Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (35 page)

BOOK: Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
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These are people of personal courage and conviction, secure within themselves, willing to break convention, not reliant on the approval of others for their sense of self, people of deep and abiding empathy and compassion. They are what many of us might wish to be but not nearly enough of us are. Perhaps, once awakened, more of us will be.


Americans pay a steep price for a caste system that runs counter to the country's stated ideals. Before 1965, the year of the Voting Rights Act, the United States was neither a democracy nor a meritocracy, because the majority of its population was excluded from competition in most aspects of American life. People who happened to be born male and of European ancestry competed only against themselves. For most of American history, the country was closed off from the talents of the bulk of its people of all colors, genders, and nationalities.

Anyone who truly believes in a meritocracy would not want to be in a caste system in which certain groups of people are excluded or disqualified by long-standing deprivations. A win is not legitimate if whole sections of humanity are not in the game. Those are victories with an asterisk, as if you were to win the gold medal in hockey the year that the Finns and Canadians were not competing. The full embrace of all humanity lifts the standards of any human endeavor.

Our era calls for a public accounting of what caste has cost us, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, so that every American can know the full history of our country, wrenching though it may be. The persistence of caste and race hostility, and the defensiveness about anti-black sentiment in particular, make it literally unspeakable to many in the dominant caste. You cannot solve anything that you do not admit exists, which could be why some people may not want to talk about it: it might get solved.

We must make every effort [to ensure] that the past injustice, violence and economic discrimination will be made known to the people,” Einstein said in an address to the National Urban League. “The taboo, the ‘let's-not-talk-about-it' must be broken. It must be pointed out time and again that the exclusion of a large part of the colored population from active civil rights by the common practices is a slap in the face of the Constitution of the nation.”

The challenge for our era is not merely the social construct of black and white but seeing through the many layers of a caste system that has more power than we as humans should permit it to have. Even the most privileged of humans in the Western world will join a tragically disfavored caste if they live long enough. They will belong to the last caste of the human cycle, that of old age, people who are among the most demeaned of all citizens in the Western world, where youth is worshipped to forestall thoughts of death. A caste system spares no one.


When an accident of birth aligns with what is most valued in a given caste system, whether being able-bodied, male, white, or other traits in which we had no say, it gives that lottery winner a moral duty to develop empathy for those who must endure the indignities they themselves have been spared. It calls for a radical kind of empathy.

Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is looking across at someone and feeling sorrow, often in times of loss. Empathy is not pity. Pity is looking down from above and feeling a distant sadness for another in their misfortune. Empathy is commonly viewed as putting yourself in someone else's shoes and imagining how you would feel. That could be seen as a start, but that is little more than role-playing, and it is not enough in the ruptured world we live in.

Radical empathy, on the other hand, means putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another's experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel. Radical empathy is not about you and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will. It is the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it.

Empathy is no substitute for experience itself. We don't get to tell a person with a broken leg or a bullet wound that they are or are not in pain. And people who have hit the caste lottery are not in a position to tell a person who has suffered under the tyranny of caste what is offensive or hurtful or demeaning to those at the bottom. The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly. And the least that a person in the dominant caste can do is not make the pain any worse.

If each of us could truly see and connect with the humanity of the person in front of us, search for that key that opens the door to whatever we may have in common, whether cosplay or
Star Trek
or the loss of a parent, it could begin to affect how we see the world and others in it, perhaps change the way we hire or even vote. Each time a person reaches across caste and makes a connection, it helps to break the back of caste. Multiplied by millions in a given day, it becomes the flap of a butterfly wing that shifts the air and builds to a hurricane across an ocean.

With our current ruptures, it is not enough to not be racist or sexist. Our times call for being pro-African-American, pro-woman, pro-Latino, pro-Asian, pro-indigenous, pro-humanity in all its manifestations. In our era, it is not enough to be tolerant. You tolerate mosquitoes in the summer, a rattle in an engine, the gray slush that collects at the crosswalk in winter. You tolerate what you would rather not have to deal with and wish would go away. It is no honor to be tolerated. Every spiritual tradition says love your neighbor as yourself, not tolerate them.


As each of us came into consciousness, we learned, based on the random outward manifestation of the combinations of genes that collided at the precise moment of our conception, that because of what we look like, the world had already assigned a place for us.

