Caste: Structuring Our Response to Difference

Scholar Isabel Wilkerson sees the idea of caste as, “a graded ranking of human value in a society that determines the standing and respect, the benefit of the doubt and access to resources, assumptions of competence and even of beauty through no fault or action of one’s own.” In different parts of the world caste is expressed in different ways. In the United States, that expression is through long-held ideas about race. She explains:

America has an unseen skeleton, a caste system that is as central to its operation as are the studs and joists that we cannot see in the physical buildings we call home. Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions. It is the architecture of human hierarchy, the subconscious code of instructions for maintaining, in our case, a four-hundred-year-old social order. Looking at caste is like holding the country’s X-ray up to the light.

A caste system 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, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places. Throughout human history, three caste systems have stood out. The tragically accelerated, chilling, and officially vanquished caste system of Nazi Germany. The lingering, millennia-long caste system of India. And the shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the United States. Each version relied on stigmatizing those deemed inferior to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement. A caste system endures because it is often justified as divine will, originating from sacred text or the presumed laws of nature, reinforced throughout the culture and passed down through the generations.

In the interview below, Wilkerson speakers with Daily Show host Trevor Noah, a South African immigrant to the U.S. about what it means to classify people by caste.

In an interview with National Public Radio’s Terry Gross, Wilkerson described how the idea of a racial caste impacts the way immigrants understand their role in American society.

WILKERSON: Well, it’s so shocking to our ears because, of course, we say that there is an entire subcontinent of people who we would view as Black. But what she was saying was that until you come to the United States, they themselves do not see themselves as Black. They are Igbo, or they are Ndebele, or they are Yoruba. Whatever it is that they are in terms of their ethnicity and identity, it is only when they enter into a hierarchy such as this do they then have to think of themselves as Black. But back where they are from, they do not have to think of themselves as Black because Black is not the primary metric of determining one’s identity.

GROSS: You say that the idea of white – of being white – is an American innovation.

WILKERSON: Yes, it’s an innovation that is only several hundred years old, dating back to the time of the transatlantic slave trade. And that is because before that time, you know, there were humans on the land wherever they happened to be on this planet. And because of the way people were living on the land, they were merely who they were. They were Irish or they were German or they were Polish or Hungarian.

And only after the transatlantic slave trade, only after people who had been spread out all over the world converged in this one space, the new world, to create a new country, a new culture, where all of these people were then interacting and having to figure out how they were going to relate to one another – that is when you have a caste system that emerges that instantly relegates those who were brought in as to be enslaved – relegated them to the very bottom of the caste system and then elevated those who looked like those who had – who created the caste system, meaning those who were British and Western Europeans, at the very top of the caste system. And anyone who entered that caste system had to then navigate and figure out, how were they going to manage? How were they going to survive and succeed in this caste system?

And also, upon arrival, discovering that they were assigned to a particular category whether they wished to be in or not – and that means that until arriving here, people who were Irish, people who were Hungarian, people who were Polish would not have identified themselves back in the 19th century as being white…[T]he gradations and ranking that occurred and was created in the United States – that is where the designation of white, the designation of Black and those in-between came to have meaning….[T]here was a tremendous churning at the beginning of the 20th century of people who were arriving in these undetermined or middle groups that did not fit neatly into the bipolar structure that America had created…there were petitions to the Supreme Court, petitions to the government for clarity about where they would fit in. And they were often petitioning to be admitted to the dominant castes.

One of the examples – a Japanese immigrant petitioned to qualify for being Caucasian because he said, my skin is actually whiter than many people that are identified as white in America. I should qualify to be considered Caucasian. And his petition was rejected by the Supreme Court.