Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents 
by Isabel Wilkerson.
Allen Lane, 476 pp., £20, August 2020, 978 0 241 48651 1
Show More
Show More

In one​ of the glass cabinets in the central rotunda of the fourth floor of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC is a wooden canoe seat on which is carved a spider sitting in the middle of a web. Anansi, a spider of boundless ingenuity, is celebrated in the folklore of African-descended communities across the Americas for his ability to outwit his oppressors. The canoe seat is probably one of the most modest items in the museum’s collection: it is only five and a half inches tall and just under thirteen inches wide, easily passed by and passed over. There is no acknowledgment that it was an inaugural gift to the museum and no particular attention is drawn to its country of origin, Ecuador. But it attests to the existence of a wider black Atlantic world – a world that is barely registered in the rest of the museum.

The NMAAHC is the newest Smithsonian museum and had been open for less than six months when I first visited three years ago. I arrived early, joining an excited crowd, and as we waited, studied the African and African-diasporic design elements incorporated into the exterior of the building. The queue dissolved into a tide, washing across Heritage Hall and down to the subterranean galleries. For hundreds of years Atlantic trade was dominated by Britain, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands. These nations forced some 12.5 million enslaved people from the African continent onto their ships, about 10.7 million of whom survived the crossing. Yet as I walked around the museum, I was unable to find any evidence of the descendants of the Africans who were transported to Central and South America and to the Caribbean, those who became Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Ecuadorian, Afro-Mexican, Afro-Peruvian or West Indian. Recently ‘Latinx’ and ‘Latin America’ have been added to the collection’s categories, but holdings are sparse – mainly photographs or artworks created by American artists. There are more items associated with the history of the black community on Martha’s Vineyard than with the whole of Latin America, including the Caribbean.

The museum sets out to challenge the marginalisation of African Americans, that is, the descendants of the 388,746 enslaved people who disembarked in the region of North America that would become the United States. It represents their histories and culture as not only central to but exemplary of a singular national narrative – ‘a people’s journey, a nation’s story’ – the culmination of which is the establishment of a wealthy black middle class: tangible evidence of triumph over adversity. The trade in commodified human beings was, however, integral to a global, not national, project of colonial modernity. As African and Indigenous peoples were dispossessed and subjugated, a multiplicity of complex, entangled racial formations were created across the Americas. The black national narrative has come to dominate the popular and academic imagination in the US, mirroring the theory of American exceptionalism and separating the history of African Americans from the histories of the descendants of other survivors of the crossing. The plural geopolitical concept of ‘the Americas’ is rendered meaningless when the US is seen as America rather than a region within America, and the history of its black population treated as definitive of a black experience separate from the histories of the peoples oppressed, displaced and eradicated by settler colonialism and its aftermath.

Isabel Wilkerson’s bestselling books – The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010) and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents – are, like the NMAAHC, situated within a gated community of knowledge. The Warmth of Other Suns is a paean to the generations of people, including her parents, who left the Southern states in huge numbers (around six million in total) to move north and west between 1915 and 1970. The book’s title suggests a comprehensive, definitive account of black migration, but Wilkerson neglects the massive concurrent black migration from the Caribbean, a movement of people which was technically voluntary but, like the migration within the borders of the US, was in reality a matter of survival.

At the start of the 20th century, a British Foreign Office memo noted: ‘Her Majesty’s black and coloured subjects in the West Indies have had to choose between a death from starvation in their native islands and suffering ill-treatment as immigrants … because their native islands are merely Islands of Death.’ Hundreds of thousands migrated to Central America, where they laboured on the construction of the Panama Canal and the vast banana plantations that were being established by the United Fruit Company in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and elsewhere. Black migrants from the Caribbean also entered the US, arriving first in the north-eastern cities, then in Florida. The majority settled in Brooklyn and Manhattan. By 1930, a quarter of the black population of Harlem and a third of the black professional class of New York City was from the Caribbean. Black foreign migration ebbed and flowed with the tightening and easing of immigration restrictions, dramatically increasing during the Second World War and again in the 1960s.

The Warmth of Other Suns conveys a vivid sense of place and time in its descriptions of the journeys undertaken by people determined to carve out a better future for themselves. Wilkerson interweaves archival research with accounts of the everyday survival strategies of the interviewees who became her three major characters – their humiliations, large and small; the harsh conditions under which they laboured; the pleasures and problems of mounting resistance and plotting escape. By contrast, her latest book, Caste, is haunted by the material and symbolic anxieties of the present. It begins in the dystopian landscape of 2016. A sense of emergency, of imminent threat, is palpable. The temperature of the planet continues its inexorable rise, the Arctic is melting, wildfires burn, pathogen spores rise from thawing permafrost and people across the world recoil from the vitriol of the television celebrity campaigning to be the next occupant of the White House. Published a few months before the 2020 election, after four years of increasing authoritarianism and the rampant spread of white supremacist hatred and violence, Caste is an attempt to reckon with the roots of America’s racial formation.

