Thoughts on Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson (Random House, 2020).
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I have thought a lot about this book, and what I think about it, and why, mainly because I felt ambivalent about it, and because friends who also read it described feeling differently. Maybe I have thought about it so much, then, because I felt defensive, or out of step, and wanted to justify myself. Maybe I simply wanted to make sense of my own reaction. Whatever, Caste made me think.

cover of Caste

On one hand, I appreciated this book, because I learned a lot from it, a lot that seems important to know. On the other hand, I finished the book disappointed, feeling it had promised something more or other than it delivered. On the other other hand, and trying to be fair, maybe I had unrealistic expectations from the outset.
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The learning. Mostly this is a book about the history of the oppressive legal and social condition of Black people in the US between 1620 or so and the present. It compares that condition with the condition of shudras and Dalits in India between 500 BCE or so and the present, and that of Jews under the Third Reich, identifying many parallels between the three systems.

Much of the history Wilkerson reports, in particular the details she relates about the Jim Crow laws in the former Confederate states, was news to me. I thought Jim Crow was about water fountains and bus seats. I didn’t know it prescribed what jobs people could and couldn’t be hired for (133); I didn’t know how densely legislated the matter of race was, or how tied to eligibility for citizenship, or how involved the Supreme Court was in making some of these determinations (121-127). And then there is the sheer heartbreaking accumulation of horrible stories of human misery linked to racial caste exclusions.

Here, her stories about segregation and swimming pools (119-120), though arguably far from the most horrible, struck me as particularly cruel. Probably because our daughter was a swimmer for so many years, I think of the pool as a kind of magical summer world of joy and beauty. That makes the history of the pointed and violent exclusion of other children from that world all the more bitter.

Wilkerson’s lens of caste seems to illuminate her stories, too. It shows phenomena that otherwise seem baffling – like that documented hysteria over swimming pools – as elements of a larger order that gives them an almost natural appearance. The elephant’s trunk, or the giraffe’s neck, make a kind of taxonomic sense when we know “that’s an elephant” or “that’s a giraffe.” Similarly, the ways race in the US has been the subject of laws about who can marry whom, for instance, or has featured in pervasive assumptions about competence, or has triggered disproportional displays of opposition to desegregation, look grimly predictable when depicted as instances of caste society in operation.

Wilkerson is a gifted storyteller. Personal and deeply human stories, her own and others’, instances of assaults great and small, often for the most trivial of pretexts, make up the substance of Caste. These stories leave a vivid impression of the painful human cost paid by the inhabitants of the systems she examines. Many readers of Caste will come away from the book with the acute sense that people shouldn’t have to live stories like these, and that something needs to change.
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The disappointment. I suspect these readers already feel this way, however. Wilkerson’s presentation plays to an existing, loose meta-narrative about race as a systemic feature of life in the US. Readers who have doubts about that narrative, however, will find little in Caste to change their minds.

About halfway through Caste I recalled something a friend of mine often says: “The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data.’” I kept wanting Wilkerson to offer more data alongside her anecdotes. I wanted her to make a different kind of case for her central assertion, that understanding race in the US as a mark of caste in a caste system best explains the disparate phenomena associated with race in the US, and maybe particularly things like racial micro-agressions. I think, in particular, I wanted her to do more to demonstrate that other explanatory frameworks, and other possible interpretations of some of her illustrative stories, were less plausible than her own.

For instance, Wilkerson interprets the election of Donald Trump in 2016 as backlash for the profound violation of caste protocol represented by the eight years of the Obama presidency. That’s one way to look at it; it seems reasonably plausible to me. I know others to whom, I know, it would seem less plausible. I wish Wilkerson did more to persuade those others. What’s mostly missing from Wilkerson’s account is the kind of evidence that would – or rather, should – address such readers’ objections, evidence that alternative stories don’t fit all the available data as well as the caste-violation-and-backlash story.

The same could be said about other stories Wilkerson tells. This is just one of the limitations of stories. Plausible as they are, we can always imagine others, that illustrate different explanatory frameworks. We can almost always think of counter-examples. Maybe I was expecting some hypothesis testing. Or at least some consideration, and rejection, of alternative explanations.

