Caste, Race, Class--A Review of Isabel Wilkerson’s "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents"

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Caste, Race, Class--A Review of Isabel Wilkerson’s "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents"

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson has been a highly praised and best-selling book. Reviewers have acclaimed her insights into U.S. racism. These are made by comparing U.S. white supremacy to the South Asian (Asian Indian) caste system as well as to the German Nazis’ anti-Semitic laws. In general, readers have responded to her clear, smooth, and warm writing. She uses anecdotes from her own life as an African-American woman professional, as well as using frequent anecdotal incidents from others, combined with a deft use of historical narratives. To European-Americans, she brings racial oppression alive in heart-rendering detail. To U.S. people in general she gives a glimpse into the oppression of low caste and outcaste Indians (Dalits or “Untouchables”).

Her basic thesis is that the primary underlying structure of the U.S. (at least) is that of caste. To her, race is the cover of caste. Castes are arranged in hierarchies, with superior and inferior castes, dominant and subservient, those worth more and those of less value. The essential issue is not one of mass prejudice (although there may be a lot of prejudice, including out-and-out hatred by dominant caste members). The issue is a society structured around a hierarchy of castes.

Our society is divided by a number of criteria into several hierarchical systems (I sometimes think of it as a pile of pick-up sticks, leaning on each other). But unlike some subsystems, caste is something people are born into and cannot get out of. “It is the fixed nature of caste that distinguishes it from class….” (p. 106) People may be born into the middle class and rise to the upper class or sink to the lower class. They cannot stop being of whatever caste they were born into, no matter how rich they become. Caste is not the same as being in a religious group, since people may change their religion. It is not even ethnicity. Irish-Americans may marry Italian-Americans, producing white “Catholic Americans”.

Of course, this is an abstraction. The line between what is a caste and what a religious group may be altered. The Nazis insisted on arresting Catholics with Jewish origins, despite opposition from the Church; Nazis treated “Jews” as a “racial” caste, rather than a religious group. In the U.S., a small number of African-Americans has “passed” into the white population in each generation (but they have mostly kept their racial history a secret).

As I see it, the only categorical division similar to caste is gender. People are born into one of two genders, one of which is “superior” to the other. This is the gender they are assigned all their lives—with a very few exceptions. Some theoreticians have called this a “gender-caste” system. Wilkerson gives many examples of gender and race/caste interacting, in her case and that of others. But she does not really examine the structure of their interaction.

Wilkerson proposes eight “pillars” of caste. One is accepting a “divine and spiritual foundation for the belief in a human pyramid willed by God.” (p. 104) The second is the heritability of a fixed nature. The third is “to keep the castes separate and to seal off the bloodlines of those assigned to the upper rung…—endogamy.” (p. 109) The fourth is “the fundamental belief in the purity of the dominant caste and the fear of pollution from the castes deemed beneath it.” (p. 115) Six is dehumanization. “A caste system relies on dehumanization to lock the marginalized outside of the norms of humanity so that any action against them is seen as reasonable.” (p. 142) The seventh “pillar” is violence and cruelty: “The only way to keep an entire group of sentient beings in an artificially fixed place, beneath all others…is with violence and terror, psychological and physical…to be reminded of the absolute power the dominant caste held over them.” (p.151) The eighth is “the presumption and continued reminder of the inborn superiority of the dominant caste and the inherent inferiority of the subordinate.” (p. 160)

Of the eight pillars of caste, all are cultural and social-psychological. Not one speaks of the need for the dominated caste to work for the dominant caste, to provide a surplus for the rulers, or to labor for less pay than do members of the dominant caste. None refers to the need for political machinery (a state) to carry out the "violence and terror."

As she notes, a number of writers and theorists have previously related race to caste, contrasting U.S. white supremacy to the Indian caste system. There are clear similarities which are useful in thinking about racism. But there are also differences which she glancingly mentions. The U.S. system is a few centuries old. It has two main castes, white and Black, with other people of color not-quite fitting between them. The South Asian system is thousands of years old. Its ideology is based directly in religion, without “race” or skin color as a main factor. There are a great number of castes and subcastes.

