities.

    Wilkerson, sadly, in writing of caste, seems to have created a strawman, defined it in her own idiosyncratic way that does an injustice to the injustices in both India and the U.S., and then drawn conclusions that flow nicely from her idiosyncratic definition but that say little about the reality of “caste” in either nation.

    This is terribly unfortunate, as Wilkerson’s book will tend to attract readers who are socially conscious but not deeply knowledgeable about India and its history and culture. Wilkerson will heighten their sense of America’s problems and the need to fix them, but she will do so by mis-educating her readers and leaving them with cartoon-character generalizations and oversimplifications of a problem that has affected India’s poorest and most downtrodden for many more years (and affecting many more hundreds of millions) than America has been struggling with its own tragic internal fault-lines and divisions.

    An important topic, but a regrettable book.

    • Pratiphala, I don’t appreciate the condescending tone of your comment, saying how shocked and disappointed you are, then insinuating that the Harmonist staff picks articles based on “pavlovian responses,” wondering if they even “bothered to read” the book. These kinds of shaming tactics won’t go too far in this environment, I’m afraid.

      I’m three-quarters through Wilkerson’s book and I’m thrilled that the Harmonist staff introduced their readers to this very well-researched, well-written, and well thought-out piece of work.
      I recognize that it simplifies things in its treatment of the Indian caste system but I still think that the main premise holds: the way the United States, Nazi Germany, and India (among many other societies) have ostracized and oppressed the lower rungs of their society has strong similarities. You seem to contest this point and try to claim that this is Wilkerson’s novel, “idiosyncratic” opinion, but I’d like to ask you this: why don’t you listen to the people themselves in those oppressed classes? Why are you not recognizing that the very Harmonist article you so harshly criticize shows how the Dalits in India and the African Americans in the US recognized the uncanny similarity in their situations? There are several examples in Wilkerson’s book how the Dalit movement followed the civil rights movement extremely closely, and even adopted songs from the civil rights movement because they so much identified with the struggles of the African Americans.

      Not only that, Isabel Wilkerson herself is African American and is certainly more aware of the casteism prevalent in American society than you are, due to her first-hand experience which she shares snippets of in her book.

      Also, not only do the oppressed people of the two continents agree that their struggle is substantially the same, Wilkerson points out in her book that the structural racism of the USA has been likened to the Indian caste system by other scholars and sociologists long before her, social scientists like Gunnar Myrdal, Allison Davis, Oliver Cromwell Cox, and others.

      Lastly, my own personal experience has concurred with the premise of the book long before Wilkerson’s fantastic work came out. I was born and bred in Finland but moved to the USA fifteen years ago. When one immigrates to a foreign culture and tries to figure out how to place oneself in the structures of that society, it’s quite easy to become hyper-sensitive to the structures, hierarchies, and workings of the society. Very shortly after my immigration, well before ever hearing the comparison between the US system and the Indian system, it hit me that racism in the United States was much more structural than it is in Scandinavia and Europe in general, and in that way resembles a caste system that perpetuates oppression of the lowest castes.

      There’s so much more that could be said about the topic but I don’t want my response to get too wordy.

      • Gurunistha Prabhu wrote:

        Pratiphala, I don’t appreciate the condescending tone of your comment

        Well, I don’t much appreciate the condescending tone of your comment, but I do appreciate your thoughtful rejoinder. You have no idea about my skin color (though from your comment I can assure you that you are guessing incorrectly), nor about my experience gleaned from living in several countries for years at a time.

        Strip away your condescension, though, and I am glad to read your differing perspective. I think your use of the word “hypersensitive” is helpful, in particular, and I urge you to apply it to yourself as well. No doubt I was expecting too much of the book and misunderstood the Harmonist’s role and policy, and It showed in my comment. I regret that. But please take a look at your own expectations, including your expectations of me (which are wildly incorrect, but ironically may play well into Wilkerson’s narrative). From your comment I don’t know whether you are a First Nations/Indigenous emigré from Finland or whether you are ethnically Finnish, but I think I can hazard a guess, and I can see that the book has helped you, which is certainly worth much. Thank you again for sharing your perspective.

  2. Pratiphala, thank you for your response, and my apologies for taking so long to reply.

    Full disclaimer: my assumption was that you are an ethnic Hindu, born to possibly one of the higher castes in India and then migrated to the US. When I wrote in my previous response that Wilkerson is more aware of the American casteism than you will be able to, I didn’t assume you were white. My point was based on the fact that Indians rank higher in the American caste system than African Americans who are at the bottom. But I should’ve not made such a comment based on an assumption of your race and nationality.

    I certainly agree with your point about “hyper-sensitivity” and am trying to cultivate it toward myself first and foremost. And in that spirit, I would like to better understand why you took exception to Wilkerson’s premise. I couldn’t really make out from your first post what the core of your objection was, other than that she simplified the Indian Varnashrama system. But that in itself is not good enough of a reason to dismiss her whole premise, in my humble opinion.

    I very much enjoy open, respectful conversation and I’m hopeful we can do just that here.

  3. Here’s a mainstream review of Wilkerson’s book, which may help explain why some readers, especially those who are not privileged white Westerners, may find her presentation quite unsatisfying:

    It’s awfully easy for well-meaning and privileged Westerners who are learning to question privilege to seize on what appear to be useful acts of allyship. It’s harder to adopt a perspective both respectful and critical. This Boston Review piece does so very well, from my perspective.

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