America's Caste System : Throughline "Race" is often used as a fundamental way to understand American history. But what if "caste" is the more appropriate lens? In conversation with Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson, we examine the hidden system that has shaped our country.
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America's Caste System

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America's Caste System

America's Caste System

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ISABEL WILKERSON: As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of castes is not about feeling or morality. It's about power - which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources, which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is about respect, authority and assumptions of competence - who is accorded these and who is not.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

Hey. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: And on this episode of THROUGHLINE from NPR, the origins of our discontent.

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WILKERSON: Its sacred work to be able to record the experiences of people who have been part of history but not been included in the history.

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ABDELFATAH: This is Isabel Wilkerson.

WILKERSON: I am author of "The Warmth Of Other Suns," which was about the outpouring of 6 million African Americans from the South to the rest of the country seeking refuge from the caste system known as Jim Crow that lasted from the end of Reconstruction until, essentially, into the 1960s.

ABDELFATAH: Isabel spent a decade gathering research and conducting interviews for her book. It's both a sweeping story of a major event in American history - the Great Migration - and an intimate portrait of what it was like for those who lived through it.

ARABLOUEI: The book was heralded for challenging historical narratives, searching for the deeper story and connecting the bigger picture to real people. That approach to history is what we try to do each week on this show.

ABDELFATAH: We've received dozens and dozens of messages from teachers across the country telling us that's the exact reason they've used THROUGHLINE in their classrooms - to reframe and re-contextualize history. Which got us thinking - with the start of the school year right around the corner, why not put together a THROUGHLINE curriculum?

ARABLOUEI: So that's exactly what we did. During the month of August, we're going to bring you teacher-curated student-approved THROUGHLINE episodes that challenge the past you thought you knew or maybe never learned at all. And to kick off the series, we sat down with Isabel Wilkerson to discuss her new book, "Caste: The Origins Of Our Discontents," which makes the bold argument that caste, rather than race, gives us a better framework to understand American history.

WILKERSON: I think that caste actually gives us a new language, a new way of looking at what has always been there but that we have not necessarily been able to see, in the same ways that we can't see the joints and the pillars and the beams in the buildings that we might work in or live in. They are hidden behind what is in front and center, which is what I would call race.

ABDELFATAH: That conversation after the break.

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LESLIE NEW: This is Leslie New (ph) calling from Sutton, Alaska. You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

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ARABLOUEI: Part 1 - caste is structure.

ABDELFATAH: When Isabel Wilkerson was working on her first book, "The Warmth Of Other Suns," she noticed a strange pattern emerging in her research that would become the basis of her next book. A lot of the anthropologists and sociologists who were writing about the Jim Crow South in the 1930s were using a word she wasn't used to seeing in an American context.

WILKERSON: I was immersed in that world. I was focused in on what it was like to live in that world. And as a result of that, I became aware of how others who had studied that world while it was actually in progress, they were referring to that structure that existed in the American South. They described it as a caste system.

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WILKERSON: As I was talking to the people who were survivors of that caste system and who had defected from that world, I recognized too that caste was the most appropriate, comprehensive and accurate way to describe what they had experienced. I didn't come to it immediately, of course. You know, I, like everyone else, considered caste to be a word that would be applied to India, feudal Europe. It was not a word that I was aware of or what I'm thinking about. But that's how I came to the awareness of the use of the word caste in applying it to the United States. And also, I should say that a lot of people who have read "The Warmth Of Other Suns" will often talk about it as a book that speaks about racism or what - they were fleeing racism. But the word racism does not appear in that book. Caste is the word that I used. It was through that recognition of what the Jim Crow South was actually like that I came to the recognition that caste was the appropriate word.

ARABLOUEI: How would you define caste, and how does caste differ from race in the American context?

WILKERSON: Well, caste is millennia old, and it's thousands and thousands of years old. In India, for example, it's been - it's many, many thousands of years old. So as a concept, caste predates the idea of the concept of race, which is a fairly new concept in human history. Caste is essentially an artificial - arbitrary, in many respects - construction of hierarchy ranking the people within a culture or society based upon their connection to whatever is the dominant caste. And when you look at any caste system, there is going to be a group that's on the top and there's a group that's on the bottom and those in the middle who are often struggling to navigate between these two poles, and often are seeking to identify with and gain the favor of those who are at the very top of the hierarchy.

