Isabel Wilkerson: “Caste is like the wind. You may not be able to see it, but it’s a quietly destructive force”

Isabel Wilkerson talks to Ellie Cawthorne about her new book, which argues that caste has been a corrosive thread running throughout the history of the United States

Writer and Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson at her home in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Alamy)

Ellie Cawthorne: Your new book argues that the history of the United States is best understood if we view it as a caste system – with many traits in common with other caste systems, most notably India and Nazi Germany. How do you define caste, and why do you think that it’s a useful way of describing the divisions that have run through American society?

Isabel Wilkerson: I define caste as an arbitrary artificial hierarchy. In the American context, this hierarchy has meant that people’s life chances and what they are permitted to do have been related to and dependent upon what they look like.

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It’s also important to say that I distinguish caste from race. While caste is a concept that’s thousands of years old, race is fairly new in human history. It only really dates back to the era of the transatlantic slave trade, when it grew out of the desire to categorise people in order to build the ‘New World’. When it came to trying to build this New World, there was an imperative to find a way of saying that one group was better than the other, and the most readily available way of distinguishing one entire group of people from another was skin colour. That was the beginning of the American caste system, in which race was the signal or cue that determined where people would fit into the hierarchy.

How did this caste system take root in North America?

When Europeans first colonised North America, there was a tremendous need for labour to tame the land. Africans were transported across the Atlantic specifically to do that work – building society and infrastructure, and fulfilling agricultural needs that would provide the commodities that the rest of the economy was built on. The Americas became a landing place for people who otherwise, throughout most of human history, never would have interacted or never have had to live in the same space. As such, it became an experiment in the confluence of humans from all over the world. There aren’t many examples of largescale democracies that have contained such a varied combination of multi-ethnic groups, all living together. And any newcomer had to find out where to pitch in.

Back in Europe, no one would view themselves as ‘white’. Instead you would interact with others on the basis of national identity – you were English, Portuguese or Dutch, for example. But once Europeans arrived in the New World, they discovered that they were assigned a place based upon what they looked like – the physical manifestation of their heredity. Back home, a Serbian may not have had much in common with, say, someone from France or Denmark, but in America they found that they were viewed as the exact same group. Since they were seen as the same racial category, they were all assigned to the same queue. It turned out that there was a place for everyone, and that place was assigned before they had even arrived.

And the same went for people coming from Africa and other parts of the world. They were not one people – they encompassed many different nations, groups and ethnicities, and didn’t share a common language. That dislocation made them especially vulnerable to labelling, isolation and ultimately to the kind of brutality that they met when subjected to enslavement – and colonisers took advantage of that. It was a cruelly pragmatic move on their part to lump together this group of disparate peoples and designate them as all being at the very bottom of a still-emerging hierarchy.

By its very nature, that hierarchy put people in contention automatically. It forced people to choose sides in order to survive. While the first immigrants might have had to adjust to this new system, it quickly became solidified into received wisdom that was passed down the generations. Now the idea of someone being ‘white’ or ‘black’ is such an accepted delineation that we don’t even think about it. We simply accept these things to be truisms – they seem so obvious to us. If you take a long view, however, people haven’t thought about themselves in those terms – being black or white – for very long. But those labels are the prime tool for enforcing the US caste system, because they have meaning in the hierarchy created here 400 years ago.

You compare the United States to the caste systems of India and Nazi Germany. What similarities did you find?

That was one of the most fascinating aspects of this work, because while they used different means of delineating and identifying who would be where in the hierarchy, the methods and means of maintaining and enforcing the caste systems in India, Nazi Germany and the United States were actually shockingly similar.

I identify eight ‘pillars of caste’ that are consistent throughout all of these three hierarchies. These include a stated belief in the system being intended by divine will or the laws of nature, and the need to dehumanise those at the bottom in order to make people feel like this is the natural order of things. Another is spreading ideas about the purity of the dominant group, versus the pollution that will accrue from them being exposed to those who are viewed as subordinate. Divisions are reinforced by attempts to restrict or prohibit marriage between castes, and to control what jobs people do. And those caste boundaries are enforced using terror and cruelty. I identified these characteristics throughout all three of the systems I looked at.

One of the comparisons you draw between Nazi Germany and America is the way that the language of science was weaponised to reinforce caste – how so?

Working on this book was a revelation on so many different levels. One of the things I was most shocked to uncover was the extent of the connections between eugenicists on both sides of the Atlantic. These were kindred spirits – they looked to each other for inspiration and encouraged one another. The impulse to maintain hierarchy led those who enforced it to look for justifications – and one of the key methods used to rationalise caste was by using so-called ‘science’.

This began long before the Third Reich: during the late 19th century and through the First World War, pseudoscience was being used to build a justification for the hierarchy that had already been established but was still brewing. American eugenicists even went to Germany during the Third Reich to consult with the Nazis and were received as dignitaries. This was stunning to me.

One of the most obvious ways pseudoscience was used to reinforce caste was a fixation on water. In all three systems there was an obsession with keeping water separate and pure. In India, Dalits [those at the bottom of the caste system, sometimes known as ‘untouchables’] couldn’t go near a well without being abused by someone from the dominant caste, and the Nazis did not permit Jewish citizens to use swimming pools. While in Chicago in 1919, there was a case where an African-American boy got into trouble for making the mistake of wading off a beach into what was considered ‘white water’. So the interconnectedness between these systems is clear.

As well as the similarities between the systems, there are differences. What’s illuminating about those differences?