Several other writers on racism have regarded race as a caste system. Instead Wilkerson presents race as something separate and developed out of caste—which she presents as the underlying reality. “In the American caste system…race is the primary tool and the visible decoy, the front man, for caste.” (p. 18) It is unclear why Wilkerson choses to present race as a reflection of caste, rather than as a form of caste.

Class Exploitation

The main weakness of Wilkerson’s book is her limited consideration of the relation of caste to class, class conflict, and class exploitation. “The glaring omission in Caste is political economy….As a result, Wilkerson offers no theory of caste….” (Steinberg 2021; p. 121) She is aware of a connection, noting that the lower caste serves the upper. “In both [the U.S. and India]…the lowest castes toiled for their masters—African-Americans in the tobacco fields of Mississippi, Dalits plucking tea in Kerala and cotton in Nandurbar. Both worked as enslaved people and later for the right to live on the land that they were farming.” (p. 75)

She repeatedly mentions that the lower caste works for the upper, but this is undertheorized. Her emphasis is on the devaluing of the undercastes, the contempt of the overcastes for them. Most of her anecdotes are of situations where white people overlooked or ignored her or otherwise disrespected her. She presents similar devaluing and dehumanizing interactions among upper and lower caste Indian people.

However, Africans were not kidnapped in order for European-derived people to look down on them. They were enslaved in order to do work—to grow cotton, sugar, tobacco, and rice, which were sold on the world market. They made profits for their white masters. And secondly, they were brought over to weaken by division the poorer white farmers and laborers. These were easier to be exploited while their labor was undercut by slaves (who worked for “free”). Encouraging their pride in their “whiteness” led to their support for the big slaveowners and merchants, who should have been their enemies. All the cultural and political ideologies of racism were built around this exploitation and commodification of African-derived slaves.

To this day, the basic forces of racism continue in the U.S. Black people are mainly kept at the bottom of society, to be used as a pool of cheap labor. This also drags down the price to the bosses of white labor. Meanwhile racism divides the working class by “paying” the whites with feelings of superiority and with limited relative privileges.

Wilkerson asserts “Americans pay a steep price for a caste system that runs counter to the country’s stated ideals.” (p. 384) Some “Americans” pay this price, not only People of Color but also white workers. While the U.S. is the richest country on earth, racism has weakened its labor movement, which is in decline. A divided work force has been unable to force the state to provide universal health insurance (unlike all other imperialist countries). But other “Americans” have done well due to racism. The very rich have gained greater profits, lower taxes, and more right-wing, pro-business, political parties than in many other wealthy nations.

The same has been basically true of Southern Asia, despite historical and social differences. No doubt the upper castes felt pride in their “superiority” to the lower castes. But the upper castes lived off a surplus produced by the labor of the lower castes. Without the work of the overworked, impoverished, lower castes, the proud priests, warriors, and merchants would have starved. The division into many castes and subcastes served to keep the lower castes divided and hostile to each other, and all of them against the outcaste Dalits—weakening them and keeping them from uniting against their exploiters. This system has been much affected by modern industrial capitalism, yet it still has deep roots in the current exploitative system.

German anti-Semitism (meaning anti-Jewishness) was worked up by the Nazis into an ideology. Despite some use of Jewish slave labor, it was different from the above examples. Jews were not presented as simply inferior, but also as capable of being superior, as able to rule over the “Aryans” if not stopped. The Nazis’ aim was not to create an undercaste of easily exploited Jewish workers (which is why the Jews could be exterminated). It was to justify their rule—and the rule of their big business supporters—to the working class and middle class. The popular hostility to the capitalist class was misdirected toward the Jews. (As had been previously said, “Anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools.”) A similar distorted anti-capitalism (misdirecting popular hostility from the capitalist elite) is part of the revival of anti-Semitism on the right in the U.S. today. (See Price 2019)

Further examples of the intersection of caste and class—with similarities and differences—could be shown by analyzing other cases. However, Wilkerson does not discuss caste oppressions in apartheid South Africa or Latin America or under British and French colonialism. (But it would be unfair to criticize her for not writing a different book).