And in the United States, it's very clear historically from the beginning of colonial times there were people who were dominant. And they were the English and those who might have come closest to them. And then at the very, very bottom were transported to the New World, people who would be enslaved. And the recognition - the immediately visible recognition based upon what they looked like made them sadly, tragically more vulnerable to being identified as very, very different from those who were the dominant group. And so Africans became the subordinated group. And then there were people outside of that caste system, the people who had been ruthlessly, brutally driven from their own land, the Indigenous people who were pushed outside and maybe made exiles in the emerging caste system.

ABDELFATAH: I mean, it sounds like the caste system really boils down to a power structure that keeps people in kind of distinct - I don't want to say classes but indistinct power dynamics with one another. And I guess I'm wondering, in contrast with race, which can also reinforce like power dynamics, how does caste capture that more than race does as a term and as an idea?

WILKERSON: Racism as a word is not very - there's not an agreement on what it means. It's often connected to the emotions of hate, hostility, disliking, prejudice. These are very emotionally fraught perspectives on how we relate to one another. But caste takes us away from the emotion. Caste is about structure. It's about the infrastructure that we have inherited. It is not about feelings. It is really about power and how those other groups manage and navigate and seek to survive in a society that's created with this ranked hierarchy that's been made invisible to us because it's so much a part of how things work in the country.

I think of caste as the bones and race as the skin. And then class is the accent, the diction, the clothing, the education, the things that we can change about ourselves but that are not the same as caste because if you can act your way out of it, then it's class. If you cannot act your way out of it, then it's caste, caste being something that is a rigid and fixed hierarchy that you can't see but that hold the structure in place. And then race becomes the tool of the framework in which we all live. It is the signal for where an individual has been assigned in their preexisting established framework that we live in.

ARABLOUEI: So, you know, while reading the book, perhaps because I'm a millennial and I'm self-centered, I kept thinking about where my family fits in the caste system. You know, both Rund and I are from immigrant families from the Middle East. I'm from Iran. Her family is from Palestine. And I keep thinking sort of, as the caste system stands, how does an American caste system incorporate new people that, you know, don't fit in the kind of traditional categories of race, of white and black in America? And how does caste work in kind of an ever-evolving increasingly diverse and increasingly brown society?

WILKERSON: That is such a great question. Unlike the original caste system in India, which had four main varnas, under which there were thousands of sub-castes. The United States was created as a project in democracy, and it was founded as sort of a bipolar hierarchy. And what that meant was that anyone coming into this preexisting hierarchy who did not fit one of those two poles then had to figure out, where do they fit? And how do they manage to survive in a world where it was intended originally to be bipolar, as I've described?

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WILKERSON: And so the dominant caste has changed over time as the needs, economics, demographics have changed over time in the country. What's fascinating then is that many people that we today would without question consider to be white by every measure would not have been considered white in, say, 1870 or 1890. There was tremendous, tremendous tensions over who could be permitted into what would be called the dominant caste.

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WILKERSON: You know, we often will say, you know, race is a social construct. People say that all the time. Well, this is how it was constructed. When people who arrived to this country from parts of Europe that were outside of Western Europe, from southern and Eastern Europe, the question was, where were they going to fit in? At a certain point, they were not wanted at all. Then they were folded in and labeled as or designated as white, not because that was their own identification before arriving. People did not arrive here with an idea of being white or for people who been enslaved of being Black. They did not become that until arriving here.

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WILKERSON: I mean, this shows you the arbitrary, artificial nature of trying to divide people up on the basis of the manmade arbitrary ranking of people.

ARABLOUEI: When we come back, how Isabel's book, "Caste: The Origins Of Our Discontents," challenges us to think about American history in a new way and why that conversation is needed right now.

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PAM KALHOFF: Hi. This is Pam, Pam Kalhoff (ph), calling you from the far reaches of Manhattan, Kan. And I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your show about the voices of the Depression. It was just very moving. And I like most all of your shows. Thank you.

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ARABLOUEI: Part 2 - X-ray vision.

