The Lens of Caste

The Lens of Caste
The year 2021 has had a dramatic start and as I write this in Washington DC, reputedly there are more US troops in the nation’s capital than in Iraq and Afghanistan. For years, we have always been told about the US democratic tradition, that bastion of liberty and equality, and yet there are ways in which the evolving American political landscape no longer shows that. There is a sinister underside that has been exposed – the images of white men parading through the Capitol with Confederate flags or the plethora of racist and Nazi flags left around the city parks after the protests.

At one point, on CNN, Anderson Cooper and Thomas Friedman even discussed the possibility of civil war in the US. They know their civil wars, Friedman having seen four years of Lebanon during its civil war and Anderson Cooper covering various, including Rwanda. This is all frightening and chilling – not only for what it means for the US domestically but also for its dramatic foreign policy implications.

Dalit activists carry an image of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in India

It was fortuitous that that in our multicultural book club this month, to mark the debut of the year, we had chosen Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer-prize-winning African American journalist. Her book was endorsed by Oprah Winfrey as one of the “must-read books for all humanity”. To illustrate her belief, she sent a copy to every US governor and political leader that she could think of.

Isabel Wilkerson with President Obama in 2015

The book’s premise is interesting: that the US system is based on a structural system of caste – and the rigidity that it imposes. It is an invisible hierarchy of humans ranked according to social criteria. It explores the effect this stratification has on people in the pecking order, their lives, the future open to them, as well as on the fabric of the polychrome nation.

'Untouchables' of Malabar, Kerala, 1906

Caste is almost predetermined and difficult to transcend. By comparison, the other dividers - race and class - are easier to transcend. Wilkerson uses eight pillars to explore this narrative, skillfully interweaving aspects of divine will, stigma and blood lines with personal stories and anecdotes: of how caste is intrinsic to US society. To illustrate this, she compares these systems with others  such as those prevalent in India, South Africa and Nazi Germany.
The book’s premise is interesting: that the US system is based on a structural system of caste – and the rigidity that it imposes

The Nazi Germans for instance studied the US system and Jim Crow laws as a role model to plan their marginalization segregation of the Jews. In doing so, they studied outrageous segregation practices – by separating, isolating and subjugating  a group of people, one can actually dehumanize them to the point where acts of violence and depersonalization are justified. That probably applies to most societies when one separates according to rank or caste or class but to do so on a systemic and systematic basis was one of the terrible stains of the German experience during World War 2.

There has to be a bottom rung of people – in the case of India, historically it was the Dalits, in the case of Germany the Jews and in the case of the USA, the African American population – meant to be kept “in their place” and subordinated to the higher echelons in society. Those who transcend it are the exception, not the norm. Even those who succeed are never free from it. For example, a colleague revealed to me that native Africans who do well are called Black Diamonds in South Africa.

Martin Luther King Jr. in India, 1959

It is eye-opening to see that this is not a new observation. Martin Luther King on his trip to India during the 1950s was struck by the similarities between India and the US which share the system of apartheid, fixed notion of “place” within the pecking order of society, even if laws could be changed. He was introduced to a crowd of Dalits at a high school as a “fellow untouchable”. For a moment, he was floored and uncomfortable at the reference. He paused for a moment and then  began to compare it to 20 million people consigned to live in a low rank within a society, quarantined and exiled and then remarked “Yes, I am an untouchable and every Negro in the United States of America is an untouchable.” Clearly, there are differences in structure, hierarchy and bloodlines versus what is legal. For caste systems have long been legally abolished in India and the US, but continue to operate stubbornly in people’s minds and social behavior.
Wilkerson argues that it is the policing of and the adherence to the caste system which is one of the underlying issues of the US, not mere racism

Wilkerson therefore defines caste as an investment in hierarchy. The dominant caste always remains on top and, to protect itself, maintains the structure. She argues that it is the policing of and the adherence to the caste system which is one of the underlying issues of the US, not mere racism. To use the metaphor of a body, caste refers to the bones of the body (the structure) whereas race is more the signal of one’s place.

Any of us can be invested in caste – in keeping the hierarchy intact, even when we may not be openly racist or hateful, especially if the system works for us. And that is the conversation many of the Americans I know are engaged in – self-reflection. How could this happen to us? This is not who we are. How can this be what we represent? These are fringe elements, they argue, not the majority. We have often had the same conversation in many countries in the Middle East or South Asia – be it India, Lebanon or Pakistan.

Many of us have faced racism and structural exclusion in our lives – as the other. Even within my multi-cultural book club, women talked about growing up in structural racism in America where a childhood African American friend was not allowed into a white family’s pool, the Muslims spoke of the fear that they have at airports or customs, the Indians spoke of how caste still prevails in practice, and the Pakistanis of how caste remains an important issue even  though not one that is openly talked about.

Wilkerson’s book and her series of conversations, whether on NPR or recordings, are well worth listening to. It makes you uncomfortable to think that we are part of a system in which people are deemed as lesser, that we internalize a system of ranking people and that invisible and often subconscious biases make us perpetuate a system which does not work equally for all.

And it is at politically volatile times like this one that the lines flare up and reassert themselves. After reading this book, it is hard not to think of the invisible human pyramid that exists in the US and many other countries today. Challenges to it will inevitably lead to irreversible political upheaval.