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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 41, New Delhi, September 26, 2020

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: A failed comparison and a deeply flawed book | Archishman Raju

Friday 25 September 2020


by Archishman Raju

Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents has received considerable advertisement from the American media. Advertised on a six-storied double sided bill-board in the middle of Manhattan, called an “instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far” in a New York Times Review the book has received explicit endorsement from the ruling class in the United States of America.

Wilkerson purports to explain the origins of “our” discontents. Whose lack of contentment is she referring to? The unemployed, in an economy that never really recovered from the 2007 Financial crisis and has suffered a new crisis after the onset of a pandemic? The 2 million languishing in the massive prisons that the United States has created? The close to 60 million who have been displaced as a result of American wars over the past 2 decades? Those suffering from drug overdoses, gentrification, poverty and a bleak future? None of these facts occupy an important place in the book. Instead Wilkerson is concerned with the 2016 election of Donald Trump calling it a “psychic break” in the history of the “world’s oldest and most powerful democracy”. If anything, Wilkerson is referring to the discontents of a section of the ruling elite and liberals in the United States who have been shocked by the election of a political outsider, whose policies have hastened the beginning of the end of American hegemony around the world.

The book makes a comparison between three historical systems: the system of caste in India, of race in America and fascism in Nazi Germany. The third may be left aside as it is by far the weakest comparison. Apartheid South Africa may have offered better comparison, but it is not included. Wilkerson claims to identify eight pillars of the caste system which are present in all of these. Both, she identified with “the human impulse to create hierarchies” which “runs across societies and cultures”.

One would expect in such a book a careful study of the history and characteristics of the two systems, a basis for comparison, and some evidence that they constitute a similar system. Instead, we get rapid-fire chapters some of which just a few pages long that assert similarity rather than show it. Sociological evidence is mostly marshalled from seminar rooms where Wilkerson claims she can identify the caste of a person merely from looking at behaviour, a miraculous skill no Indian claims to have, which, however, she does not seem to have tested beyond the seminar room. We get an extraordinary comparison of the history of the two countries. Both India and the United States were “ruled for a time by the British”, “both were conquered by people said to be Aryans”, both “exiled their indigenous peoples”. This remarkable conflation of history, where the 15th century Christian conquest and genocide in America is compared to a difficult-to-date and highly contested hypothesis of Aryan invasion 4000 years ago (ironically, Ambedkar had strongly argued against the Aryan invasion thesis and related it to the racist biases in European readings of the Rigveda), and British rule in the United States is compared to the colonization of India is frankly insulting to anyone with any knowledge of Indian or American society. This lack of any historical sense is quite central to the book. “Caste is the bones, race the skin” says Wilkerson, but neither bones nor skin tell you about physiology. The dynamics of change in society is the content of history, and this book is not concerned with history.

The scholar W.E.B Du Bois traced the origins of the system of white supremacy in the United States to the trans-atlantic slave trade. He tied the origins of racial discrimination in the need for cheap labour and the development of modern capitalist society. What made slavery so utterly degrading was the the person was reduced quite literally to a commodity, part of a world-wide trade that ruthlessly seeked profit. Hence, Du Bois tied the black worker in the United States to the super-exploited darker masses around the world. Wilkerson refers to Du Bois quite casually (getting his birthplace incorrect), and speaks to his exchange with Ambedkar as evidence of commonality between the struggles of Blacks and Dalits. However, she completely ignores the connection of Du Bois to the Indian Freedom Struggle. Du Bois had a great friendship with Lala Lajpat Rai, he reviewed Gandhi’s Autobiography, at his death he called Gandhi “the greatest man in the world” and the “Prince of Peace”, he published a message by Gandhi in his magazine and in discussing Martin Luther King Jr., said “Will the Great Gandhi Live Again”. Wilkerson compares Martin Luther King Jr. to Ambedkar (as, interestingly, does Narendra Modi). However, it is a matter of history that Martin Luther King Jr., as well as many of his mentors and associates looked to Gandhi and his methods of struggle. The very speech of Martin Luther King Jr. from which Wilkerson uses an excerpt to establish his connection to viewing the black struggle as the struggle against untouchability in India also has high praise for Gandhi and Gandhi’s struggle against untouchability. The depth of the connection between the anti-colonial struggle in India and the black freedom struggle in the United States was linked to the commonality of the struggle against racism and the struggle against imperialism. It was a model of principled solidarity in mass struggle.

Wilkerson is part of an erasure of the brutality of colonialism from history. Part of this erasure, is the erasure of the anti-colonial struggle and the attack on Mahatma Gandhi currently very intense in western universities. In doing so, she takes the position of the colonizing British. Both colonialism and poverty are never mentioned in her book. For her, as for the British, India has no history to speak of or worth studying. Her book is an insult to the struggles of the Indian masses. This erasure separates the anti-racist struggle from the struggle against war and imperialism.

As D. D. Kosambi once said “Almost every statement of a general nature made by anyone about Indian castes may be contradicted”. Caste in India was linked to an evolving socio-economic system and carried its own contradictions. Since it is linked to occupation, it necessarily is linked to the economy and to class. Wilkerson dismisses class in a page. She has very little concern in her book for the working class of either country. Over thousands of years, from the onset of Buddhism to its eventual decline and the coming of Islam caste in India has gone through various changes, contradictions and struggles reflected in the presence of a Tukaram or Kabir. It is civilizationally distinct and permits no easy comparison with modern European society. If anything, its evolution is far more comparable to systems in ancient Egypt and eventually in Africa. Its character was drastically changed by the onset of British colonialism which de-industrialized the economy, led to a drain of wealth and codified Hinduism thus creating a more rigid and oppressive system.

Wilkerson’s thesis is not new. It was very popular in the 1940s, Allison Davis and W. Lloyd Warner tried to use the language of caste to describe race in America. Then, as now, it was promoted by the American ruling elite with the Carnegie corporation funding a study by the Swedish sociologist Gunner Myrdal all together constituting the caste school of sociology of race relations. The school was heavily criticized by Oliver Cromwell Cox whose work Caste, Class and Race is a little-read classic. Though his study of India is dated, he at least attempted to study Indian society and realized its distinct nature. He repudiates the possibility of a comparison between the two societies. Cox explicitly differentiates between discrimination on the basis of ethnicity that may be present in all societies at all times and the creation of race in bourgeois European society as part of their economic control over the world. Cox’s main complaint against the caste school is that it purports to show the similarity of race with the Indian caste system, but this is never done with a proper study of the Indian caste system.

Wilkerson similarly has not studied the caste system in India. At one point, she openly admits this saying “I spoke none of the Indian languages, knew nothing of the jatis, and was in no position to query anyone as to the section of village from which they came”. And yet she feels that she can judge a people, a civilization and a society that she is in no position to comprehend.

Ultimately, Wilkerson offers very little remedy for the problems that she describes ending with an appeal to “radical empathy” and a description of a trivial event that she and her white friend had by not being served on time at an up-scale restaurant. At a time when imperialism and capitalism are in such deep crisis, there is no mention of mass struggle, of the changing of systems of oppression, of the creation of a radical democracy and the fight against war, racism and imperialism. It is a deeply conservative book, reflective of the deeply conservative nature of American academia and American media. The entrenchment and ideological subservience of Indian intellectuals to the west means that it will meet either with adulation or at best with polite disagreement, but it requires ruthless criticism for it is a book that seeks to confuse and mislead and contributes nothing to the real struggle of our times.

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