Reading Caste: Isabel Wilkerson Inspects the Foundation of the House

Andrew Gaertner
12 min readNov 28, 2022

What does it mean to be untouchable?

Book Cover design by Greg Mollica and Cover Photo by Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

There is a chilling section in Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents in which she describes a meeting of NAZI leaders early in the Third Reich. They were considering what to do about the Jewish people in Germany. They had come to power by scapegoating and villainizing Jewish people and now that they could do whatever they wanted, they looked to the way Black people were treated in the United States for examples of how to institute a caste system. In this meeting, they decided that some of the practices of the Jim Crow South were too extreme.

TOO EXTREME FOR NAZIS!

Wilkerson’s thesis is that if we look at race in the United States as only about skin color, then we miss that race is a marker for caste. Once we understand race in terms of caste, we can understand why and how racism is so persistent in our systems and personal lives. In Wilkerson’s analysis, Black people occupy the lowest of the low caste in the United States, equivalent to the so-called “untouchable” Dalit caste in India and to Jewish people under NAZI rule. By understanding how caste works, we can see how to undermine racism in the United States.

What does it matter? Race or caste? Isn’t she talking about the same thing?

Well, yes and no.

West and Irving and the Difference between Race and Caste

Can we talk about Kanye West and Kyrie Irving?

I would rather not wade in. West’s anti-Semitic words and Irving’s tweet about an anti-Semitic movie have many people rightfully sounding the alarm about the dangerous normalization of anti-Semitism. As a white Christian man, I would like to stay on the sidelines. What does this have to do with me? But, given what Wilkerson says about caste, the conflict comes into focus for me, so I will dare a few words.

If we only think in terms of the binary Black and white, most Jewish people code as white in the United States. As a group, we also see Jewish people mainly in the “middle” and “owning” socioeconomic classes. So without the lens of caste, we might think of words and actions by a Black person against white, middle/owning class people as justified, given the historic and ongoing oppression of Black people in the USA. But when we look through the lens of caste, we see how “divide and conquer” works on behalf of the top section of the dominant caste (white, owning class, Christian men).

This looks to me like a classic way that the dominant caste tries to get people to blame each other and not notice their potential for solidarity. The fact the Jewish people are cast in the role of scapegoat here is a harmful revisitation of historic patterns of their oppression. And yet, something is off about the public canceling of West and Irving.

Wilkerson spends much of the book looking at the world’s most well-known caste system, in India. There, the caste system has been in place for a long time and includes many levels of hereditary caste, with Brahmin at the top and Dalit (untouchable) at the bottom. Furthermore, within each level of caste, there are specific sub-divisions. When people meet each other in India, they tend to ask each other questions that ascertain where the other person fits in the caste system. This is not necessarily conscious. Rather it is like the initial small talk people in the United States do at parties. Where are you from, what do you do, where did you go to school, where did you get that dress?

Wilkerson proposes that in the United States, like in India, we can look at the ways that the many levels and sub-levels of caste operate, with Black people cast in the hereditary role of untouchable. Untouchables in both systems are technically outside of the caste system, and their status is underneath the floor of caste.

If we are stuck looking at race as the defining feature of life in the United States, then we miss the way that white people jockey among themselves for caste status. Race is the defining feature of caste in the United States in that it sets Black people apart from all other people. But to focus only on race lumps everyone who is not Black together and ignores all of the different hierarchies within the various other castes and sub-castes that operate in the USA. It misses how Jewish people are still not generally accepted into the top level of the dominant caste.

The reaction by white people to West and Irving’s words and actions can best be described as a reminder to both men that they come from what Wilkerson calls the “untouchable” caste. Their challenges to the status quo are misplaced (in my opinion) because they misidentify the source of the oppression of Black people. But in a real sense, they both touched the same nerve among the general (read dominant caste white) public because each is a prominent Black man speaking his mind. The lens of caste helps me make sense of the situation.

Colorblind, Class Conscious, and Caste Clueless

When I was in college, I had the misguided notion that class was the defining feature of life in the United States. It is a testament to my place of privilege in the system that I thought that race was a red herring, and if we could get everyone to think in terms of class, then we could fix ALL of the inequality that I saw. I saw Black people being oppressed and I assumed it was because of class. If only white and Black working people could get together, then we would be unstoppable. I was “colorblind” and “class conscious.” I admit I was wrong.