In The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson deployed ‘caste’ as a concept and a practice, replacing both structural racism and class. The ‘thick walls of the caste system kept everyone in prison’, white and black alike. Caste supremacy was maintained by the ‘pressure … to stay within the narrow confines of acceptability’, the drawing of ‘appropriate lines between oneself and those of lower rank of either race in that world’ and by pitting the ‘lowliest people’ against one another. While it might appear to account for barriers to employment and housing restrictions in the cities of the north and west, a theory of racial inequity predicated on caste can’t account for the resentment and antagonism new arrivals experienced when they encountered black residents determined to protect their own tenuous position – members of the aspiring black middle class.

In Caste the anecdotal sits uneasily alongside information from secondary sources. Wilkerson draws on the work of anthropologists of the 1930s and 1940s who used the word ‘caste’ to describe the racialised hierarchies of the Deep South, those states most dependent on a plantation economy and enslaved labour before the Civil War. The caste system associated with enslavement, they argued, was resurrected by Jim Crow laws after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment and policed through arbitrary violence, terror and the spectacle of lynching. She doesn’t examine similar policies and practices instituted beyond the US, though they governed the lives of migrants from the Caribbean who laboured on the Panama Canal and elsewhere.

Wilkerson is intent on portraying the protracted power of caste oppression as an invisible rot within American society. Although racism might be its everyday expression, it is only by recognising the ‘subconscious code’ of caste that we can start on the path to its eradication. At times her analogies struggle under the burden of this responsibility: our appearance is the ‘visible cue’ to caste, while race is a ‘visible decoy’; caste is the bones, race the skin; we are trained in the language of race but caste is the grammar that structures the language; the United States is a house, caste its supporting framework, the architecture of human hierarchy, and so on. In this analysis race and caste are not synonymous: race is the visible agent of the unseen force that is caste. But Wilkerson also creates exceptions. A surfeit of anecdotes about highly accomplished, well-educated and wealthy black people who are unable to escape the draconian effects of caste discrimination stand in contrast to her references to black migrants working to distance themselves from the caste system by adopting strategies such as speaking ‘with British diction’ to make sure people know they are Jamaican or Grenadian or Ghanaian.

Where the NMAAHC celebrates the establishment of a black middle class as a pinnacle of the national success story, Wilkerson is concerned for the plight of those (among whom she places herself) who have excelled in their professions but nonetheless suffer from the prejudice and hostility inherent in the caste system. Health inequities between white people and people of colour in the US are stark, but her focus is not those who are currently dying of Covid-19 at three times the rate of the white population: the black, indigenous and Latinx populations who are overrepresented in the carceral system; who rely on underfunded, understaffed schools and hospitals; who live in the poorest neighbourhoods; have the highest exposure to environmental pollution and toxins; and who experience food insecurity on a regular basis. Rather, she chooses to write about those black people whose higher socioeconomic status and privilege offer them no protection against the stress and heart disease associated with high levels of discrimination. The studies on which Wilkerson draws claim that ‘the caste system takes years off the lives of subordinate-caste people who find themselves in contention with it’: these people are highly educated, ‘compete in fields where they are not expected to be’ and ‘experience a lower life expectancy as a result’.

Wilkersonrecounts the biography of W. Allison Davis (1902-83), who faced discrimination despite being an accomplished and ‘impeccably tailored’ academic, with two degrees from Harvard and a year spent studying at the London School of Economics. In 1942, he completed his PhD in anthropology at the University of Chicago and was appointed to the faculty, the first black scholar to hold a full-time position at a predominantly white university. Five years later he became the first black faculty member at an elite university to be appointed to a tenured position. His colleagues, meanwhile, debated whether or not Davis should be teaching white students at all; the university wouldn’t allow him to eat in its Quadrangle Club; and he was denied housing in the white neighbourhood surrounding the university.

Davis was the lead researcher on W. Lloyd Warner’s project, which applied the concept of caste to race relations in the US and was published as Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class (1941). Wilkerson cites the book as an influence on her own thinking, although its conceptualisation of ‘caste’ doesn’t exhibit the rigidity she favours (the authors of Deep South insist on its malleability). In her chapter on Davis, Wilkerson describes him as being ‘on the early front lines of caste’, but Davis’s own work emphasised the importance of social and economic class. He also believed that knowledge about race ‘can make little further progress until scientific studies of the range and variation of Negro societies outside of the United States have been completed’. An account of the great diversity among African diasporic peoples across the world could, he thought, be used as ammunition in the fight against racism at home. Unable to find funding for such a project, Davis encouraged his student St Clair Drake to pursue a diasporic research agenda. Drake completed his dissertation on ‘Value Systems, Social Structure and Race Relations in the British Isles’ in 1954.