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ABDELFATAH: When you were constructing sort of this idea for a book in framing the U.S. context and U.S. history, that maybe it's familiar to us on the surface, but in these sort of foreign terms, that creates a new vantage point through which to see it, right? And I wonder how much you were thinking about that when you were working on this book.

WILKERSON: Oh, absolutely. Thank you for putting it that way. I mean, it's like looking at ourselves from a different vantage point that we never would have thought of before because it allows us to see it from a different prism, a different lens. Think of it as sort of an infrared light. I describe it as looking at the X-ray of one's country. When we use the same language long enough, we stop even hearing ourselves. It doesn't ask us to think beyond what we already know. Using language that we're not accustomed to but that still accurately portrays what our circumstances may be helps us to see things differently and perhaps and hopefully awaken from what we might not have been aware of before.

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ARABLOUEI: Using caste as a way to frame American history or look at American history, how can that change the way we approach the problems we're facing today that we continue to face, whether it's income inequality, racial oppression, the - kind of the list goes on of the problems the country is dealing with? Having a kind of caste frame of American history, how can that kind of change the way we approach problems today?

WILKERSON: Caste is - I find it to be a liberating concept in an odd kind of way because it takes the personal out of it.

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WILKERSON: It removes the heaviness of preconceived notions about how we would view ourselves. It's fresh and new and a different kind of way. I believe that in the era in which we live, we need new language to work our way through what it is that we're experiencing. The same language that was applied to the era of cross-burning Klansmen of the early 20th century might not be the most effective way to deal with the divisions and tensions that we are facing today. Many of those overt forms of what would be called racism don't manifest in the same ways.

And so the question is, how is it that these things are still occurring? How is it that we live in a country where, on a regular basis, there is a video that is - that emerges that shows someone from what I would call the dominant caste - a white American, a white person - is policing, surveilling, pointing to someone of what I would call the subordinated caste - African Americans - calling the police, literally, on them for waiting for a friend at a Starbucks, for having a barbecue at a park in Oakland, for attempting to get into one's own condo building in St. Louis. Why is it that we are seeing these efforts to restrict control and set boundaries as to where an individual should or should not be? That is essentially the hallmark of caste.

If you think about caste as a word, caste as what you would put on your arm in order to hold bones together after a fracture, a caste is literally there to hold things in place. If you think about the cast in a play, everyone in the cast has a set and specific role to play. Everyone knows what their role is. They know their lines. And they go about the production with an understanding of who will be where. And when you think about cast, you know, as a caste system, that is what we're seeing as well.

So this is a really long-standing enduring concept that seems to have survived all of the various civil rights legislation to deal with the various efforts to redress past injustices and current ones. It seems to be a throughline for how things have continued to be as we live today. It is a continuum. And so that's the reason why I think that caste actually gives us a new framework, new language, a new way of looking at what has always been there but that we have not necessarily been able to see.

ABDELFATAH: So this idea about caste was first sort of introduced by some anthropologists in the early 20th century in the U.S. - right? - and it didn't really take hold then.

WILKERSON: Right.

ABDELFATAH: So I guess I'm wondering why you feel that this conversation around caste is useful right now and might take hold right now.

WILKERSON: Well, I think that we are at a moment in our country's history of rupture and discord and division that does not seem to be improving but, in fact, in some respects appears to be worsening. And that means that there needs to be a different way of looking at what is happening. The old ways of looking at our society may not be as useful today as they might have been before. And that is why I am suggesting that let's look at what is underneath what we think we see. Let's look underneath what we have been told. Let's look underneath what we have come to believe as the way things work and to see how this is operating and affecting us, and has been so enduring that we can see the manifestation of it even now. There is so much to be learned from looking more closely and seeing what we can learn from other cultures as well.

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ARABLOUEI: Isabel Wilkerson breaks down her approach to telling historical stories and how she finds the balance between narrative and facts when we come back.

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SOPHIE: Hi. This is Sophie (ph) from Portland, Ore. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

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ARABLOUEI: Part 3 - a house inherited.

