Book Interview: Isabel Wilkerson on Racism and Caste Systems

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Where in the world might we find something that is or was comparable to American racism? Should we look at South African apartheid, or at the British class system? Or at the Paris suburbs where French citizens of North African extraction commute to the least desirable jobs in the city?

Isabel Wilkerson, the prize-winning reporter and author of The Warmth of Other Suns, the story of the great black migration from the Jim Crow South to jobs in the industrial cities of the North, has now written a book that is about both the American racial divide and two other hierarchical systems. She sees parallels to Jim Crow in the Nazis’ criminalization of German Jewry—through race laws that were strongly inspired by American eugenics—and even more so in the caste system of India.

The title of her new book is Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. It retells the history of American racism from slavery to segregation, from everyday indignities to the use of lethal force. Throughout, she strives to write not of whites and Blacks, but of the majority caste and the minority caste.

What insight do we gain if we think of racial discrimination and disparities in America as features of a caste system?

We are accustomed to the language that we’ve inherited: the language of Black versus white, of race as the prime identifier of who a person is and how they’re seen in the world. I think that the idea, the phenomenon, the concept of caste takes us out of what we think we know. It takes us out of the realm of the familiar, and it brings us to a different way of looking at ourselves. It also challenges us to think beyond what we think we see, and to look at the structure of a thing. Caste is about structure. It is the infrastructure of our divisions that seem to be so persistent despite all of the progress that we’ve made.

You had been writing about the African American experience, and you met people from India who come from the lowest rung in that country, called Dalits, who used to be referred to as untouchables. Did you instantly see parallels between your experience in America and theirs in India?

The idea of using the word caste came to me in the process of working on The Warmth of Other Suns. There were anthropologists who went into the Jim Crow South many decades before the civil rights movement, who studied it and then emerged with the language that made a connection to India and other ancient hierarchies. The idea of using that term seemed more appropriate given what I was discovering. I mean, a lot of us think we know what happened in the Jim Crow South, because we see the imagery of the Black and colored water fountains and the white water fountains, but it was so much more than that.  I was trying to get at the deeper, more complex ways of controlling human behavior.

You write, “A caste is more than rank. It is a state of mind that holds everyone captive, the dominant imprisoned in an illusion of their own entitlement, the subordinate trapped in the purgatory of someone else’s definition of who they are and who they should be.” Is this a description of lower-caste Indians and also of African Americans?

Absolutely. Of course, the countries are so very different in so many ways, but the parallels in how one experiences being at the bottom of a hierarchy I found to be very compelling. I found it was very easy for me to talk with and share experiences with people I met. I could finish their sentences and they finished mine. They would often gravitate toward me, and I felt an instant connection that really transcends boundaries, crosses oceans and landmasses. It’s stunning how similar the general reaction was to being placed at the bottom of a hierarchy for so long.

You describe how you reached a point where you could sense who was who in the interactions between high-caste and low-caste Indians. You could sense the pecking order of things by the way people acted with each other.

Yes, just from observing the subtle interactions and the response to dominance versus subjugation. It just played out in front of me. I remember once I was talking with a Dalit scholar, having a wonderful conversation with her about a presentation she had just made. Someone came up to us and interrupted what we were talking about. With a tremendous sense of entitlement and comfort, she began to tell the Dalit scholar what she had missed and what she should consider the next time she gave this presentation. After the woman left, I asked the Dalit scholar, did she know this person? She said, “No, it’s a complete stranger. I have no idea who she was. She was upper caste. She was letting me know that she was superior.” That behavior was an extreme but quiet example of the power dynamic that I saw unfold whenever I was in a mixed group.

It is a tribute to the book that it forces the reader into introspection. It made me think, “Just how white am I, how much of a member of the majority caste?” I grew up in lower Manhattan, in a place that actually was publicly segregated. The builder said, “Blacks will not live here.” I understand that there was an element of white privilege in my life even though my grandparents arrived in this country in the late 19th century. At the same time, that led to no sense of great solidarity on my part as a Jewish kid in lower Manhattan with the Italian kid in the next neighborhood, or the Ukrainian kid or the Irish kids who all went to Catholic school. There was no coherent caste. There may have been a distinction between us that white people enjoy from Black people, but not a coherent sense of it. We defined ourselves more narrowly than that, I think. What would you make of that? 

Thank you for describing that, because it reminds us of how the United States from 1790 on has attempted to curate the population by making distinctions as to who could immigrate and who could become American. What were the barriers and definitions, and who could meet the standard of white? At the turn of the 20th century in particular, there was tremendous upheaval over who could be considered white enough to be able to get access to citizenship in the United States. All of these contested ethnicities were being assessed and often excluded. People who would now be considered white without question—people from Southern and Eastern Europe—were of provisional status, were not considered to fall under the definition of white, not that long ago.

This is all a reminder of how arbitrary so much of this actually is and how divisive it has been. The idea of a bipolar hierarchy was established at the very beginning, back before the country was founded. The bottom group was those who had been enslaved and their descendants. What then happens to those people who enter and do not fit the prescribed definitions? That’s where the tensions can arise. Starting in 1924, there were tremendous restrictions on coming into this country, growing out of the eugenics movement, as to who was seen as fit to be included in the dominant caste. The groups who did not fit the extremes faced the tension of having to prove themselves, to elbow their way in, to try to navigate where they fit in a bipolar hierarchy. Of course, this hierarchy encourages people, if they can find any way to do so, to identify with and accede to the expectations of the dominant caste in order to win the rights accorded them. 

In the early 20th century, there were many court cases by those seeking access to those rights. One Japanese immigrant who’d been in this country for about 20 years petitioned the court saying, “I should be white because my skin is whiter than the people who are identified as white.” 

Let’s talk about the German Jews for a moment. You write about how the German race laws of the 1930s made German Jews untouchable: They treated them as subhuman, then turned them into a despised caste. I found myself thinking when I was reading that part of the book, that knowing where the Nazis were headed in the 1940s, calling what was created in the 1930s a caste system seems too generous. The Jews in Germany served no economic purpose as a result of these laws under the Nazi regime. They were deprived of purpose. Doesn’t a caste system imply that there are assigned roles, which may be very unappealing, like backbreaking labor, or servility—in Japan there was a caste of people who dealt with leather tanning and other noxious jobs—but are beneficial to the higher castes? Whereas the German Jews weren’t being put to work at some odious task; perhaps it hadn’t been made clear quite yet, but they were being simply prepared for extermination. 

I completely agree that there are many differences. But one of the purposes of a subordinated caste is to be a scapegoat, to solidify those who are assigned to the dominant group and unify them against a common enemy. One thing we know about the decades leading up to the Third Reich is the scapegoating and horrific stereotyping and propaganda that was used against German Jews in those years. They were othering people, making outcasts of a group of people who had been so central to the workings of the country. 

W.E.B. Dubois said about the end of the Civil War that enslavers feared the success of their slaves more than their expected failures. When an outcast group is deemed to be lower, subhuman, that elevates those deemed as being at the top. Any indication to the contrary—that the people on the bottom actually have brilliance and abilities and talents—is further triggering to those who have been deemed naturally superior. So the success of German Jews was such a resented feature because people were so invested in the existence of a subordinate group. A caste system requires having someone at the bottom in order to have the dominating group feel better about itself, feel that divine laws of nature set it up as superior. 

Remember, there was all the eugenics and pseudoscience that was prevailing in the decades leading up to it as well, on both sides of the Atlantic. German eugenicists were often in dialogue with American eugenicists. There was a cauldron of attention and focus and obsession, one might say, with keeping one group as an outcast as it was building up to what would be a horror.

When I was looking up caste origins of various Indian leaders after I read the book, I noticed one prime minister whose caste was identified by the job of picking coconuts–that’s a pretty tight definition. I guess I’ve associated the word “caste” with that kind of unique system of discrimination with remarkably narrow definitions of what a caste was supposed to do.

I do not present myself as an expert on Nazi Germany in that respect. My goal is to shed light on our country’s hierarchy and to see that there are parallels, as different as these many cultures clearly are in so many ways. 

