Books | Inequality

An invisible hierarchy

Contemporary society has all but eradicated the caste system, right? Far from it, argues U.S. journalist Isabel Wilkerson

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In the West, many societies have dedicated themselves to fighting discrimination - a difficult undertaking, despite prevalent wokeness. After all, the “racism that people have drummed into us since we had a dummy does not simply stop influencing us, even if we decide to reject it,” as Kim de l'Horizon puts it in his award-winning novel “Blood Book”.

The African-American journalist Isabel Wilkerson delves into this wound in her non-fiction book “Caste”. The real problem is not (visible) racism, but the invisible caste system that lies beneath it, according to Wilkerson's thesis. India's caste society and Nazi Germany serve as references for the author to analyse racism in the USA.

As early as 1946, the Dalit activist B. R. Ambedkar noted in a letter to the African-American author and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois that the situation of the Indian “untouchables” was similar to that of the “American negroes”. The idea is not entirely new.

For Isabel Wilkerson, who in 1994 was the first African-American to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism, this extensively researched book is also very personal. She reports on her own experiences with the caste system. For example, her former interviewees who do not want to believe that she, a black woman, is a reporter for the “New York Times”.

“Like the lowest base on which a building stands, every society needs a class of people to do the dirtiest and lowest jobs, whether they like it or not”

The caste society of the US began in 1619 with the arrival of the first slaves in Virginia. Since then, “we have all been born into a silent, centuries-old game of war and assigned to teams we did not choose.”

The book focuses on the USA, and here Wilkerson distinguishes three castes: the dominant white caste, the middle Asian and Latin American, and the lowest position which is held by ex-slaves.

Caste systems benefit from the exploitation of the lowest ranks, this is true for India as well as for the USA, where slaveholders justified forced labour in the 19th century with the “mudsill theory”: like the lowest base on which a building stands, every society needs a class of people who take on the dirtiest and lowest jobs, whether they want to or not.

Those who do such jobs, however, are themselves considered unclean according to a fatal circular argument: “Their degraded position justified the degradation,” the book says.

“The cruellest feature of the system is the dehumanisation of the lowest caste”

The caste system, according to Wilkerson, rests on eight pillars. The topmost is that of heredity, from which comes the second pillar, the prohibition of intermarriage: in all three societies Wilkerson examines, those of the USA, India and Nazi Germany, there are draconian maximum penalties for what the Nazis called “racial defilement”.

The caste system includes absurd notions of purity. In India, sometimes the exams of Dalit students are not marked because the teachers, as members of a higher caste, are not allowed to touch the paper on which the tests are written.

The cruellest feature of the system is the dehumanisation of the lowest caste. Until desegregation, black people in the US were not allowed to smoke or swear or use a walking stick. Even extreme violence is permitted against members of the lowest caste.

Among the hard-to-bear descriptions in the book are those of the lynchings that were commonplace in the southern states until the middle of the 20th century. The victims were often teenagers who were accused of, for example, having looked at a white woman in an improper way.

“Caste is insidious and that's why it's so powerful, because it's not made of hate and it's not personal”

This violence against black people, Wilkerson says, continues to this day; in the killing of young black men by the police, which usually goes unpunished, the author sees a modern form of lynch law. The hierarchy of the caste system is “programmed in”.

“Caste is insidious and that's why it’s so powerful, because it's not made of hate and it’s not personal.” The rules operate in the unconscious, so there is an “inner” knowledge of a social hierarchy.

Even today, the unwritten law of caste forbids black people from buying extravagant houses. Barack Obama was already a senator when he was mistaken for a waiter at a party. If you can escape a hierarchy, it is not caste, but class, Wilkerson says.

The white lower class is only protected from dropping out of the dominant caste by the colour of its skin, so it reacts with alarm when whiteness loses value. When members of the lowest caste are successful, this means the greatest danger for the system.

The strength of opposition to its abolition was evident during Obama's presidency. During his first term, anti-black stereotypes accumulated, and Donald Trump's election victory in 2016 is seen as the revenge of the white electorate.

However, Trump has only brought to the surface what had long been on the horizon. The fact that, according to calculations, the white population in the USA will no longer be in the majority from 2042 onwards represents an identity crisis for the USA.

“Caste is like an incurable disease: it comes back when the immune system of the body politic is weakened”

The current tightening of voting laws in some states is part of the racist backlash: they are supposed to give whites a majority even if they form a minority.

Caste is like an incurable disease: it comes back “when the immune system of the body politic is weakened”. Isabel Wilkerson sees the caste system as the cause of the USA's backwardness: be it the incarceration rate, be it the number of deaths by firearms or maternal and infant mortality - everywhere, the USA performs significantly worse than the other highly developed countries of the Western world.

The author emphasises that the success of egalitarian societies is based on empathy: “People show a greater sense of shared responsibility when they see their fellow citizens as their equals.” The artificial hierarchy of the caste system cannot be changed by laws, but only by a change in consciousness.

Isabel Wilkerson’s book was hailed as an “instant American classic” in the USA after its publication in 2020 and topped the bestseller lists for weeks. Does this, finally, offer a glimmer of hope?

„Kaste“. Die Ursprünge unseres Unbehagens. By Isabel Wilkerson. Kjona Verlag, München, 2023.

“Caste. The Origins of our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson, Penguin 2023