Looking at the U.S. in terms of caste—and caste only—is distorting. There is not simply a dominant caste of whites above a subordinate caste of Blacks. “Whites” as a group do not actually run this society. There is a minority of ultra-rich people, almost all white and male, which dominates the whole society, including its white majority. They are the bourgeoisie, the upper class, the capitalists, the ruling class—more-or-less the “one percent”. The wealth produced by the whole society is mostly drained off by them, through their control of private property. White and Black and brown workers all labor for them. Working through their minions and agents, they dominate the political parties and the state as a whole, as well as all other mainstream institutions. They maintain caste because it maintains them, their wealth and power.

What Next?

Wilkerson does not ground caste in the basic functioning of society, its production and distribution. Essentially she accepts society as it is, in its major institutions—except for caste (and gender) oppression. Therefore she lacks a program for abolishing racism. After all her condemnation of the evils of our caste-ridden society, all she can come up with is “radical empathy” by individuals. This means, “putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience….If each of us could truly see and connect with the humanity of the person in front of us…it could…perhaps change the way we hire or even vote.” (p. 386) More forcefully, but still vaguely, she declares that we should not only not be racist or sexist, but should be “pro-African-American, pro-woman, pro-Latino, pro-Asian, pro-indigenous, pro-humanity in all its manifestations.” (p. 386-7) Good as far as it goes, but this little list does not include being pro-worker, pro-peasant, or pro-poor. Instead she appears to identify with the “we” who “hire” workers. (Wilkerson also calls for a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to discuss the effects of caste in the U.S. As her only institutional proposal, this is rather limited.)

Downplaying economic issues, she attacks “the Democrats’ wistful yearning for white working-class voters that they believe should respond in higher numbers to their kitchen table appeals. Why, some people on the left keep asking, why, oh why, were these people voting against their own interests?” (p. 327) Her answer is that it was actually in these people’s interest to maintain their superior place in a caste system; white workers are racist and rationally so.

She agrees with the liberals that white workers’ “kitchen table” self-interest would really be to vote for the Democrats. But since about 1970 the post-war prosperity has been over and the economy has been going downhill, in what has been called “secular stagnation” (overall—with ups and downs). Workers’ wages have declined or stagnated. Family incomes have been maintained only by wives going to work and by the ballooning of family debt. Unions have drastically decreased. Automation and off-shore investing have shrunk the job pool. Rural and semi-rural parts of the country have sunk into depression conditions, in a vast “rust belt.”

All this happened under Republican and Democratic presidents and congresses. Why then should white (or other) workers conclude that the Democrats offer a better “kitchen table” program? And without a realistic class appeal, it is not surprising that they vote their prejudices and caste “interests.” To break them from these racist and nativist fallacies, it would be necessary to give them the possibility of fighting for their real interests—against their real enemies. These are Republican and Democratic and all other agents of the capitalist class and state.

Despite her book’s virtues, Isabel Wilkerson’s vision is too limited. Essentially she sees a society pretty much the same as ours, but without caste or sexism. Capitalism remains, as does the bureaucratic-military-police state, exploiting and oppressing the vast majority—but with no castes nor gender inequality. But white supremacy and patriarchy are too intertwined with capitalism and its state to abolish the first while leaving the latter standing. A more revolutionary perspective is needed. To some, it may seem “realistic” to focus on caste and ignore capitalism, but it is completely unrealistic in practice.

References

Price, Wayne (2019). Why the Jews? Thoughts by an Anarchist Jew on the rise in Anti-Semitism. https://www.anarkismo.net/article/31413?search_text=Wayne+Price

Steingberg, Stephen (2021). “Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Occulsion of Political Economy.” New Politics. XVII; 2; Winter. Pp. 120—123.

Wilkerson, Isabel (2020). Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. NY: Random House.

