A review and reflections on my field: Caste:
the origins of our discontents, Isabel Wilkerson. New York: Random House, 2020.
It often happens, that those who live at a later time
are unable to grasp the point which the great undertakings or actions of this
world had their origin…. all things… are at their beginnings so small and faint
in outline that one cannot easily convince oneself that from them will grow
matters of great moment. -- Matteo Ricci, Historia in Jonathan D.
Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (New York: Penguin, 1985),
a story that illustrates Ricci’s statement: a 2016 heat wave in Siberia that
melted the permafrost and unleashed toxic anthrax in a community. The spores
had never died, but laid dormant, awaiting circumstances that would bring them
to flourish. Wilkerson likens this to a building with a small defect in a beam
that, over the years, imperceptibly weakens the entire structure. In all of
these cases, an unnoticed and unintended flaw springs up to cause problems of
small defect in the beam is caste, a human hierarchy that leaves in its wake
social rigidity, power structures, stigma, and dehumanization. Caste
facilitates but is not the same as racism, and is also a more inclusive
explanation of the phenomena of exclusion, one that reaches beyond race. Often
justified through religion and culture, caste becomes an underlying and often
unconscious structure in our lives. In this book, Wilkerson examines three
caste systems: India, Nazi Germany, and race in the United States.
Race, as I often explored in teaching, is a recent social construct (hey, so is disability—which we’ll come back to). It has no basis in biology, and originated from the transatlantic slave trade. The social construct of racism refers to dislike or disadvantaging a person or group because of the ascribed race. Caste is similar, but creates a hierarchical system of enforcement, one that tends to be impersonal and does not require personal dislike. Caste becomes a routine pattern, with unthinking expectations based on a perception of natural order.
Indian system is well-known and oldest. The American system developed from the
arrival of the first Africans in 1619. With a racial basis, it resulted in laws
that defined and enforced distinctions, such as who could be enslaved for life
and who could not, who could be Christian or not, or even who was regarded as
having a soul or not. In this way, American slavery, which lasted until 1865,
was not the same as that of the ancient world. In turn, the justifications
behind this led to eugenics, which emerged full-blown in Nazi Germany, with
distinctions and definitions derived from American standards.
eight pillars of caste begin with divine will or order, which leads to
inherited status. From this there is a need to control marriage, which
guarantees purity within the dominant group. This is enforced through absolute
standards, occupational hierarchy, dehumanization, and the use of terror, fear,
and psychological degradation to reinforce status. A recent article about a
discrimination lawsuit provides a perfect illustration of all of these.
caste system creates and requires inequality. In turn, that generates dissent,
rivalry, distrust and lack of empathy. An
excellent example is the story of Cotton Mather’s slave Onesimus, who in a 1721
epidemic shared an African vaccination against smallpox. Many would not use it,
as they assumed nothing from an African slave would work, but it was, after
many deaths, proven useful. Sometimes the results are violent, such as the 1921
Tulsa riots where a successful Black area was wiped out (this is one of several
incidents graphically described in the book that illustrate the atrocities of
the American racial legacy).
are also sociological implications. Descriptive terms are applied, such as
black and white, which are not at all true. I am pink and my neighbor is brown.
But gradations are forgotten in caste systems, which pull people apart into
categories, label and then reinforce the status consequences of those
After reading the book, I looked at some reviews. It wasn’t a shock to find a group
who thought that it is nonsense. It was no surprise to find that those
reviewers seem to have a place of privilege in the system—and that they don’t
seem to have thoroughly read the book. If they had, the story of Albert
Einstein fleeing Germany, and his subsequent championing of Marian Anderson,
the singer who could not stay in segregated hotels, might have hit home.
Einstein stated that as a Jew, he could understand and empathize with how black
people feel as the victims of discrimination. Einstein went on to take an
active part in NAACP efforts to end lynching and promote civil rights. If you
were unaware of that part of Einstein’s life, it’s a good illustration of the
need for a full history.
cannot claim to fully understand what Black people go through, any more than
temporarily able-bodied people can claim to fully understand living with a disability. But
like Einstein, I do share with other people who live with disabilities an understanding of how discrimination works and how
it wastes human potential. We can all empathize and work with others to end
that waste. In that regard, this book is not the final word on that needed full
history, but it does provide a solid base for further work.
In my own field, people
with disabilities have long felt the described sanctions of caste. Divine authority is
shown in claims of a condition being the results of someone’s sin or lack of faith. This leads
to calls for submission to healers. There is also control of daily activities,
whether from lack of accommodation or inability to pay the high price of
suitable transportation. And the phrase “marriage equality” also rings with
overtones of control as meager benefits are cut or genetic purity is pursued.
about those sanctions, Wilkerson brings up two points. First is that 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 with us today. Theologically,
we are all responsible for treating others as we would like others to treat us.
Second, we don’t get to tell a person with a broken leg or a bullet wound that
they are or are not in pain. We should listen to the cry of those who are
people are also well aware of those who tell us what we need. These would be the people who organize
telethons portraying us as people to be pitied, adorn us with childish terms
such as “special needs,” advocate against insurance coverage reform, call us an
“inspiration” and urge “overcoming,” and otherwise put us in a system requiring
that we are docile and submit to the system and don’t come up with ideas like
“nothing about us without us.” Disabled people are also familiar with
stratification structures that leave us behind. This book shows an important need not only in
race, but for disabilities, and especially for those caught in the intersection
Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, with a promise to return it within three weeks. That promise has been kept.