It was up to each of us to accept or challenge the role we were cast into, to determine for ourselves and to make the world see that what is inside of us—our beliefs and dreams, how we love and express that love, the things that we can actually control—is more important than the outward traits we had no say in. That we are not what we look like but what we do with what we have, what we make of what we are given, how we treat others and our planet.

Human beings across time and continents are more alike than they are different. The central question about human behavior is not why do those people do this or act in that way, now or in ages past, but what is it that human beings do when faced with a given circumstance?

None of us chose the circumstances of our birth. We had nothing to do with having been born into privilege or under stigma. We have everything to do with what we do with our God-given talents and how we treat others in our species from this day forward.

We are not personally responsible for what people who look like us did centuries ago. But we are responsible for what good or ill we do to people alive with us today. We are, each of us, responsible for every decision we make that hurts or harms another human being. We are responsible for recognizing that what happened in previous generations at the hands of or to people who look like us set the stage for the world we now live in and that what has gone before us grants us advantages or burdens through no effort or fault of our own, gains or deficits that others who do not look like us often do not share.

We are responsible for our own ignorance or, with time and openhearted enlightenment, our own wisdom. We are responsible for ourselves and our own deeds or misdeeds in our time and in our own space and will be judged accordingly by succeeding generations.


In a world without caste, instead of a false swagger over our own tribe or family or ascribed community, we would look upon all of humanity with wonderment: the lithe beauty of an Ethiopian runner, the bravery of a Swedish girl determined to save the planet, the physics-defying aerobatics of an African-American Olympian, the brilliance of a composer of Puerto Rican descent who can rap the history of the founding of America at 144 words a minute—all of these feats should fill us with astonishment at what the species is capable of and gratitude to be alive for this.

In a world without caste, being male or female, light or dark, immigrant or native-born, would have no bearing on what anyone was perceived as being capable of. In a world without caste, we would all be invested in the well-being of others in our species if only for our own survival, and recognize that we are in need of one another more than we have been led to believe. We would join forces with indigenous people around the world raising the alarm as fires rage and glaciers melt. We would see that, when others suffer, the collective human body is set back from the progression of our species.

A world without caste would set everyone free.

To the memory of my parents

who survived the caste system

and to the memory of Brett

who defied it


This is a book that I did not seek to write but had to write, in the era in which we find ourselves. As I embarked upon it, I was blessed to work with two legends in publishing—my editor, Kate Medina, and my agent, Binky Urban, who embraced the idea from the start and who gave me the space to follow the threads where they led me.

The first place I went, or rather felt compelled to go, was Germany—Berlin, specifically—to try to comprehend a caste system that had arisen in a terrifying space of time, in a country that has been wrestling with atonement ever since. I am grateful to Krista Tippett for introducing me to a lovely group of people in Berlin that I otherwise would never have met. My thanks to Irene Dunkley and to Nathan and Ulrich Koestlin for their kindnesses and most especially to Nigel Dunkley, who recognized my mission from the start and shepherded me through the trail of Reich history with keen insight.

For the opportunity to experience India firsthand, I am indebted to professors Ramnarayan Rawat and K. Satyanarayana, who opened the door as I planned my first trip to Delhi, who made a way for me to meet other scholars of caste, and who extended to me every courtesy. There I had the chance to talk with Dalits who had labored against the obstacles in their paths and with whom I felt an immediate kinship, along with people from a range of other castes. Among the people whose perspectives I found especially helpful were Anupama Prasad and Sharika Thiranagama, who were completing research into caste inequities.

Unbeknownst to me, word spread that I had flown to India on this mission of caste. I was soon asked to speak at an international caste conference at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, alongside Indian political theorist Gopal Guru and Indian philosopher Meena Dhanda. I was overwhelmed to later be asked to deliver the conference’s closing remarks.

There, faced with translating the Jim Crow caste system for an audience focused on India, I began to draft the earliest outlines of what would become the pillars of caste. I am ever grateful to Sangeeta Kamat, Biju Mathew, and other conference leaders who embraced me and invited me into their fold and to the many other kindred spirits I met there, including Suraj Yengde, Jaspreet Mahal, Balmurli Natrajan, and also Gary Tartakov, who immediately understood the humanitarian goals of my work and encouraged me onward.

