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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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