My review of Wilkerson’s Caste book in NRC

Today, my review on Isabel Wilkerson, the Pulitzer prize winning journalist’s book ‘Caste: the lies that divide us’ is out in the NRC news media outlet in Dutch. Below is the English version.


Is this the ‘Book of the Century’ or a dangerously seductive tale?

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste is a bible for this divisive era. By offering a dangerously seductive narrative to explain systemic racism in place of a complex truth, this book guarantees to fuel the ongoing American race wars and comes at the price of rewriting other nation’s histories and contemporary politics.

To critique Wilkerson’s book, is akin to going against the elite and all powerful behemoths such as Oprah Winfrey who insists that “all of humanity needs to read this book” and the New York Times, Wilkerson’s journalistic home, that cannot stop frothing at the mouth as they “shout as if into a mountaintop megaphone” of how this book is “an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far.”

Wilkerson has revived the decades-old refuted scholarship of framing race relations through the lens of a four-thousand-year history of the Indian caste system to make sense of American racism. Caste, she argues, is a social construct pioneered by the upper caste group that has become “the infrastructure of our divisions” (P17). It is leveraged to justify human hierarchy and provides the “subconscious code of instructions” for maintaining the ongoing social order. She insists on the rigidity of this oppressive system, where a “fixed and embedded ranking of human value” demarcates the upper caste group (Whites) as inherently superior to those of the middle caste (Asian, Hispanic) and the lowest caste (Blacks). Physical attributes such as our skin color are arbitrarily coded with value to sustain this system.

If the reader were to mistake her standing as the Chicago Bureau Chief of The New York Times and Pulitzer prize winner as privilege, Wilkerson argues in her book that she is not, as she is trapped in the lowest caste assigned to her, enforced by the color of her skin. She dismisses how race intersects with other tribes of power accumulation and legitimation such as through employment, education, class, to the colonial and contemporary geopolitics that dictate power asymmetries.

To negate the confluence of these factors that have long served as potent instruments to shape systemic injustice is the single most damaging aspect of this book’s argument. As Charisse Burden-Stelly from Boston Review points out, “Wilkerson’s emphasis on caste makes no mention, let alone critique, of capitalism; the word does not appear once in the text.” Worse yet, through her flurry of personal anecdotes of being slighted by a waiter at a restaurant, by a flight attendant on one of her numerous business flight trips, to a plumber at her house, she chooses to tell the story more around Black elite grievances over that of the plight of millions of ordinary African-Americans.

Authoring of a global fiction

Here’s the problem with Wilkerson’s caste as metaphor. The caste system in India, while undoubtedly alive and embedded in reproducing social injustice in its society, is far from rigid. This is equivalent to saying that India remains unchanged in the last 4000 years. The caste divisions in India are by no means binary and have witnessed the complex maneuverings of people and institutions through changes in labor and status, legal reform, intermarriage, religious conversions, quota systems, electoral arrangements between caste groups, and urbanization. These have been fueled by generations of social movements and Dalit (lowest caste group in India) activism that have reached across global borders, accelerated in recent times by the advent of social media. Moreover, it is impossible to assess caste without the lens of the market economy. David Mosse, Professor of social anthropology at SOAS University of London argues that, [upper] caste identities and networks persist because of their advantages” as people compete for scarce resources.

Not only does Wilkerson succeed to write a book about caste without much engagement with this rich repository of caste capitalism, politics and culture, she proudly shares her acute development of a “caste radar” (P274) through her brief few visits to India. In a cringe-worthy account of her newly developed sensibilities, she explains to the reader how she “learnt to recognize almost immediately the differences between dominant-caste Indians and Dalits, even without the starker physical cues of dominant and subordinated castes in America” (P273). One assessment variable of hers includes upper caste people being “lighter in complexion and sharper in features,” when in fact this has much to do with the geographical and historically migratory patterns in India. Another variable is the proficiency of English with British diction, which is clearly not an inherited but an acquired trait and has much to do with colonialism and class as she herself notes in her text elsewhere, undermining her own radar principles. Worst yet, her last variable is the “bearing and demeanor, in accord with the universal script of caste,” where she explains how subservient the Dalits are in the presence of the upper caste, a dead give away according to her even in an educated environment. Her variables freeze people into stereotypes, trapping two cultures with one stroke.