* written for www.Anarkismo.net

Wayne Price (not verified)
author

This was written by me, Wayne Price.

anon (not verified)
Same old problematic New Left narrative...

"Israel was established mostly by Europeans immigrating into a poor, colonized, “Third World,” country. The colonizers took over the country, taking the land, driving out most of the native population and dominating the rest. They established their own state, defined as the state of “the Jewish people” and not of all those who lived in the country. They set up a capitalist economy and became part of the world market. Economically, militarily, and politically, the Israeli state became closely tied to U.S. imperialism. It served as the U.S.’s agent in the region, when needed."

- All the Jews that arrived in the region prior to 1948 did not arrive in a "country". Palestine had stopped being a country since the Medieval era.

- The British are those who took over the region after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. "Mandatory Palestine" was the name given to the area named "International Zone" by the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and it was under British protectorate.

- The Jewish migration from Europe that led to the formation of the State of Israel were mainly European Jewish *refugees* of the Holocaust.

None of this justifies the policies of the Israeli Far Right since the Begin regime, but there was no such a thing as "Zionist imperialism", even if the Zionist movement benefited from British imperialism.

History is shades of grey, with a plot of plot holes and uncertainties. Fanatics want black & white.

Wayne (not verified)
anti-Zionism as a Left narrative?

Anon chose to respond to my essay, "Why the Jews?", which is cited in the References section.

According to Anon, what makes a country a country is not the people or the culture or history, but the legal rules set up by international imperialism. "Palestine had stopped being a country...'Mandatory Palestine'...was under British protectorate." By this method, Poland was not a country when it was ruled by Czarist Russia, Prussia, and Austria. India was not a country while the British ruled it. Tibet is not a country today nor is Puerto Rico.

For mostly-European colonists (however they had previously been persecuted by a country in Europe) to take over land in which indigenous people lived for centuries (the Arab Palestinians)--this is an example of imperialism The problem is not the politics of the Zionist right, which now dominates the Israeli state, but of Zionism itself, even as once led by social democrats.

anon (not verified)
A country is a

A country is a territorialization. Unless you use "country" as in the geographic notion of "the country" in reference to the some rural areas, this is an a byproduct of modernity where country has become an analogy for a Nation-State, or at least a territorially-defined nation.

When asking today "which country you're from", people will rather tend to give the name of a Nation-State as answer, than some bioregion like "the North American East Coast" or "the Alps".Which is problematic as this is only an abstract notion defining an order of citizenship, or at best a belonging to an ethnically-defined area (i.e.. Basque country or Kurdistan).

There are very little historical sources claiming for a Palestine as a straight reference to a defined country prior to 100 years ago, to as far back as the Abbasid Caliphate, other than in some figurative way. The area was part of a larger Ottoman province, and this made sense, as the Turks didn't care about the former Roman territory known as "Syria Palaestina"; like any empire they had their own territorialization. The area shifted back and forth from being a defined territory to an undefined area inhabited by the Semitic Phillistines, Judeans as well as the Canaanites, depending on which empire or caliphate ruled the place.

anon (not verified)
But it is only today possible

But it is only today possible to say the words "Zionism itself," because only today has it been reified. There was a time when Zionism was full of internal tensions, and the question of the State was one of the most tense. Not only social democrats. There were anarchist Zionists. It sounds impossible today because the word has congealed. But it was once possible for the word to stand for something anti-State.

anon (not verified)
Cue to radical commie Kibbutz in the '70s...

Ben Gurion was also a flaming social democrat, like it or not.

It's true how it's a fucking joke how Zionism these days is so much associated a fascistic White supremacist doctrine. Like does Price and other New Leftists even know about the Jewish Revisionist mafia gangs like Lehi and Irgun, and the role they played in the formation of the current militaristic regime?

anon (not verified)
I am the anon you're replying

I am the anon you're replying to and I'm a bit confused by the first part of your comment. I wasn't thinking of Ben Gurion, I hadn't even heard of him. My argument is that Zionism used to be a term that was able to encompass anti-State aspirations. (I could drop a name or two if you really want, but most of the most anarchistic people in the movement have probably been forgotten to history, as is the way of history.) Giving the name of a single Zionist social democrat does not refute this.

