Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents – Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents published in 2020 is a fascinating read. It was by chance that I happened to see her interview with President Barack Obama on an Instagram post. The book is insightful, full of empathy, and mind awakening. With real-life stories, it analytically explores the issue of caste, the structure of an unspoken but widely practiced system of human ranking. She shows us how our lives are restricted by what divided us centuries ago. The caste system is clearly not so much about feelings or morality as about POWER and CONTROL. She describes in a very vivid and descriptive way how modern-day caste protocols are not conscious hostility or open attacks but  an invisible wind that knocks you off your feet. When she writes about the caste system, she refers to the origins of discontent among the persecuted from an American experience.

Social stratification, a term from the social sciences, is derived from the Latin word stratum (plural strata: parallel horizontal layers) and refers to a given society’s categorization of its people into rankings of socioeconomic tiers based on factors like wealth, income, social status, occupation, and power. Four principles underlie social stratification. First, it is a property of society rather than individuals in that society. Second, it is reproduced from generation to generation. Third, it is found in every society though it differs in form, and fourth, it involves not just quantitative inequality but also qualitative beliefs and attitudes about social status. It is often the inaccessibility of resources and lack of social mobility that lead to serious discontent. Raj Chetty’s work on intergenerational mobility and tackling inequality provides credence to the lack of accessibility.

Caste, as Wilkerson describes it, goes far beyond occupational stratification and social division as most understand it. Her writing exposes clearly the intimate details of a society-wide system of social stratification categorised by perceptions of hierarchy, inclusion, exclusion, and purity. Caste goes far beyond the confines of class, gender, or race. It is an unfortunate curse of the modern world.

India has had a well-publicised caste system and untouchability based on occupations, which have been reinforced for generations. These are now being managed through social engineering initiatives such as reservations, yet it is important to know that for an untouchable to move through the social hierarchy is an arduous journey. While the occupational stratification of the society based on caste lines have long been removed since Indian Independence owing to the aggressive community organising of progressive politicians, the legacy of the caste practices is very much in play even today. Nazi Germany had another version – one of superiority, with the Aryans considered the master race (Herrenrasse) and the Slavs defined as inferior and non-Aryan (Untermenschen). From an American perspective, Wilkerson reveals the inner workings of American hierarchy in which the Jim Crow laws were used to subordinate and subjugate its African American population.

I could understand it from a personal perspective. As one living in a multi-racial society, I could relate to Wilkerson’s writings about inclusion and exclusion based on several experiences, both mine and those of others from different races, religions, and gender identities. The social stratification based on several notions are indeed painful. I remember the first time when I flew to India as a young kid and realised the trappings of a caste system. Later, as a young student, I was shocked at the demarcation of society along caste lines.

The strange thing was that while I belonged to a caste and we had a set of cultural practices unique to the caste, I had never thought about other castes till I arrived in India. The division, I realised, is real, and the separation and exclusion painful. I remember the top three ranking high performers in my class as being Brahmins (the highest among the caste system in India). They were third generation college goers, unlike most of the others who were first generation college or even school goers. Our forefathers had been either agriculturists, businesspeople, soldiers, labourers and so on, unlike their forefathers who were college graduates.

Obviously, the advantage for a better performance among the top three stemmed from several factors such as their environment, higher IQ, better nutrition, and sustained coaching. While one could not blame these high performers, the fact that centuries of caste practices had led to this state could not be ignored. The point that there had to be a programme to alter this societal imbalance has not been lost on policy makers, but what does one do when the organs of policy making are controlled by those who consider themselves superior, and social justice is left by the wayside? A sustained power play to maintain this advantage has often led to serious discontent not just in India but in several countries. Achieved status must override ascribed status.

Fortunately, my friends and teachers helped me cope with my pain when I became aware of the caste system. Even though I was a Hindu, Jesuit priests Father Merryfield, the leftist Father Macedo, and the non-conformist Father Leonard Paul helped me get over my disillusionment by coaching me to just become a better ME.  

The pillars of caste identified by Wilkerson are institutionalised by:

  • using divine will to justify inferiority,
  • reinforcing the belief that this is inherited at birth,
  • emphasising the belief that the superior is pure and must be protected from the inferior through segregation of facilities,
  • ensuring endogamous marriages to ensure the so called ‘purity’,
  • creating an occupational hierarchy to segregate people,
  • dehumanising lower caste people,
  • creating terror and imposing cruelty to the lower castes, and
  • supporting the myths of one as superior and another as inferior.

To me, the subtle but sure institutionalisation of the superiority versus inferiority divide is disastrous for any society. It is the reinforcement of these ideas that Wilkerson talks about extensively in her well-researched book. She says, the first time an African American President Barack Obama (a low caste) was elected, he did not have an easy path, and his successor did all that he could do to reinforce the superiority theme and overturn the low caste President’s legislative success. The ‘tentacles of caste,’ as she explains, are the ways in which a caste system permeates the workings of society. The superior caste people, in their anxiety to retain their superior social status as they lose their economic power, suppress the lower caste people with institutionalised obstacles to their success. The lynching of African Americans by the police force reflects unacceptable brutal practices. Sadly, the ‘narcissism of caste,’ she says, is one where culture revolves around the superior caste which is idealised. Members of the lower caste are kept captive exhibiting characteristics of the Stockholm syndrome, which makes them develop a psychological bond with their captors through institutionalised measures.

Can there be world without caste or social stratification that excludes people from a quality of life only those considered superior can enjoy? Wilkerson says it is possible, but it requires individual bravery and an enormous amount of collective will by the superior caste given the way social stratification has shaped societies. She adds that race and caste reinforce each other. “Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin.”

It will be naïve to assume that things will be the same if no change is forthcoming. Every reader of this book will have a greater understanding of the price that all of us will have to pay in a society torn by artificial divisions. After all, Khalil Gibran did say:

“I ask for opportunity NOT charity.”