The word “caste” often comes up to describe India’s system of social hierarchy, which has segmented society for centuries. But when Martin Luther King Jr. visited the country in 1959, he saw similarities between the plight of the Dalits, the lowest class in the Indian caste system, and that of Black Americans living under Jim Crow.
So does Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson.
In her new book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Wilkerson argues the United States has operated within a caste system since its inception — and that it continues to be used as a way to perpetuate discrimination and inequality.
She joined Reset to share more about her work and what we can learn from her research going forward.
On what she means by caste in the U.S.
Isabel Wilkerson: It’s the structure that we can’t see, you know, that house reference where we can see the wallpaper in the paint and the visible things, but we can’t see what’s underneath it. … So the idea of this [project] is kind of holding our country up to the light. It’s like an X-ray of our country to see what’s beneath it. Now I describe caste as the bones and race as the skin. The skin is what we can see, and that’s what’s been used as a metric of hierarchy — the tool, the signifier, the cue, the signal of where one has been assigned in this caste system from the very beginning, since before there was a United States. That’s the thing that we can see. It’s the thing that we respond to. But what’s underneath that is the infrastructure of why and how this hierarchy was built to begin with.
On how caste can help explain the racial disparities we see in modern America
Wilkerson: We’re not dealing with generally the classical open racism of our forefathers’ era. … There have been advances in our country. At the same time, we see this enduring shadow over us. … The metronome of names: Breonna Taylor and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice before, going back to Trayvon Martin and now … George Floyd — why are these things continuing to happen? Why is there a wealth gap that’s so extreme? … African Americans of the current day are the descendants of people, children and grandchildren, the people who had been denied the American dream because they were excluded from the most basic part of the American dream, which is to own a home. They were excluded legally and structurally from these things. So why are we still living with the aftereffects of this? And that’s how caste can help us understand that it’s a structure underneath what we think we see.
On how Nazi Germany took cues from the American caste system
Wilkerson: The only reason I ended up looking at Germany was after Charlottesville, where we saw the symbolism of both the Confederacy and of Nazi Germany merging. … I was stunned to discover that there had been a connection far beyond, going far deeper, than I ever would have imagined, that German eugenicists actually were in consultation with and in dialogue with American eugenicists in the years leading up to the Third Reich, that American eugenicists were writing books that were big sellers in Germany and popular among the Nazis in particular. Of course, the Nazis needed no one to teach them how to hate, … and yet they sent researchers to the United States to study the Jim Crow laws … and they went back and they [looked at] those laws as they were forming what would ultimately become the Nuremberg laws. It was absolutely just chilling and shocking to learn of this.
On how white privilege is connected to caste
Wilkerson: Part of it has to do with understanding what caste is. Caste essentially is an artificial, arbitrary graded ranking of human value in a society that determines standing and respect, benefit of the doubt, access to resources or lack thereof, assumptions of competence, intelligence and even beauty through no fault or action of one’s own. So you do not ask to be born to the top or the bottom. You’re born into it. And yet, without your even wanting to, there are entitlements that come to you, without you even trying. This is just the way that it is. And the goal here is to allow us to be able to see underneath what is made invisible, because we have been really so accustomed to this that we think that this is the way that it always is.
On our responsibility to learn from history
Wilkerson: We as a country still have a ways to go to really, truly know our own country. If you think about it as an old house, the idea of going in and learning, you know, the history of the house. I would describe myself in some ways as a building inspector writing this book, that I’m going in and looking at the system and … at the foundation and then providing essentially a report … so that we can better know and understand how we got to where we are. … We are the ones who are living in the house now. And regardless of what might have come before, it is our responsibility now to deal with the current state of the house we’re in.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Press the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.