WILKERSON: I consider myself a writer of narrative nonfiction. And I consider myself a historian at this point because I spend so much time with the history. First and foremost, this work requires listening and an open heart to hearing how other people have experienced something. After "The Warmth Of Other Suns" came out, one of the things that I would hear time and time again, over and over and over, no matter what the background of the person was, was I had no idea. I had no idea. And when someone says that - you know, these are people who lived during that era there are these are people who were in the South at that time but they had not seen

WILKERSON: or recognized, I should say, the experiences of people who were on the face of it unlike themselves or had - they been told were unlike themselves and didn't understand, didn't see, didn't know. And this is sacred work of hearing from people who have not been heard before. It's sacred work to be able to record the experiences of people who have been part of history but not been included in the history. And that's how I view myself.

ARABLOUEI: I love your work. I love "Warmth Of Other Suns." And also, in this particular book, you use chapters from history or points from history to really illuminate points about the world we live in today. Our show takes a particular approach, many people do it. How do you think about how history is going to help you tell the story, like, in the case of caste? When you began thinking about how to tell the story, what was your approach?

WILKERSON: Well, I started completely from a perspective of I understand and know and have studied the American caste system as it existed in the Jim Crow South, so that I knew. What I did not know was how it manifested in other places. What were the origins of what I saw as a an underlying phenomenon that we still have to deal with but are not even aware that we are dealing with it? So the first goal was to understand India, to understand and study and research, how does it work there, what are the parallels that could be gleaned from it? And I was stunned to discover the parallels that I did. One of the things that, you know, comes to mind for me is that we often ask, why do these people do this thing or do that thing? And I have come to believe that the only question, really, is what do human beings do when they are in the circumstance that they're in?

And so I ended up finding so many parallels in the ways that human beings respond based upon where they happen to be. The importance of maintaining the purity of the dominant caste in both societies was paramount in formulating their caste systems. And, of course, the one in India's thousands upon thousands of years old. And yet far, far away in a completely different millennium, you know, the early Americans began to create boundaries around the dominant caste that persisted well into - certainly well into the 20th century, a lot of it having to do with water and the sanctity of water. It turned out that, for example, in India, the people who were then called untouchables and now Dalits were not permitted to drink from the same well. There are many, many, many restrictions around them having to do with water.

And in the United States, into the 1960s, there were cases where when desegregation of the pools and of other facilities were to be enacted, there were many places - not just in the South, I should say, all over the country - that refused to integrate, refused to allow African Americans into these pools and actually poured concrete into the pools so that no one could use the pool rather than to allow African Americans into the water with white Americans. So these were the kinds of things that I was open to and thought might be there, but I found so much more than I ever could have imagined.

ABDELFATAH: And that's the thing, right? Like, whenever we're tackling something, we're also - I mean, there's so much usually that we have to sort of wade through to find the story and what we're going to keep in and what we're going to take out and all of that. And so I wonder when - like, when you were working on "Caste" and also "Warmth Of Other Suns," how much interrogating that kind of central narrative that you were presenting, like, how much of that was happening in the process of putting it together? Because I think that's something we're always cognizant about, worried about that we're not maybe seeing the whole story because maybe we're focused on one story or that maybe we aren't considering all the potential criticisms or counterpoints or whatever it is. So how did - how do you sort of reckon with that?

WILKERSON: Well, I mean, I focus in on getting as much as I can from wherever I can get it. You know, I - for this book, I was, you know, ordering books from all over the world. I mean, there were books coming in from India, books coming in from - that I ordered from the U.K., reading as much as I could to get - understand the history, particularly the works of the era. The goal was to get the books that had been written in the 1930s, books that had been written in the 1890s out of the U.K. if I could get my hands on them. So there was that whole effort of just doing the research.

And then there was the meeting with and hearing the stories, hearing the testimony, the bearing witness of the people who had experienced some aspect of caste that I was attempting to convey somehow, I mean, listening very deeply to the testimony of people that I might have been seeking out or might have come across in the process of working on this or even before I began actively working on it.

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WILKERSON: And then the effort to - with reluctance - to think about what were the examples that might be helpful to readers from my own experience to show in some ways the irony that even as you're working on something, you yourself are experiencing the phenomenon yourself. And so those were the many things that I was managing and juggling as I was putting this together. But the main goal was to amass and to pull together as much as I possibly can. I try not to worry so much about making the decisions in the moment of amassing the information.