I think that what is most enlightening about the differences is actually how arbitrary they are. The fact that they all used different metrics to determine who was accorded the role of being dominant and who was accorded the role of being subordinate, makes those metrics completely arbitrary. This simply affirms the tragedy of caste itself.

How have caste boundaries been policed, maintained and enforced across history?

Since artificial hierarchy is by definition arbitrary, it goes against the will of people who do not wish to be constricted by its regulations and structures. Therefore, the need to surveil and police the behaviour of those deemed as being in the subordinate caste is an important part of any caste system.

In the US, policing the boundaries of caste can be traced back to the time of slavery, with the need to keep enslaved Africans in their place and prevent them from running away. Slave patrols were created to hunt them down if they sought to flee. Interestingly, a lot of those slave patrols were not operated by constables or officials, but manned by ordinary people from the dominant caste, who were expected to police and surveil those beneath them. Meanwhile, the Fugitive Slave Act [passed in 1850] meant that those in the north, where enslaved people might escape to, were required to return any runaways to the people that claimed to own them.

The word ‘caste’ may not be used, but videos surface every other week showing white Americans surveilling those assigned to the subordinate caste: African-Americans

This idea of controlling and containing those who were assigned to the bottom rung is a long thread that runs throughout American history. It might have happened without the word ‘caste’ ever being used, but it was nevertheless about maintaining boundaries and restricting who could do what and go where.

That follows through to the current era. Again, the word ‘caste’ may not be used, but nonetheless, videos surface every other week showing ordinary white Americans surveilling those assigned to the subordinate caste – African-Americans. There are so many examples that it’s hard to choose from them.

But to take just one: in 2018 a graduate student of African descent, Lolade Siyonbola, was studying in her dorm common room at Yale. She was taking a break from writing a paper, napping and resting her head on a book, when another student, who was white, accused her of trespassing. The police were called and Siyonbola had to provide ID to prove she was a Yale student. The police even questioned the ID she presented to them.

That’s just one example of an ordinary person policing the boundaries of who they expected to see in that environment – deciding who, in their mind, seemed like a legitimate, worthy student of Yale University. Of course, this is just one of many examples, the most extreme of which end in violence and brutality. Sometimes, people lose their lives as a result of the policing of these caste boundaries. This is the long thread of history reasserting itself.

You also share some of your own experiences of the US caste system. How have you seen it play out first-hand?

A few years back I was a national correspondent for The New York Times. I made an appointment to interview a man for a story that I was working on. I’d spoken to him on the phone beforehand and he was naturally very excited to be interviewed for such a renowned newspaper. I showed up at his establishment at the time we had agreed, and when I arrived there was no one else there other than one of his employees, who told me to wait for him.

The door opened and the man came rushing in, very harried. I introduced myself as Isabel from The New York Times, and he responded: “I don’t have time to talk with you, I’m late for a very important interview.” I told him that the appointment was with me, but it was as if he hadn’t heard me. So I repeated that I was the person there to interview him – I was from The New York Times. And he said, “Well, how do I know that?” I responded that I’d arranged the appointment with him on the phone and no one else was around. Then he asked if I had a business card to prove it. Against all evidence to the contrary, he was refusing to believe that I was the person who was there to interview him. I showed him my ID, but he said: “This doesn’t mean anything because it doesn’t have The New York Times on it. I’m going to have to ask you to leave because I have to get ready for my appointment.” So I left.

Obviously this affected me. It impacted my ability to do my work, but it also made me feel marginalised, erased and isolated. One thing that is often said about people who are marginalised is that they’re “playing the race card” or “playing the gender card”. But I would say that that is absolutely the last thing on anybody’s mind. That situation didn’t benefit me in any way. There were no winners in that scenario – in fact, everyone lost. The encounter even ended negatively for the man himself, because I wrote the story and he wasn’t in it, meaning that he didn’t get whatever publicity or attention he might have wished to have got from it.

I decided to share personal stories like that in the book to emphasise how caste affects everyone up and down the hierarchy. All kinds of people are harmed by it – not just those at the bottom. This is often in ways that people can’t see, particularly if they don’t have to engage with these issues on a daily basis. People may not even be aware of how it’s affecting them.

It’s just yet another example of how caste still operates as a quietly destructive force. It’s like the wind. People can’t see it, but it’s there nonetheless. And it can knock you down in moments you never expected.

Do you think that the American caste system can or will ever be dismantled?

That is the question, isn’t it? It would take a strong will. Firstly, there needs to be a recognition that it exists at all, which is the reason I wrote the book. That takes an open-hearted willingness to see the commonality of all human beings and to appreciate the price that we all pay for having a caste system. Those are the things that would have to happen before it could be dismantled.

Nazi Germany makes an interesting comparison because it was a short-lived yet horrifying object lesson in the worst that can happen as a result of hierarchy. But in the time since the terrifying 12 years of the Third Reich, Germany has been in the process of seeking to understand and come to grips with its past, and in many respects atone for those horrors. There’s been a tremendous effort of maintaining the memory of what happened, while also honouring those who suffered. That is an ongoing effort on their part, and I think it offers lessons for everyone.

The great Dalit leader, Bhimrao Ambedkar, wrote about the need to demolish hierarchy back in the 1930s, in his seminal work The Annihilation of Caste. But here we still are almost a century later, despite legislation to the contrary. This history is long and deep, and there’s no escaping it. These things will be with us until we reconcile with history.

Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (Allen Lane, 496 pages, £20)

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This article was first published in the October 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine