Book Reviews

Is the US Truly a Caste System?

(Source: Amazon.com)

Caste is a thought-provoking book and not an easy read. Although I can’t entirely agree with everything that Isabel Wilkerson wrote about in the book and her framing of the subjects, it is an essential read; Especially in current times, given the need to gain different perspectives and seek upstream solutions to bring the divided Americans together.

I have to confess that my understanding of a caste system is not as deep as I would like it to be. All my knowledge comes from reading online and chatting with some of my friends who grew up in India’s caste system, the world’s oldest form of surviving social stratification.

When I first thought of a caste system, neither Germany nor the US came to my mind. When Wilkerson pointed out that The Third Reich (the Third Reich official Nazi designation for the regime in Germany from January 1933 to May 1945) was also a caste system, I was surprised initially. But quickly, I came to an agreement with her, knowing what Nazis did to Jews during the Second World War. However, it completely surprised me that Nazis used American race laws to design their caste system and segregate the populations into different segments. Then Wilkerson continued to map American race relations to a Caste system. And according to Wilkerson, unlike the Indian caste system, which had hundreds of separate castes, the US basically has two, white and black.

Although I appreciate her bringing up a new perspective for examining the racial divide in the US, I don’t quite agree with the framing of the subjects and her oversimplified approach of attributing all the current challenges we are facing as a country to American being a race-based caste system. Here is why I disagree.

It is almost inevitable for human society to be stratified into social classes based on individuals’ social-economic status, locations, gender, and race. Such stratification will result in inequality when resources, opportunities, and privileges are being distributed to individuals or groups because of their positioning in the social hierarchy.

However, not every stratification creates a caste system. There is a key difference between a social hierarchical society like the US and a caste system. Caste systems are closed social stratification systems in which people inherit their positions and experience little mobility. Each caste or subcaste occupies a specific place in this complex hierarchy. There is strict segregation between the upper castes and lower castes, trapping people into fixed social orders so that it is impossible for them to escape. There exist systematic discrimination, biases, and oppression against the lower castes.

This is not what is happening in the US right now, where people born into the bottom of the hierarchy do have many opportunities and mobility to move up. And there is government legislation in place to promote equal opportunities without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin. Diversity and inclusion are the top priority across almost all industries and government institutions, focusing on providing more opportunities to under-represented groups.

The challenges that we face right now as a country are related to many different social-economics factors, including race. If we take those serious, complex, and far-reaching challenges we face and simplify them down to just race; it will not do us any good. It excludes people who are largely in the same boat due to the same social-economics reasons. In my opinion, what she describes is a caste-like system, a hierarchical social structure. If we want to map it to a caste system, then a better analysis of American caste would show the multiple layers of caste within each race community, not just black vs. white.

Despite my disagreement with the author on her over-simplified approach, it is still a worth-reading book. Wilkerson’s style of using a blend of historical research, individual examples, and her personal experience to support her viewpoints is definitely my cup of tea.

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