If the reductionism of India’s structures and historical context wasn’t enough of an affront, she ventures to compare “Nazi Germany’s caste system” to American racism and how Hitler was inspired by Madison Grant, a leading eugenicist in his master design to exterminate the Jews. Wilkerson doesn’t burden the reader with historical analysis of how this fascism was a long project in the making of centuries old European anti-Semitism and the Church’s complicity in rooting distrust, disdain and in the end, demonization of the Jewish people. Wilkerson laments that while Germany has “officially vanquished the caste system” (P17), it has shape shifted in United States as a “race-based caste pyramid” and continues to linger in India, where “caste defines everything” (P175). The reader is expected to swallow this bizarre comparative proposition with little heed to evidence or everyday reality.

Hierarchy of caste is about power, “not about feelings or morality.”

Much of Wilkerson’s almost four-hundred-page book is woven with gut-wrenching archival stories of slavery and its aftermath in the United States – of torture, of brute dehumanization, of deep indignities, and astounding violence that leaves a lump in your throat, and tears in your eyes. It confronts the reader with an alarming ugliness of humanity as we read about the “terror mechanisms of an unnatural institution” (P154) that made its way into the everyday moments of for instance, a black tenant farmer in Mississippi being severely beaten by whites because he dared to ask for a receipt after paying his water bill (P163). We learn of the barbaric legacies of the founding father of gynecology as he built his medical accomplishments by conducting experimental surgeries on enslaved women in Alabama without anesthesia (P148). Page after page, these stories come punching at you, building emotional outrage, and soul searching for the moral fiber of humanity.

It is surprising then that Wilkerson, the master storyteller, claims at the very start that this book is “not about feelings or morality” but about power.

Her work has undoubtedly touched a nerve. The book was released around the time where the black lives matter movement went global, with thousands of people from around the world, in Korea to The Netherlands taking to the streets to protest against the death of George Floyd. This went beyond race as we saw the global public outraged by chronic injustice such as police brutality, for instance with the Nigerian youth demanding the dissolution of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) police unit as their notoriety reached its peak with years of extortion, kidnappings, violence and illegal arrests. This movement came to mean so much more – about growing income inequality, the crumbling of public institutions like healthcare and education, the unfair market, and the lack of employment.

Wilkerson’s answer to these troubling times is to demand we build “radical empathy” if we are to break out of the shackles of caste. Instead of leveraging on her public platform to offer a vision of redistributing power through the reimagining and restructuring of public institutions and the global market economy and building mechanisms of accountability, readers are instructed to be “pro-African-American, pro-woman, pro-Latino, pro-Asian, pro-indigenous, pro-humanity in all its manifestations.” (P387). Instead of interracial dialogue, she recommends that Whites, with their dominance already “assured by the inherited advantages of the dominant caste in most every sphere of life” should “listen, and not speak” (P386).

Nothing has changed, nothing ever will

Wilkerson recounts of her conversation with her friend Taylor Branch, a historian of the civil rights movement in 2018, a time of Trumpism peak, of Muslim bans and Mexican children in cages. She asks him whether he believed the United States had regressed, “Are you still thinking 1950s? I’m thinking 1880s.” (P351) Her friend responds, “well, that’s awfully bleak…there was a total exclusion of the black vote, total exclusion from political life. People were being lynched openly. That is not happening now.” While she tells the reader she sees his point, she continues to insist that “we’re seeing the twenty-first-century version of the backlash.” Different and yet the same, recasting of the caste system.

We get a hopeless message that nothing has changed, and nothing may ever will as “some pathogens can never be killed, only contained, perhaps at best managed” .

If only she would listen to her friend.