During this quest, I came to know two survivors of the Indian caste system then living in London. Tushar Sarkar gave hours of his time to describe his experiences growing up in India and his disillusionment with caste. Sushrut Jadhav shared with me the parallel burdens, blessings, and exhaustions of living a life in defiance of caste, along with his insights as a psychiatrist and anthropologist. At his home, I had stimulating conversations with his family and with the author Arundhati Roy about the absurdity of caste.

Because this project interweaves the perspectives and insights of multiple disciplines—anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science, philosophy, and history—I am indebted to entire bodies of scholarship and to those who have contributed to an archive I sought to learn from and perhaps to build upon. I am grateful for the work of historians of enslavement, particularly Edward Baptist, Daina Ramey Berry, and Stephanie Jones-Rogers, and, in the history of race-based medical experimentation, the groundbreaking work of Harriet Washington. While this book is pointedly not about racism in itself, any book that touches on the subject owes a debt to the scholarship of Ibram X. Kendi and to the mission of Bryan Stevenson, whose memorial to lynching victims sets the standard for reconciling history.

For taking a sledgehammer to the false god of race, I am grateful to the late anthropologists Ashley Montagu and Audrey Smedley and, in the current day, am appreciative of Ian Haney López for his legal genealogy of race in America. For uncovering the parallels between Jim Crow America and aspects of the Third Reich, I am indebted to the definitive research of James Q. Whitman of Yale University. His work decisively connects the history of Nazi Germany to that of the United States and illuminated what I had had reason to believe from the start. I am appreciative of the discerning analyses of philosopher Susan Neiman of the Einstein Forum in Berlin, whose book
Learning from the Germans
was published just as I completed my manuscript. Discovering their work as I neared the end of my research affirmed the course that I had taken.

Early on, I discovered scholarly mentors from the past, people who had walked this road and whose words I turned to time and again for reassurance and insight. These ancestors in the scholarship of caste include John Dollard, Hortense Powdermaker, Lloyd Warner, Burleigh Gardner, and Gerald Berreman, in particular. Berreman studied and lived in both India and the Jim Crow South and was in a singular position to compare the two caste systems. He recognized the parallels and stood up to the skeptics with the quiet conviction that comes from deep research and firsthand experience.

Beyond these, I consider the late anthropologist Allison Davis to be a spiritual father in the quest to understanding the role of caste in America. The caste system forced him and his wife and scholarly partner, Elizabeth, to live what they studied, and they risked their lives to train a searchlight on the evils of caste.

Seventy years after the Davises completed their fieldwork in Mississippi, I happened to be attending a gala at the New York Public Library. There, that night, I first mentioned to my editor and my agent that I planned to write this book. Minutes later, I was mingling among the thousand or so guests packed together in tuxedoes and sequins, and found myself standing near a man I had never met but who had been a fan of
The Warmth of Other Suns
. He told a bit of his background and his name, Gordon Davis. I realized, from what I knew of the late anthropologist’s life, that the man I was talking to was all but certainly the son of Allison Davis. I asked if that, in fact, was true. A prominent attorney in his own right, he was heartened that I knew of his father and had held him in such deep admiration. Coming just minutes after committing to this project, I took this to be a sign that I was meant to write this book.

I have been deeply grateful to the many people whose paths I crossed who, knowing of my first book, shared unbidden their encounters with caste as they, too, tried to make sense of it. There were serendipitous moments, like running into former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu just as I was contemplating the role of Confederate symbols. Over the years, I have been continually inspired by my ongoing conversations with historian and dear friend Taylor Branch, whose work and perspective often intersect with mine. I am also ever grateful to Sharon Malone and Eric Holder for the grace and thoughtfulness they have shown me.

The nature and timetable for a book under production in an era of global pandemic required collaboration and commitment on an epic level. Working remotely in a time of uncertainty, the following people at Penguin Random House, in addition to my editor, Kate Medina, made this book possible: Gina Centrello, whose support I have treasured, and publisher Andy Ward and deputy publisher Avideh Bashirrad. In copy editing, managing editorial, and production: Benjamin Dreyer, Rebecca Berlant, and Richard Elman. In the departments of art and design, overseen by Paolo Pepe, I had the pleasure of working with Greg Mollica, who could not have found a better photograph for the cover, who designed the brilliant jacket and wholeheartedly obliged my suggestions, as did Virginia Norey in designing the book’s sublime interior. I am grateful for the support and enthusiasm of the publicity department—Maria Braeckel, Susan Corcoran, London King, and Gwyneth Stansfield; and of the marketing department—Barbara Fillon, Leigh Marchant, and Ayelet Gruenspecht. Noa Shapiro deftly kept me and everyone else in touch and moved the process along.