Wayne (not verified)
Zionism and the Palestinians

I admit to being disappointed that no one has remarked on my essay on caste and racism, or even on the body of my article on anti-Semitism. But I will respond to the above comments anyway:

Yes, there were Zionists who were at least influenced by anarchism, the philosopher Martin Buber being the most well-known. However the main influence in the founding of the Zionist state were the social democrats , who were clear that they wanted a national Jewish state, in the context of a capitalist market economy. There were also rightist semi-fascist Zionists (admirers of Mussolini), who fought with the social democrats--and whose political descendants now run the government. Both factions agreed on creating a Zionist, Jewish state--and not the state of all the population, such as Arabs. (So did more moderate liberal Zionists.) They agreed on the need to bring in (mostly European) Jews to take over the land, to dispossess the Palestinian Arabs, and to set up their own state.

The other stuff is irrelevant. To what extent the communities of Palestinian Arabs thought of themselves as a "country" or whether the various imperial rulers thought of Palestine as a "country" is not the point. It's like asking whether the British settlers of east Africa ("Rhodesia," Kenya, etc.) were occupying the land of Africans who thought they had a "country." Who cares? They were settlers, occupiers, and imperialists--and anarchists should be in solidarity with the Africans. (Which does not mean that we agree with programs of nationalism or statism held by the leaderships.)

anon (not verified)
"Both factions agreed on

"Both factions agreed on creating a Zionist, Jewish state--and not the state of all the population, such as Arabs."

This is where you, just like this usual New Left narrative, are wrong.

Arabs represent 20% of the Israeli society, they've been active also in several kibbutz. Gaza was under attack for years, yes, but organizations like Hamas and the PFLP, who deem to represent the Palestinians, have always been at war not just with the Israeli State, but Jews as a whole (synanogues have been bombed elsewhere by some of these groups, jsyk). Are these the Arabic people? No. They're just a bunch of authoritarian cultists. Factions that the New Left, ever since the RAF at least, has been treating as their unconditional comrades. Which is a huge issue when you realize that these groups often promote reactionary values as well as still being in love with Hitler. You literally got Erdogun and the Iran regime siding with Palestine all over.

The view that Israel was always a Jewish-exclusive State, where it was rather a Jewish-fronted State, is only that of the Far Right faction in charge since Begin. But is a Jewish-dominated secular State a problem? is a State a problem? Sure, I guess. But let's also talk about the several, less secular Muslim-dominated States in the Middle-East and elsewhere while we're at it.

Wayne (not verified)
Anti-Nationalist but Pro-Palestinian

First the above writer appears to deny that the both the Zionist social democrats and the Zionist Revisionists (far-rightists) aimed to create a Jewish State. This is absurd. Then he claims that Arabs have "been active also in several kibbutz." This is true only as small minorities, not enough to change anything. My critic claims that Palestinian Arabs are "20% of the Israeli society." True, since the settlers came and drove most of them off the land into neighboring countries. This was necessary if there was to be a Jewish state.

Finally he points out that various Palestinian and Arab organizations are "authoritarian cultists." So this justifies the Palestinians being dispossessed and now denied the right to return or to have their own state (or self-governing community)? Anarchists have always opposed programs of nationalism and the establishment of national states as the solution to various forms of national and other oppressions--such as anti-Semitism or colonialism.

I explicitly wrote in my comments above, just for this person to see: "(Which does not mean that we agree with programs of nationalism or statism held by the leaderships.). That should have been clear enough, despite its brevity.

anon (not verified)
Ever heard of the Mizrahim, Wayne?

Unlike Jews, Arabs are an ethnic group unrelated to religious affiliation, as there is also a seizable amount of Arabic Jews.

It's funny how one can claim being anti-nationalist yet Pro-Palestine, lol... What is the Palestinian identity if not a national identity reinstated by the PLO in the 1960s?