I should also say that how I came to include Germany at all in this was after Charlottesville, in which, shockingly to people here and around the world, the protesters were combining the emblems of both the Confederacy and of Nazi Germany. They themselves were seeing this connection while seeking to prevent the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Virginia. That was how I first began looking at it. I actually had no idea of the extent of connection between Americans and what the Nazis were studying and doing back then. I had no idea that they’d actually sent people to the United States to study the Jim Crow laws. Of course, the Nazis needed no one to teach them how to hate. But it was stunning to discover these connections that I never would have imagined.

I want you to talk a little bit about Professor Allison Davis, an African American anthropologist who did field work in Mississippi during the Jim Crow era. He was one of the leaders of that project and somebody who introduced or popularized the use of the word “caste” to describe what he was seeing. He’s not as well-known as W.E.B. Dubois.

In the book I attempt to bring attention to and to honor the people who were on the front lines of studying this phenomenon in very dangerous times. Allison Davis was very well educated; he had several degrees from Harvard. Along with his wife, the anthropologist Elizabeth Stubbs Davis, he journeyed to Mississippi in the 1930s, when the Jim Crow system was in full array. They joined another couple, a white couple, and they found that they could not carry themselves the same way that they could in the North. They had to act out the roles they would have been assigned.

The white couple actually could not be seen with them out in public. They could not be shown to be friends. Allison Davis took a tremendous risk by going there. He had to act subservient to his white colleague when actually, he was the leader of the research project. He could not walk in their front door. The only way they could consult was for the white anthropologist to pick up Allison Davis on a street corner and drive out into an isolated area, so that they would not be seen collaborating. That would have been a breach of the caste system. They were there for several years, living what they were studying, and they emerged with the language of caste.

Your book is coming out in a year when the stark racial inequities of American life have never been so undeniable, whether it’s who gets sick, who loses a job or who gets killed by the cops. Do you think that Americans are likely to accept the caste label to describe the way our society has divided itself?

I think that the era in which we live, in which we have been exposed to video after video, testimony after testimony, we’ve been able to see these things for ourselves. These things have been happening for a long time. They just hadn’t been known by as many people, or by people who don’t have to live every day with the fear of this happening to someone that they know and love, or to themselves. The testimony and the evidence that we’ve been able to see for ourselves is a reminder that these things are actually occurring, not in the ancient past, not in decades before, but right now, in our time, in this moment. I think that this has forced us to reckon with our own history to figure out, what does it mean when we’ve had a civil rights movement and had civil rights legislation that many people would’ve thought had taken care of all this?

In the 1930s and 1940s, there had not been a Supreme Court Justice who was African American. There had not been African American senators since Reconstruction. There had not been anyone in the Oval Office other than a butler who was African American. Now, we have long since disproved the assumptions and the stereotypes. There is no reason to believe in the stereotypes that had been the basis for the hierarchies to begin with. Yet we see the enduring consequences of this hierarchy, of this artificial, arbitrary, graded ranking of human value. It has persisted in spite of the many achievements and successes that have occurred since the civil rights era.

There’s a document of those successes on the cover of your book, which is the reproduction of a sticker that says “Oprah’s Book Club, 2020.” But ultimately, you’re saying that you can recognize the successes that have defied the restrictions of a caste system, as you would describe it, without undermining the thesis that this is indeed the system within which we live.

Yes. Caste is the bones, race is the skin, and then class, which is what you’re alluding to, that would be the accents, the clothing, the diction, the education, the things that we can change about ourselves to attempt to transcend the barriers or to rise above the station to which we might have been born. There are ways that individuals can make the most of their abilities, but that does not protect them from the enduring underlying phenomenon of what I’m calling caste. Another way of looking at it is, if you can act your way out of it, it’s class. If you cannot act your way out of it, it’s caste.

Are you effectively using our capacity for racial or national arrogance by describing our country as having a caste system? You’re making Americans say, “My gosh, a country that I associate with dire poverty, with an ancient civilization, we are like that in a way.” Are you playing to the revulsion an American might feel to see his or her country compared to the social structure of India?

Well, as I said, there are many differences. Their histories are different, and their current standards of living may be different. The hierarchies I’m looking at are not Indian or American, but actually, sadly, human. This is what human beings all too often do in delineating and categorizing people within their societies, to the benefit of the group that is viewed as dominant and to the detriment of others. That’s a human phenomenon. And being human, Americans can experience this as any other country might.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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