I did not have Isabel Wilkerson’s lens of caste at that time. I saw inequality among white people, with me hanging out near the bottom of the middle class, and I felt more solidarity with working people, regardless of race, than I did with owning class people. I’m not alone. There is the phenomenon of the “Bernie bro” — a group of mostly white men who vehemently defend the idea that we all need to get behind the preeminence of class. Ironically, Bernie Sanders himself worked on the front lines of the fight for Civil Rights. But either way, I get the mindset of the “bros,” because I used to be one.

Wilkerson says that class functions in the United States, but that it layers on top of caste. For Wilkerson, class discrimination can be avoided through advanced education, change in clothes and mannerisms, and more money, but caste cannot. Caste reinforces class and uses race to do it.

The so-called “American Dream” is based on the idea of class being the defining factor in life in the USA. The “dream” part is that with hard work and ingenuity, anyone can rise in class because America is the “land of opportunity.” By ignoring caste (and by extension, race), the American Dream serves to perpetuate the idea (myth) that we live in a meritocracy. The myth of meritocracy only persists in the USA so stubbornly because it is built on the foundation of caste. We can believe it because meritocracy functions within the limits of caste and for those of us in the dominant caste it works okay.

This Old House

Isabel Wilkerson talks about how present-day life in the USA is like living in an old house. We did not build it. We were not around when the foundations were laid and the mudsill set, upon which to build. But we (all people in the United States) have inherited this big old house, and even though we didn’t build it, we are now responsible for it. To ignore caste is like ignoring the inner workings of the house. We might find various things in the house (society) don’t work, but unless we go down into the basement and inspect, we might end up blaming the wrong system. We might try to fix something without understanding the problem. We could make it worse.

Caste is a House Built on Lies

Caste is a construction. It was put there deliberately, and it can be removed just as deliberately. We see this in the early stages of NAZI Germany. There are literal notes from the planning meeting. They systematically built a state around caste, with Jewish people cast into an official untouchable role.

In listening to the podcast “Seeing White” and reading Ibram X Kendi’s book Stamped and Nell Irvin Painter’s book The History of White People, I gained some insight into the history of race and racism in the United States. They describe how in the 1600s race became a defining feature, specifically after Bacon’s Rebellion, where white indentured servants and Black enslaved people worked together. There are no notes from the meetings, but immediately following the Rebellion a series of caste laws were set up to prevent further solidarity. The race-based hereditary caste system that was developed would eventually serve as the model both for the NAZIs and before that for South Africa’s Apartheid.

Presumably, India’s caste system was also deliberately built by people who used it to justify their own power.

Once built, a caste system is self-perpetuating because caste is hereditary. Isabel Wilkerson describes many interactions she had with people from India. Those in the dominant caste grow up with an assumed sense of superiority which infuses every aspect of their behavior. When the world reflects the lessons you learn about who is better or worse than another person, it can start to seem like those differences are innate to the person. It can seem like caste is real.

Caste is based on lies.

It is in Wilkerson’s descriptions of people from India that we can see what an absurd lie caste is. She describes Dalit activists fighting their system and she draws lines of solidarity with Black people fighting a similar absurd system in the USA.

As an outsider, I can easily look at India and see that the timid geographer that Wilkerson meets is obviously not emblematic of a “warrior” caste. It makes no sense to me.

I don’t need any descriptions to know that the caste system developed by the NAZIs was built on an absurd lie. The Jewish people were not responsible for Germany’s poverty after World War I. There was the punitive Treaty of Versailles and a Global Depression to blame for that. But the NAZIs used existing anti-Semitism and misplaced blame to build a caste system that suited their purposes. It helped create a story of superiority that allowed for nationalistic pride, and it gave the (non-Jewish) German public someone to blame for anything that went wrong.

Scapegoats and the Blame Game

Blame is the function of the “untouchable” in a caste system. It gives all the other castes someone to blame. Specifically, it misplaces blame from the top layer of the dominant caste to the very bottom layer. It is like blaming the foundation for leaks in the roof or for chipped paint. By misplacing blame, we can’t find solidarity to fight together across castes. We also can’t see the sub-layers within the dominant caste, and those of us in the middle of the dominant caste end up supporting the whole system, which is designed to benefit the top layer the most.

