Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (3 page)

BOOK: Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
An American Untouchable

In the winter of 1959, after leading the Montgomery bus boycott that arose from the arrest of Rosa Parks and before the trials and triumphs to come, Martin Luther King, Jr., and his wife, Coretta, landed in India, in the city then known as Bombay, to visit the land of Mohandas Gandhi, the father of nonviolent protest. They were covered in garlands upon arrival, and King told reporters, “
To other countries, I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim.”

He had long dreamed of going to India, and they stayed an entire month, at the invitation of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. King wanted to see for himself the place whose fight for freedom from British rule had inspired his fight for justice in America. He wanted to see the so-called Untouchables, the lowest caste in the ancient Indian caste system, whom he had read of and had sympathy for, but who had still been left behind after India gained its independence the decade before.

He discovered that people in India had been following the trials of his own oppressed people in America, knew of the bus boycott he had led. Wherever he went, the people on the streets of Bombay and Delhi crowded around him for an autograph.

One afternoon, King and his wife journeyed to the southern tip of the country, to the city of Trivandrum in the state of Kerala, and visited with high school students whose families had been Untouchables. The principal made the introduction.

“Young people,” he said, “I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.”

King was floored. He had not expected that term to be applied to him. He was, in fact, put off by it at first. He had flown in from another continent, had dined with the prime minister. He did not see the connection, did not see what the Indian caste system had to do directly with him, did not immediately see why the lowest-caste people in India would view him, an American Negro and a distinguished visitor, as low-caste like themselves, see him as one of them. “For a moment,” he wrote, “I was a bit shocked and peeved that I would be referred to as an untouchable.”

Then he began to think about the reality of the lives of the people he was fighting for—20 million people, consigned to the lowest rank in America for centuries, “still smothering in an airtight cage of poverty,” quarantined in isolated ghettoes, exiled in their own country.

And he said to himself, “Yes, I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States of America is an untouchable.”

In that moment, he realized that the Land of the Free had imposed a caste system not unlike the caste system of India and that he had lived under that system all of his life. It was what lay beneath the forces he was fighting in America.


What Martin Luther King, Jr., recognized about his country that day had begun long before the ancestors of our ancestors had taken their first breaths. More than a century and a half before the American Revolution, a human hierarchy had evolved on the contested soil of what would become the United States, a concept of birthright, the temptation of entitled expansion that would set in motion the world’s first democracy and, with it, a ranking of human value and usage.

It would twist the minds of men as greed and self-reverence eclipsed human conscience to take land and human bodies that the conquering men convinced themselves they had a right to. If they were to convert this wilderness and civilize it to their liking, they decided they would need to conquer, enslave, or remove the people already on it and transport those they deemed lesser beings to tame and work the land to extract the wealth that lay in the rich soil and shorelines.

To justify their plans, they took preexisting notions of their own centrality, reinforced by their self-interested interpretation of the Bible, and created a hierarchy of who could do what, who could own what, who was on top and who was on the bottom and who was in between. There emerged a ladder of humanity, global in nature, as the upper-rung people would descend from Europe with rungs inside that designation, the English Protestants at the very top as their guns and resources would ultimately prevail in the bloody fight over North America. Everyone else would rank in descending order on the basis of their proximity to those deemed most superior. The ranking would continue downward until one arrived at the very bottom—African captives transported to build the New World and to serve the victors for all their days, one generation after the next, for twelve generations.

There developed a caste system, based upon what people looked like, an internalized ranking, unspoken, unnamed, unacknowledged by everyday citizens even as they go about their lives adhering to it and acting upon it subconsciously to this day. Just as the studs and joists and beams that form the infrastructure of a building are not visible to those who live in it, so it is with caste. Its very invisibility is what gives it power and longevity. And though it may move in and out of consciousness, though it may flare and reassert itself in times of upheaval and recede in times of relative calm, it is an ever-present through line in the country’s operation.

is not a term often applied to the United States. It is considered the language of India or feudal Europe. But some anthropologists and scholars of race in America have made use of the term for decades. Before the modern era, one of the earliest Americans to take up the idea of caste was the antebellum abolitionist and U.S. senator Charles Sumner as he fought against segregation in the North. “
The separation of children in the Public Schools of Boston, on account of color or race,” he wrote, “is in the nature of Caste, and on this account is a violation of Equality.” He quoted a fellow humanitarian: “Caste makes distinctions where God has made none.”

We cannot fully understand the current upheavals or most any turning point in American history, without accounting for the human pyramid encrypted into us all. The caste system, and the attempts to defend, uphold, or abolish the hierarchy, underlay the American Civil War and the civil rights movement a century later and pervade the politics of twenty-first-century America. Just as DNA is the code of instructions for cell development, caste is the operating system for economic, political, and social interaction in the United States from the time of its gestation.

In 1944, the Swedish social economist Gunnar Myrdal and a team of the most talented researchers in the country produced a 2,800-page, two-volume work that is still considered perhaps the most comprehensive study of race in America,
An American Dilemma
. Myrdal’s investigation into race led him to the realization that the most accurate term to describe the workings of American society was not
that perhaps it was the only term that addresses what seemed a stubbornly fixed ranking of human value. He came to the conclusion that America had created a caste system and that the effort “
to maintain the color line has, to the ordinary white man, the ‘function’ of upholding that caste system itself, of keeping the ‘Negro in his place.’ ”

The anthropologist Ashley Montagu was among the first to argue that race is a human invention, a social construct, not a biological one, and that in seeking to understand the divisions and disparities in the United States, we have typically fallen into the quicksand and mythology of race. “
When we speak of the race problem in America,” he wrote in 1942, “what we really mean is the caste system and the problems which that caste system creates in America.”