PLO was the official political front of the Ḥarakat al-Taḥrīr al-Waṭanī al-Filasṭīnī (Palestinian National Liberation Movement). There was no reference to Palestinians in the Pan-Arab movement led Prince Faisal and supported by the British Empire through Sykes and Lawrence. Under the Mandatory Palestine how would that have changed? At least I haven't found sources talking about Palestinians as a sociological reality prior to the '60s, other than just "the Muslim Arabs living in the area".

Under the MP, the Muslim Arabic opposition to the Jewish Nation-State were the Pan-Arabic Jihadists. The very flag held for Palestine -as if should know to everyone by now-is the flag of the Jihad Army. There wasn't even a reference of a Palestinian struggle of sorts. The two armed factions engaged against the Jews in 1948 were consisting of Muslim Arabs from the entire region... from Syria to Lebanon, and Egypt to Iraq.

Even when I was young in the '70s everyone was talking about "Arabs" and "Muslims" in general. I just started hearing about "Palestine" in the '90s, since it was a national territorial claim within the national liberation movement. This is all narratives. Palestine as an Arab country did not exist before it was claimed by this national liberation movement. There were many Arab-dominated towns for sure... but this doesn't mean they were part of "Palestine".

I am for a No-State Solution to the conflict in Israel. National liberation movement is State-building from the start, and just like any State it is based on militarism, on authoritarian regime funded and armed by foreign regimes.

Peaceful coexistence in the region between Jews and Muslims was a tough challenge for a long time, amplified by this toxic mixture of nationalism and religion fueled by resentment over-used for 100 years. Yet that doesn't mean either group should leave. These are the narratives that deserve to be abandoned in favor of better, freer views of human relations. Apolitical countercultural movements in Israel, that are inclusive to Arabic people, should stand as example, and less of that same-old ISM & PFLP politically-charged bullshit.

Wayne (not verified)
Nations and Nationalism

I too am for a "no state solution." But this must mean the co-existence of the two national communities, which are real peoples existing today. How can this be done unless we recognize the Palestinian Arabs as a functioning people, a nation, which determines its own future? I focus on the Palestinians, since the Hebrew-speaking nation of Israeli Jews has the system it wants, its own state, and is denying that right to the Palestinians.

anon (not verified)
The no state solution is

Quite literally understanding that "Palestinian" is an idea, identity, not really much of a spook but some word that applies to people living on a mass of land.

For example, anyone outside of the US, or some patriot, bureacracy, considers me an American. How much weight do I give this? I dont know. Depends on my surroundings. Am I entitled to any of the constitutional amendments? If a judge thinks I am, then yes.

Why do you think that a Palestinian state is going to be any less oppressive than any other lists of states I could belt out for you?

anon (not verified)
The nationalist factions on

The nationalist factions on both side have to be undermined, and dismantled. Likud, the other Far Right Zionist/Ultra-Orthodox groups, PLO, Hamas and PLFP are all responsible for this mess that only is unresolvable as far as they are still in charge and enforcing their politics. They all got retrograde authoritarian, sectarian politics that are repulsive and support brutal violence.

Wayne (not verified)
Anarchists and a Palestinian State?

"Why do you think that a Palestinian state is going to be any less oppressive than any other lists of states I could belt out for you?"

I don't. I am not for a Palestinian state. I explicitly wrote (above), ""I too am for a 'no state solution.' But this must mean the co-existence of the two national communities...." I propose a federation of communities and self-managed industries. That is, I am for anarchist socialism.

But alas! the Palestinians do not agree with you or me! Foolishly, perhaps, they know nothing of anarchism and want their own democratic state in some form. Given this reality, what should anarchists do? Should we say, to hell with you Palestinians, you do not know what is good for you, so we anarchists (sitting in imperialist countries mostly) refuse to support you against your Israeli oppressors. Let us know when you wake up and decide to agree with us, the enlightened elite of anarchists.