Given all that this book required, I cannot imagine completing it without the calm and steady stewardship of production editor Steve Messina. His deep commitment, attention to detail, and patience oversaw the conversion of an evolving manuscript into galleys and then into a book that you can now hold in your hands. My sincerest gratitude to him.

Special thanks also to Sarah Cook, acting dean of the Honors College at Georgia State University, who, at a critical moment, made available to me three of her brightest students—Noah Britton, Clay Voytek, and Savannah Rogers. In the final weeks and months of my completing the manuscript, they spent time and energy researching last-minute questions and leads. Noah and Clay further dedicated themselves to additional weeks of fastidious fact-checking and, by the time the work was done, had taken up the cause of the book as their own.

I would like to thank every reader of
The Warmth of Other Suns
and all of those who have written letters to me since its publication. Your support enabled the travel and work required for this book, and, while I sincerely regret that circumstances have often not permitted me to reply directly, please know that each and every letter is precious to me and each has sustained and brought joy to me as I continue this work.

Due to the toll that research of this kind takes, I cannot imagine getting through the process without the encouragement of J. Blair Page and of Bunny Fisher, who showed unflagging commitment to this book and to my well-being and who listened separately to drafts or to sections of it, rendering compassionate feedback. I am grateful to the extraordinary Miss Hale not only for sharing her story for this book but also for sharing her unmatched culinary masterpieces, her grace and wisdom, and, above all, her five beautiful children, who spark delight every time I am in their presence. My thanks to Stephanie Hooks for her ever-present optimism and for introducing me to their world.

For the compassion they have shown, I am thankful for D. M. Page and for Todd, Marcia, Leslie, Maureen, Christine, Brenda, and Dahleen; for Margie S., Michelle T., Rosie T., Rebecca, and Michael for their love and support at a time of personal challenge and loss; and, for dear Ansley and Rafe, for the eye-rolling, sidesplitting joy, wit, and laughter they bring. Thanks to the rest of the Hamilton family, and as always to Gwen and Phil Whitt, to the Taylor family, and to my extended family in Virginia.

I could not have gotten through the deepest chambers of this work without the backdrop of seemingly unrelated music that brought either the focus or the uplift I needed at various points of the writing. The nature of the task drew me for some reason to music from before September 11, 2001, and I found myself turning to: Philip Glass (specifically String Quartet no. 5), Parliament (“Flash Light”), America (“A Horse with No Name”), Prince (“7”), the Police, Thelonious Monk and T. S. Monk, and the soundtrack to the classic French thriller
. Aside from its gorgeous range of music,
is one of the few big-screen portrayals of a woman of my archetype depicted in ways that some other women can take for granted, presented as refined and pivotal rather than as subordinated stereotype or sidekick. Although there have been notable exceptions in recent years, this is a film where I need not dread the woman getting whipped, mocked, hypersexualized, killed off, cast as a servant, or portrayed by a man, a common practice in an industry that long denied black women the chance to portray themselves as they truly are.
was the kind of film that perhaps could only be imagined outside of the American caste system.

I received my first lessons in caste from my parents, who never used that word but who came into the world during what the historian Rayford Logan called the Nadir. They grew up under the ever-present threat of the southern regime, found a way to survive Jim Crow and even to flourish despite the obstacles their own country placed in their path. They prayed that their daughter might somehow escape the arrows of caste that they had endured and, although, in our country, that was not to be—it was not, nor is it still, far enough along for that dream of theirs to come true—I am ever grateful for their guiding light, their faith and fortitude, and the highest of standards they set for me and that they themselves lived. In every word I write, I can only hope to bring honor to their sacrifices.

Finally, I am grateful beyond language for the love and devotion of Brett Hamilton, the kindest and most giving husband I could have wished for, a gift from the universe. Many of the observations in this book first found a voice in our deeply fulfilling conversations and in our life together. While it breaks my heart that neither he nor my parents lived to see this culmination of what we, each in our own ways, sought to transcend, I feel his cosmic embrace as I send this out to the world, and I know that all three of them are with me now and always.

Isabel Wilkerson

April 2020

BOOK: Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
10.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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