There was little confusion among some of the leading white supremacists of the previous century as to the connections between India’s caste system and that of the American South, where the purest legal caste system existed in the United States. “
A record of the desperate efforts of the conquering upper classes in India to preserve the purity of their blood persists until this very day in their carefully regulated system of castes,” wrote Madison Grant, a popular eugenicist, in his 1916 bestseller,
The Passing of the Great Race
. “In our Southern States, Jim Crow cars and social discriminations have exactly the same purpose.”

A caste system has a way of filtering down to every inhabitant, its codes absorbed like mineral springs, setting the expectations of where one fits on the ladder. “
The mill worker with nobody else to ‘look down on,’ regards himself as eminently superior to the Negro,” observed the Yale scholar Liston Pope in 1942. “The colored man represents his last outpost against social oblivion.”

It was in 1913 that a prominent southern educator, Thomas Pearce Bailey, took it upon himself to assemble what he called the racial creed of the South. It amounted to the central tenets of the caste system. One of the tenets was “
Let the lowest white man count for more than the highest negro.”

That same year, a man born to the bottom of India’s caste system, born an Untouchable in the central provinces, arrived in New York City from Bombay. That fall, Bhimrao Ambedkar came to the United States to study economics as a graduate student at Columbia, focused on the differences between race, caste, and class. Living just blocks from Harlem, he would see firsthand the condition of his counterparts in America. He completed his thesis just as the film
Birth of a Nation,
the incendiary homage to the Confederate South, premiered in New York City in 1915. He would study further in London and return to India to become the foremost leader of the Untouchables and a preeminent intellectual who would help draft a new Indian constitution. He would work to dispense with the demeaning term
. He rejected the term
applied to them by Gandhi, patronizingly so to their minds. He spoke of his people as
meaning “broken people,” which, due to the caste system, they were.

It is hard to know what effect his exposure to the social order in America had on him personally. But over the years, he paid close attention, as did many Dalits, to the subordinate caste in America. Indians had long been aware of the plight of enslaved Africans and of their descendants in the pre–Civil War United States. Back in the 1870s, after the end of slavery and during the brief window of black advancement known as Reconstruction, an Indian social reformer named Jotiba Phule found inspiration in the abolitionists. He expressed hope “
that my countrymen may take their noble example as their guide.”

Many decades later, in the summer of 1946, acting on news that black Americans were petitioning the United Nations for protection as minorities, Ambedkar reached out to the best known African-American intellectual of the day, W.E.B. Du Bois. He told Du Bois that he had been a “student of the Negro problem” from across the oceans and recognized their common fates.

There is so much similarity between the position of the Untouchables in India and of the position of the Negroes in America,” Ambedkar wrote to Du Bois, “that the study of the latter is not only natural but necessary.”

Du Bois wrote back to Ambedkar to say that he was, indeed, familiar with him, and that he had “
every sympathy with the Untouchables of India.” It had been Du Bois who seemed to have spoken for the marginalized in both countries as he identified the double-consciousness of their existence. And it was Du Bois who, decades before, had invoked an Indian concept in channeling the bitter cry of his people in America: “
Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?”


I embarked upon this book with a similar desire to reach out across the oceans to better understand how all of this began in the United States: the assigning of meaning to unchangeable physical characteristics, the pyramid passed down through the centuries that defines and directs politics and policies and personal interactions. What are the origins and workings of the hierarchy that intrudes upon the daily life and life chances of every American? That had intruded upon my own life with disturbing regularity and consequences?

I began investigating the American caste system after nearly two decades of examining the history of the Jim Crow South, the legal caste system that grew out of enslavement and lasted into the early 1970s, within the life spans of many current-day Americans. I discovered, while working on
The Warmth of Other Suns,
that I was not writing about geography and relocation, but about the American caste system, an artificial hierarchy in which most everything that you could and could not do was based upon what you looked like and that manifested itself north and south. I had been writing about a stigmatized people, six million of them, who were seeking freedom from the caste system in the South, only to discover that the hierarchy followed them wherever they went, much in the way that the shadow of caste, I would soon discover, follows Indians in their own global diaspora.

For this book, I wanted 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. Moving about the world as a living, breathing caste experiment myself, I wanted to understand the hierarchies that I and many millions of others have had to navigate to pursue our work and dreams.

To do so meant, for one, looking into the world’s most recognized caste system, India’s, and examining the parallels, overlaps, and contrasts between the one that prevailed in my own country and the original. I also sought to comprehend the molecular, concentrated evil that had produced the caste system imposed in Nazi Germany and found startling, unsettling connections between the United States and Germany in the decades leading to the Third Reich. Searching the histories of all three hierarchies and poring over a wealth of studies on caste across many disciplines, I began to compile the parallels in a more systematic way and identified the essential shared characteristics of these hierarchies, what I call the eight pillars of caste, traits disturbingly present in all of them.

Scholars have devoted tremendous energy to studying the Jim Crow caste system, under whose shadow the United States still labors, while others have intensely studied the millennia-old caste system of India. Scholars have tended to regard them in isolation, specializing in one or the other. Few have held them side by side, and those who have done so have often been met with resistance. Undeterred by what, for me, became a mission, I sought to dig up the taproots of hierarchy and the distortions and injustice it yields. Beyond the United States, my research took me to London, Berlin, Delhi, and Edinburgh, following the historic threads of inherited human rank. To further document this phenomenon, I chose to describe scenes of caste throughout this work—some drawn reluctantly from my own encounters with caste and others told to me by the people who experienced them or who had intimate knowledge of them.

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