This is the issue I have with West and Irving, how their (in my opinion) misplaced blame lands on Jewish people, who have already taken WAY too much blame. I am stuck appreciating their role as outspoken Black people who tweak the caste system, while I want us to collectively have as much or more attention for someone like Isabel Wilkerson.

Untouchables have all the power

Everything within a caste system depends on the untouchable remaining in the bottom place. Because if the untouchables are actually humans, then the whole system is suspect. That would mean men are not better than women. That Christians are not better than people with other religions. That native-born citizens are not better than immigrants. That straight people are not better than LGBTQ+ folks. That all of the ways people are born into caste in the United States are an absurd lie.

Race underpins caste in the United States and defines who is human and who is sub-human (untouchable). So that is why the Black Lives Matter movement needed to be discredited — too many white people in the streets affirming that Black people are humans. That is why the sanitation workers in Memphis wore placards that simply said “I Am A Man” on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination. That is why America is so deeply resistant to integration. That is why Kanye West and Kyrie Irving are asked to “stay in their lanes” and stick to entertainment and basketball. That is why there has been so much pushback against Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project. Each of these is a threat to the whole caste system because they dare to acknowledge Black people as humans.

Dismantling racism will undermine the whole caste system in the United States.

What Would Jesus Do?

I have some experience with the caste system. I fit within the middle of the dominant caste in the USA. I grew up in Wisconsin in almost all-white communities, but we still divided ourselves up by caste at school. Although caste is hereditary, proximity to someone of another caste can affect one’s status. I remember (to my own shame) how a peer with disabilities was ostracized. If she was nice to me, then I was worried her low status would rub off on me, and I would distance myself. Yuck.

I grew up with stories in my father’s Lutheran church of Jesus, who preached a vision of a world that was decidedly anti-caste. He washed the feet of “unclean” people, touched lepers, and ate with prostitutes and tax collectors. It is ironic that some of the people who loudly profess their faith are also the most committed to the perpetuation of caste.

How do we undermine caste?

The first step is to see it. Thank you, Isabel Wilkerson, for this lens.

In South Africa, after the fall of Apartheid, there was a Truth and Reconciliation process. I don’t want to say that it was a magic process, but there is something transformative that can happen when we really listen to someone’s story. We start to see ourselves in them and they become human to us.

There is also something about how location and proximity keep caste in place. Untouchables are literally “untouchable.” The NAZIs needed to segregate Jewish people into ghettoes and force them to wear yellow stars in order to carry out their caste system. Systems of official and defacto segregation continue to function today in India and the United States. In order to undermine caste, we need to undermine these systems of segregation and the inequality that goes with them.

The Water in the Basement

Isabel Wilkerson writes about caste and race and how they intersect in the United States. She has taken her flashlight down to the basement and exposed a rotten foundation.

I know from personal experience that an issue in the basement of a house does not magically go away. The four inches of water do not drain without a working sump pump. The whining furnace does not magically get a new belt. The sagging beam does not straighten itself out. To repair a house takes time and money. You can’t just close the basement door and ignore the problems.

In the final part of Wilkerson’s book, she talks about a time when she had water in her own basement. She called a plumber and a man from the dominant caste showed up and reenacted some of the features of caste that Wilkerson had been writing about. But something shifted when the two people found common ground around grieving a loss. At that moment they saw each other as humans. That shift in the relationship allowed them to see the cause of the issue and make a plan to fix it.

We collectively need a Wilkerson/plumber moment (or thousands of them) for all of us in the United States. Then we need to dedicate the time and money to do a major remodel.

Join the Readers and Writers Book Club!

Thank you to Laura M. Quainoo for joining me to pick this book for the December Readers and Writers Book Club. We cordially invite anyone to join us. This is an asynchronous book club. You can write any time on any of the books we have read so far. Tag your essay #RaWBC and tag Laura and/or me, too.

Stay tuned for December’s book choice.

© 2022 Andrew Gaertner. All rights reserved.

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Andrew Gaertner

To live in a world of peace and justice we must imagine it first. For this, we need artists and writers. I write to reach for the edges of what is possible.