Wilkerson also presents many vivid analogies. The lowest caste in a caste system is like the mudsill of a building; it supports the rest of the social system the way a mudsill supports the frame of a house. The history of the legislative construction of race is like anthrax buried and frozen in permafrost. Living with the history of enforced race-based caste is like living in an old house and getting stuck dealing with its accumulated structural problems. Growing up in a caste system is like being forced to become an actor in a stage play. People are like dogs, who are happiest and most comfortable when they can assume their inborn place in the pack hierarchy, instead of having to occupy a position for which they are unsuited. (And yes, she presents this as an argument against a caste system, which assigns people to positions in the social hierarchy on the basis of their caste membership, rather than on the basis of their innate temperaments and capabilities. “I have seen slaves on horseback, and princes walking on foot like slaves.” Ecclesiastes 10:7) She has more where those came from.

Such vivid analogies promote the feeling of understanding. I get how an old house can be a money pit, for instance. I know how wear and tear and time and the elements can have brought about threats to the integrity of the structure: a leaking roof, a cracked foundation, racking walls. In that context, I understand how the past of that structure remains a problem for me, the homeowner, in the present. And because I understand that, when Wilkerson compares the social and political system of the United States to an old house, I feel I’ve gained an insight into how and why the history of race-based oppression would matter for social and political conditions today, no matter how “in the past” I think it is.

But then I think: a social and political system isn’t just like a house. In fact, it’s different from a house in at least as many ways as it is similar to one. So does my feeling of insight correspond to the specific kind of understanding of the society and of the political system I’d need to have to formulate specific policy recommendations or devise specific social remedies for the specifically social and political problems we face in today’s concrete social and political context? Recommendations and remedies that need not, since ultimately they cannot, involve a trip to the home repair store? That seems questionable to me. Some things still need explaining.
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The unrealistic expectations. On the other other hand, no author is responsible for doing something she doesn’t set out to do.

Wilkerson describes her project as an effort “to understand the origins and evolution of classifying and elevating one group of people over another and the consequences of doing so to the presumed beneficiaries and to those targeted as beneath them” (27). Caste offers an account that, as I read it, presents the human experiences she has collected as the features of a social caste system, which makes them instances of the working out of an underlying ideology. That ideology will have furnished the members of the dominant caste (at least, and possibly members of the subordinate caste as well) with basic, unquestioned assumptions about the nature of reality. The system stays in place, to the extent it does, because people act, more or less automatically, according to those basic assumptions, and act to correct or punish what they see as deviations from that acceptable norm whenever those arise.

That story allows Wilkerson to say things like “Look, that was someone acting like a member of a dominant caste,” or “See, that’s what happens when someone who obviously belongs to the subordinate caste turns up in the ‘wrong place’ in the workplace hierarchy.” She sets out to share her sense of understanding of how and why things work the way they seem to work with her readers. She accomplishes that; the book came highly recommended, by more than one person I respect, as a book that “explains everything.”

I think my own disappointed expectations began there, though. I think I heard “explains” and expected a literature review, an explicitly developed theoretical framework, some cautiously stated and delimited hypotheses, operational definitions, data and analysis, conclusions – in short, a dissertation.  

Caste is not a dissertation. That’s a fact. That doesn’t make it a fair criticism, however, or a realistic expectation of a book for a different purpose and audience. Despite my disappointment, which I imagine most readers will not share.

And Wilkerson’s Caste does contribute something important to that eventual comprehensive explanation. It makes more visible, at least to some of us, some features of our current collective condition. It reveals some of the specific practices that have shaped it over time. It exposes sometimes obscure or forgotten connections between law, behavior, attitudes, and economic outcomes. It adds to, and provides a different angle of vision on, the “everything” that needs to be explained about race and how it operates in the United States today.

We need a full and clear description of that “everything” if we hope to attain an accurate, concrete, context-specific, non-analogical kind of understanding of our social and political situation in the United States at present. We won’t even begin to explain realities we studiously ignore, or just don’t know about. We won’t try to accommodate observations we haven’t made.

So although I didn’t feel Caste “explained everything” for me, I thought what it did needed doing. I definitely learned something from it. What I learned, in particular some of the specific elements of the Jim Crow laws, seems important to me. I expect knowing more about that history will lead me to think differently about the news of the day – specifically, it gives me a different way of thinking about the context of that news. Those all feel like good reasons to have read Caste.

The book certainly raised questions for me. In particular: How far should we grant Wilkerson’s point that we have a racial caste system in the US today? Why does a caste system – as opposed to some other kind of system – arise in the first place? What has allowed that system to change as much as it has in the US? How has it been complicated and affected by the operation of class and class dynamics, for instance? Where, precisely, are the leverage points for further change? Arriving at questions like that is another good reason to read a book. Even one I had thought was going to answer more questions than it raised.

[An installment of the “Read Me” Project.]
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interior of a hollow tower of stacked books