In May 1948, the Trinidadian-American sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox published Caste, Class and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics, a critique of the use of ‘caste’ by white academics, particularly Lloyd Warner and Gunnar Myrdal, whose study of race relations, An American Dilemma, was published in 1944. In contrast to Wilkerson’s national perspective, Cox saw a world system in which race prejudice and racial antagonism had originated from the commercialisation of human labour in the Americas and the East Indies and the capitalist exploitation of these regions. Racism, Cox believed, was distinct from caste and reached ‘full maturation in the second half of the 19th century with the second wave of British imperialism and the emergence of scientific racism’. Race relations were ‘definitely not caste relations but relationships of labour, capital and profits … and hence political-class relations’.

Caste, Class and Race was a major study, but Wilkerson dismisses ‘the Caribbean-born Oliver Cromwell Cox’ as a ‘contrarian’ for having mounted such a ‘cantankerous’ critique. Racism, she insists, is ‘one of the most contentious and misunderstood’ words in the US. Since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it has been ‘reduced to a feeling, a character flaw’. The label ‘racist’ is wielded ‘as an either/or accusation’ against individuals – a label that even extremists refuse to take up. Because ‘racism’ is easily denied, lacks a ‘universally agreed on definition’ and cloaks the ‘invisible structure that created and maintains hierarchy and inequality’ in the US, Wilkerson adopts ‘caste’ as a superordinate concept to describe the mechanisms of this invisible structure and account for its rigidity and longevity. Race, she claims, is ‘a recent phenomenon in human history’, deriving from the Spanish word raza (in the context of the Atlantic slave trade), and ‘caste’ the much older term.

She is thinking here of India, but ‘caste’ is neither more rigid nor much older than the concept of ‘race’. Caste is the anglicised form of the Spanish and Portuguese casta, which encompassed race, lineage, blood descent and breeding. The term was introduced to Asia by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and then to the Iberian empires of the Americas. Scholars of the Indian caste system describe it as a complex system of heritable hierarchy that has changed over time and isn’t as rigid as is often assumed. As the work of Anupama Rao demonstrates, what outsiders think they see is in fact a modern form of caste, which was produced and codified ‘as a social identity and a political mechanism of control’ under British colonial rule.

An 18th-century Mexican casta painting.

Wilkerson could more profitably have considered caste (casta) in the history of the colonisation of the Americas. The residue of Portuguese, as opposed to Anglo-Dutch, colonial domination is evident in the language used to differentiate bodies, and in the social and political practices which either forced their separation, for fear of ‘mixture’, or acknowledged intermingling and its results: the 28 categories of skin colour and descent used in Brazil can’t easily be mapped onto the definitions of ‘black’, ‘coloured’ and ‘white’ subjects in the de jure segregation of South African apartheid or the de facto ‘black’ and ‘white’ segregation of the US. Neither of these systems corresponds to the complex linguistic and visual vocabularies used to catalogue the African, European and Amerindian heterogeneity of Spain’s American empire. In the course of individual and communal daily life in 18th-century Mexico, for example, corporeal identities and racial categories were mutable, but the elite art form of casta paintings attempted to place limits on this, showing pairings of differently racialised bodies while constraining the potential for greater fluidity by means of genealogical captions, which superimposed a taxonomic language based on rigid lines of descent.

These racial imaginaries rooted in colonisation are not only historical but geopolitical in character. After the Abolition Act of 1833, the British repurposed slave ships to transport more than a million indentured labourers from India to work on plantations in their colonies around the globe, resulting in the complex entanglements of caste and race in British Guiana, Jamaica and Trinidad. Wilkerson sees caste as both cause and symptom of a Manichean division between black and white in the early days of North American colonisation, but this division tells us little about the effects of gender and class, and can’t account for indigeneity. If we broaden our understanding to include the history of racial geographies across the Americas, rather than uncritically accepting national boundaries established long after the European invasions, encounters with indigenous inhabitants become central to any attempt at making sense of the classification and division of humanity.

In the final pages of Caste, Wilkerson says she wants her book to help change minds and increase empathy, encouraging ‘the work to educate one’s self and to listen with a humble heart, to understand another’s experience from their perspective’. Yet she tells stories of migration without revealing any empathy for the history of foreign black migrants or for the contemporary migrants from other parts of the Americas who have been confined in camps and cages in the US or deported in violation of international law. Instead of thinking in exclusionary national units, our work and our institutions should acknowledge these interconnected histories and forge links between black, indigenous and Latinx communities. It is time for a reckoning, but hoping to change minds isn’t enough when we are faced with a larger system of racial capitalism that perpetuates inequality and injustice.

The Anansi canoe seat was donated to the NMAAHC by Juan García Salazar, a celebrated Afro-Ecuadorian activist and master storyteller, who spent many years travelling the rivers of Ecuador to collect and document oral histories as part of a fifty-year project of black cultural revitalisation. The seat belonged to his grandmother Déborah Nazareno Quitero: she used it as a storytelling stool, reciting folk tales to her young grandson as she cooked, or when paddling the rivers of Esmeraldas Province in her dugout canoe. Salazar clearly believed that this precious family heirloom and artefact of black Ecuadorian culture belonged in a museum of African American history at the heart of Washington DC, to serve as a portal to the Americas.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences