Caste and Race

I have just finished reading Caste by Isabel Wilkerson.  This was a best-selling sensation when it came out a couple of years ago, and I’m sorry I didn’t read it sooner.  It is quite a powerful presentation of race in America as an instance of the wider and deeper phenomenon of caste, which Wilkerson analyzes in India and Nazi Germany for comparison.  If you haven’t read it yet, I strongly urge you to do so.  It will transform and deepen your understanding of racism and the long history of slavery in America, and illuminate the ways that caste, even more than race, is central to the conflicts of our past and the political battles being fought today.

We think that racial issues in America have to do with skin color, and they do, but the oppressed minorities in India (the “untouchables,” or Dalits) and Nazi Germany (Jews, Romany, homosexuals, communists and others) were not defined by skin color.  Dalits in India can be light skinned, dark skinned, or of medium complexion—skin color is not a reliable indicator.  Dalits are identified by higher caste people by their last names, their clothing, the quality of how they speak and use language, and where they live.  People in India are expert at discerning who is lower caste or Dalit by asking a few pointed questions.

In Nazi Germany, Jews were not readily identifiable by their skin complexion or appearance either.  They were known by their names,  their manner, their way of speaking, and sometimes their hair color or subtle facial characteristics.  Wilkerson explains that during the Nazi era there was significant anxiety among non-Jewish Germans who might have dark hair or olive skin, and who strove to prove that they were not Jewish using genealogical researchers who ran a thriving business serving them.  

What is most compelling, even shocking, about Wilkerson’s research is how easily caste can be created, and how difficult it is to uproot.  During slavery times in America it was easy to identify the bottom caste–our “untouchables”–by skin color.  But even though the Civil War ended slavery, caste has persisted during the 100 years of Jim Crow, and has remained a factor even after the civil rights era.  Caste is difficult to eradicate, particularly because among high-caste people it is largely unconscious—though lower caste people are continually aware of it.  White people’s sense of superiority over people of color seems to be about caste even more than race, and anxiety about losing caste privilege is existential.  Wilkerson says that in any caste-based society, the privileged caste will sacrifice almost anything—their livelihood, their health care, their social standing, even their very lives—to maintain their caste status.

The question arises, where does caste come from? How does it originate? Is it mandated or does it just emerge?  Wilkerson gives an example of an American school teacher who, to help her elementary school students understand slavery, divided the class into blue-eyed and brown-eyed children.  She explained to her students that as an experiment, the blue-eyed children would be superior, and the brown-eyed children inferior.  Within 15 minutes the children had internalized this hierarchy; the blue-eyed children began to bully and mistreat the brown-eyed children and relish their superiority.  What’s more, it wasn’t long before the brown-eyed children became upset and depressed, and noticeably less able to pay attention and learn.  In just a short time, the “lower caste” children began to demonstrate some learning disability.  Think of what that means for children of color, who in real life have to endure caste prejudice for the entirety of their educational years.

This is shocking enough.  But when the teacher reversed the roles, and made the brown-eyed children superior, the exact same pattern emerged with almost no time lag or adjustment.  The memory of blue-eyed superiority was erased as though by magic. The brown-eyed children, now superior, began to act exactly as the blue-eyed children had done only a few moments before. What does all this mean? Is the “caste” circuit embedded in the human brain so deeply rooted that, even among children, it can be activated with so little effort? Are we all little “Lord of the Flies” brutes inside, needing only the slightest encouragement to begin acting out?

There is a common assumption that racism in America is something learned early in life, and that it can be unlearned later through education.  The teacher’s eye color experiment questions that thesis.  The children didn’t need to “learn” their oppressive behavior; it wasn’t inculcated by their parents at home, it didn’t require years of racist conditioning.  It was almost as if their knowledge of caste behavior was a dormant seed in their young minds that could be germinated with almost no effort. 

Because I am a Buddhist and believe in the innate goodness of people, I hope that I am  wrong about this “caste gene.”  But I don’t have an alternative explanation.  Wilkerson studied caste in India and consulted with many experts in that society, and found that caste in that culture defeated every attempt at change, although many have tried over many decades and centuries, and the effort is ongoing. Caste persists in India as in America against all odds, almost as though it is some toxin carried in the very air we breathe.

Nevertheless, Wilkerson writes, we must not lose hope.  We must not give up.  Caste makes us less than fully human, wherever on the caste hierarchy we may reside.  We must continue to struggle against the tide; that is her final message.

It’s a sobering message, and a call to action.  After reading Wilkerson’s book as a white person who has, unconsciously for the most part, benefited all my life from being in the dominant caste, I felt chastened but also renewed to realize that to understand this process of caste as deeply as possible is the first step in overcoming it.

Again: if you haven’t already, read the book.  One reviewer said he thought it was the most important non-fiction book of this century.  I think he may be right.