Open Book

Toxic Entwinement

The Roots of American Racism

Magazine Issue
November/December 2020
Headshot of Isabel Wilkerson and the cover of her book

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
by Isabel Wilkerson
Random House 476 pages


In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Isabel Wilkerson argues with devastating eloquence that the pervasive racism in our country is inextricably rooted in yet another poisonous system: caste. Over centuries, this toxic entwinement has become so deeply set in society that we’re no longer conscious of how much it distorts our thoughts and behaviors, particularly the way we relate to one another and regard ourselves.

Using history, psychology, sociology, and economics, Wilkerson presents an all-encompassing analysis of the enduring impact of race- and caste-based bias, prejudice, and mistrust. She examines the motives and belief systems of those who deny or justify the legacy of racial inequalities, and looks at the rage, fear, and resentment that fuel extremist groups. Most of all, she demonstrates just how exhausting and demoralizing it can be to be a person of color in America, constantly subject to negative assumptions, presumptions, and suspicions.

As a Black woman, Wilkerson has experienced and witnessed too many times the impact of what she calls the “tentacles of caste.” She writes, “You know that working twice as hard is a given. But more important, you know there will be no latitude for a misstep, so you must try to be virtually perfect at all times merely to tread water. You live with the double standard even though you do not like it. You know growing up that you cannot get away with the things that your white friends might skate by with—adolescent pranks or shoplifting on a dare or cursing out a teacher.” As an adult, and a distinguished reporter for The New York Times and a bestselling author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, she was once stopped and questioned by the Drug Enforcement Agency at the Detroit airport for no other reason than that she was a well-dressed business traveler who happened to be Black.

Similarly, in Chicago, when she appeared, on schedule, to interview the manager of a chic retail boutique for a Times article, he refused to believe she could be the reporter he was expecting, and asked her to leave. “His caste notions of who should be doing what in society had so blinded him that he dismissed the idea that the reporter he was so anxiously awaiting was standing right in front of him.” And these are only two of the countless encounters by which caste, day after day and over a lifetime, drains, steals, and stresses psychic resources, continually emptying whatever reserves remain.

How are racism and caste so closely related? Wilkerson argues that caste is “an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits.” In America, that artificial construction is based on a person’s race. Its inception coincided with the arrival of enslaved people whose skin was darker than that of the European settlers. In this way, the two separate but connected systems of caste and race entwined in this country.

Wilkerson also notes that India’s infamous system originated from Hindu religious traditions that for thousands of years had placed Brahmins at the top rung of the social ladder and Dalits (sometimes called untouchables) at the bottom. She adds that, in the same way that the U.S. abolished slavery during the Civil War, India declared discrimination according to caste illegal after the country regained independence in 1947. But, in another parallel to America, in India, too, residual prejudice, bias, and stigma continued to plague the Dalits, with many still living in poverty, working menial jobs, and unable to obtain the education and health services they need.

Each country’s attempts to redress the officially sanctioned inequality of the past by passing laws have led to inescapable similarities. In both countries, a deep sociological and psychological residue more than lingers on, with the system’s “subconscious code of instructions,” as Wilkerson calls it, continuing to make its presence felt. Thus, in both countries, legal remedies to address past injustice sparked resistance and resentment. “What is called ‘affirmative action’ in the United States is called ‘reservations’ in India, and they are equally unpopular with the upper castes in both countries, language tracking in lockstep, with complaints of reverse discrimination in one and reverse casteism in the other,” Wilkerson observes. This speaks to caste’s significance across societies, even if the effects play out somewhat differently in each country’s social and political context.

And it relates directly to the upheavals we’re seeing in America today, where the mere idea of being bumped to a lower rung on the societal ladder can trigger deep issues of identity and status, especially among whites near the bottom of the American hierarchy, says Wilkerson. Political scientists describe their fears as a kind of existential anxiety that they label “dominant group status threat.”

It’s not that the dread of losing the status of white superiority is new; how could it be in a system in which one’s “place” in society, especially based on race, has been fixed and immutable through the generations? But Wilkerson demonstrates how little unyielding attitudes have changed over the generations when she quotes a Virginia slaveholder’s 1832 remark that poor whites possessed “little but their complexion to console them” for not being born into a higher caste. She also cites the eminent social economist Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 observation that working-class white Americans “need the demarcations of caste more than upper class whites. They are the people likely to stress aggressively that no Negro can ever attain the status of even the lowest white.”

And now, with census-based statistics predicting that America will become a “minority white” country by 2042, apprehension among many whites has grown increasingly intense, the trigger-point ever more incendiary. “Rising immigration from across the Pacific and the Rio Grande and the ascendance of a black man as president made for an inversion of the world as many had known it, and some of them might have been more susceptible to the calls to ‘take our country back’ after 2008 and to ‘make America great again’ in 2016,” Wilkerson writes. And although many pundits have been puzzled why many whites seemed to vote against their economic interests in choosing Trump, Wilkerson suggests that viewed through the lens of caste, they were opting for the candidate likeliest to maintain and bolster the hierarchy that, because of their skin color, would protect them from slipping to the lowest rung. “The malaise is spiritual, psychological, emotional,” she posits. “Who are you if there is no one to be better than?” Such is the paradox, and the struggle, of a country that proclaims liberty for all but still remains, at least in part, psychologically chained to the hierarchy of Jim Crow.

Some of Wilkerson’s most chilling pages detail the lessons Nazi Germany drew from America’s racial laws in drafting its anti-Jewish codes. Hitler admired the severely restrictive U.S. Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 (legislation that effectively kept Jews and Asians out of the country), and he was particularly struck by America’s ability to maintain a detached pose of official unconcern in the face of frequent mob lynchings of Blacks. Nazi officials marveled at the detailed, comprehensive reach of the all-encompassing laws in the Southern states that sent Black and white children to separate schools; segregated waiting rooms, prisons, jails, and train cars; allowed Blacks to be barred from hotels and restaurants; banned marriages between races; and stamped one’s race on every birth and death certificate. The only thing the Nazis could not understand is why Americans didn’t also consider Jews to be “colored.” Otherwise, the strictures undergirding the systems were in near complete agreement.

According to the Nazi hierarchy, Aryans constituted the highest caste, while Jews constituted the lowest. Wilkerson identifies the psychological process of conditioning—dehumanization—that can persuade otherwise seemingly upstanding citizens to be complicit with cruelty, even atrocity. Her examples bring to life the dehumanization that happened—and is still happening—in America: “Upon their arrival at the auction blocks and labor camps of the American South, Africans were stripped of their given names and forced to respond to new ones, as would a dog to a new owner,” she writes. Before the Civil War, runaway slave laws legalized the tracking and hunting of slaves as if they were animals. Afterward, and into the 20th century, postcards featuring photographs of the victims of mob lynchings became a popular commodity. The sadism involved showcases how in treating others as less than human, or standing by complacently as witnesses, we become desensitized and lose our capacity for empathy.

And empathy is what we need most in combatting the prejudice and stigma of caste and race today. Wilkerson concludes with an emphatic plea to “educate oneself and listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel. . . . If each of us could truly see and connect with the humanity of the person in front of us, search for that key that opens the door to whatever we may have in common, whether cosplay or Star Trek or the loss of a parent, it could begin to affect how we see the world and others in it. . . . Each time a person reaches across caste and makes a connection, it helps to break the back of caste. Multiplied by millions in a given day, it becomes the flap of a butterfly wing that shifts the air and builds to a hurricane across an ocean.” Wilkerson’s magisterial work should be required reading for us all.



Diane Cole

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and writes for The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.