Or should we say, we anarchists are always on the side of the oppressed and exploited. We are in solidarity with the Palestinian people (mostly workers, peasants, and small merchants) against the Israeli oppressors. We defend your freedom to chose your own future as a people. We think you should chose anarchist socialism, but if you chose something else (such as a national state), we will support your freedom to do so, against the Zionists and the US imperialists. We do not politically support your nationalist and statist leaders and their organizations and parties, however, and will continue to criticize them. We hope over time you will learn from your own experience and come to agree with us on the program of international anarchist revolution.

anon (not verified)
you're right, sorry if i misspoke

but you said "national community"? Doesn't that immediately imply some sort of Machiavellian oppression? Do all the victims of Ireal's bullshit in the matter get an equal say in these grand ideas?

I get it, people on computers in far off distant lands can't really talk about these issues with any clarity. I was not implying that being suspicious of this "palestinian" identity means us concerned people should just not give a shit. The problem in the end is that anarchist praxis, lifestyle, thinking excludes these organizational plans that seem to be getting discussed, IN MY OPINION. I mean, maybe you are just saying that something like rojava is preferable to better representation within the palestinian nation state, but i don't know. What language do people even speak in the area? I know isreal is largely an "international" english speaking empire. My role in this is i just want to covet the lands i'm used to, and stay out of the activist mindset. I am quite literally useless in terms of all these organizations.

Hamas socialist solidarity? *scratches head*

a (not verified)
aa

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson has been a highly praised and best-selling book. Reviewers have acclaimed her insights into U.S. racism. These are made by comparing U.S. white supremacy to the South Asian (Asian Indian) caste system as well as to the German Nazis’ anti-Semitic laws. In general, readers have responded to her clear, smooth, and warm writing. She uses anecdotes from her own life as an African-American woman professional, as well as using frequent anecdotal incidents from others, combined with a deft use of historical narratives. To European-Americans, she brings racial oppression alive in heart-rendering detail. To U.S. people in general she gives a glimpse into the oppression of low caste and outcaste Indians (Dalits or “Untouchables”).

Her basic thesis is that the primary underlying structure of the U.S. (at least) is that of caste. To her, race is the cover of caste. Castes are arranged in hierarchies, with superior and inferior castes, dominant and subservient, those worth more and those of less value. The essential issue is not one of mass prejudice (although there may be a lot of prejudice, including out-and-out hatred by dominant caste members). The issue is a society structured around a hierarchy of castes.

Our society is divided by a number of criteria into several hierarchical systems (I sometimes think of it as a pile of pick-up sticks, leaning on each other). But unlike some subsystems, caste is something people are born into and cannot get out of. “It is the fixed nature of caste that distinguishes it from class….” (p. 106) People may be born into the middle class and rise to the upper class or sink to the lower class. They cannot stop being of whatever caste they were born into, no matter how rich they become. Caste is not the same as being in a religious group, since people may change their religion. It is not even ethnicity. Irish-Americans may marry Italian-Americans, producing white “Catholic Americans”.

Of course, this is an abstraction. The line between what is a caste and what a religious group may be altered. The Nazis insisted on arresting Catholics with Jewish origins, despite opposition from the Church; Nazis treated “Jews” as a “racial” caste, rather than a religious group. In the U.S., a small number of African-Americans has “passed” into the white population in each generation (but they have mostly kept their racial history a secret).

As I see it, the only categorical division similar to caste is gender. People are born into one of two genders, one of which is “superior” to the other. This is the gender they are assigned all their lives—with a very few exceptions. Some theoreticians have called this a “gender-caste” system. Wilkerson gives many examples of gender and race/caste interacting, in her case and that of others. But she does not really examine the structure of their interaction.

Wilkerson proposes eight “pillars” of caste. One is accepting a “divine and spiritual foundation for the belief in a human pyramid willed by God.” (p. 104) The second is the heritability of a fixed nature. The third is “to keep the castes separate and to seal off the bloodlines of those assigned to the upper rung…—endogamy.” (p. 109) The fourth is “the fundamental belief in the purity of the dominant caste and the fear of pollution from the castes deemed beneath it.” (p. 115) Six is dehumanization. “A caste system relies on

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