And then I start to get into the writing. And when you can get into the flow, you recognize what is necessary. I mean, one of the things about it is I really wanted it to be very concise. But the more that I got into it, the more I was discovering, and it grew much bigger than I had anticipated. But it became necessary in order to create a comprehensive framework for understanding this phenomenon and how it manifests throughout whatever caste system one might be looking at.

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ARABLOUEI: You know, there's been a lot of criticism of historical storytelling that seems to feed, like - basically, using history to feed a particular perspective or narrative the author is trying to tell and that kind of - what some people call cherry-picking of history can be dangerous because it doesn't give a kind of a fuller, broader perspective. As you know, this has been one of the critiques of the 1619 Project. What do you think of that critique? Do you think there is real legitimacy in the danger of perhaps cherry-picking a story in such a way that just tries to make an ideological point?

WILKERSON: Well, I think that so much of the history that we have received as Americans has been from a singular perspective. And we are only now beginning to hear the voices of people who had been in the shadows, not seen, not heard. And that means that we have not had the full history. We have not had the full experience of knowing what the complete picture is of our country. And I think that we are beginning - only beginning to be able to hear from the voices of people who have not been heard before.

I, you know, can only obviously speak for the work that I'm doing. And I would say that the goal is to - "The Warmth Of Other Suns," for example, was a chance finally for people who had survived the Jim Crow caste system to be able to speak for themselves about their experience. There are many, many things that have been written about that era by others, and this was a chance to be able to hear from the people who had lived it before it was too late. And many of the people who, in the process of even doing that book, they actually - you know, they passed away in the process.

So this was a - you know, the clock was ticking every day and every week that I was working on it. So this was - this is an effort to allow people's voices to be heard. And I think that we can only benefit from hearing, you know, multiple experiences from people who haven't been heard before.

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ABDELFATAH: You know, I know we're at the very end of our time, so we don't want to hold you any longer. We've really enjoyed talking to you. The only question we always like to ask is whether you have anything that you'd like to add before we part ways.

WILKERSON: I guess I would just want to say that this is the house that we have inherited. And I have come in like an inspector of an old building and have worked to create, you know, a report on the structure of the building. It's an X-ray of our house. And then it's up to each of us in our own way, wherever we can, to find ways to come together to understand it, confront it, deal with it and to work together to heal ourselves from all that's happened before.

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ARABLOUEI: This has been amazing. Thank you so much for your time.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, thank you.

ARABLOUEI: Thank you for writing this book.

WILKERSON: Thank you.

ABDELFATAH: Take care.

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ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei, and you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me.

ARABLOUEI: And me and...

JAMIE YORK, BYLINE: Jamie York.

LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: Lawrence Wu.

LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: Laine Kaplan-Levenson.

JULIE CAINE, BYLINE: Julie Caine.

KIA MIAKKA NATISSE, BYLINE: Kia Miakka Natisse.

NATHALIE BARTON, BYLINE: Nathalie Barton (ph).

ABDELFATAH: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Camille Smiley and Anya Grundmann. And a special, massive thank you to the one and only N'Jeri Eaton for inspiring the idea for this episode and guiding the show from the very beginning as our executive producer. She recently left NPR for an incredible new opportunity elsewhere. And we miss her so much already, especially that amazing laugh. I mean, we even got a tweet from a listener telling us how much they loved hearing her say her name in our credits.

N'JERI EATON, BYLINE: (Laughter) OK, smizing (ph) and somber. N'Jeri Eaton.

ARABLOUEI: N'Jeri Eaton, THROUGHLINE would not be what it is today without you.

ABDELFATAH: It's true. N'Jeri, you are the absolute best. We'll never forget that moment, like, three weeks into your time at NPR when THROUGHLINE was just this dream we had, and you told us without any doubt or hesitation it would happen. You believed in us. And that made us believe in ourselves. We really, really miss you, and we're grateful for everything you did for this show.

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ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band, Drop Electric, which includes...

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

ARABLOUEI: And just a reminder, this is part of a series for the next few weeks where teachers have curated THROUGHLINE episodes that they've used with students. We hope you'll listen. And if you use THROUGHLINE this way or any way, let us know.

ABDELFATAH: We love hearing from you. As always, if you liked something you heard or you have an idea for an episode, please write us at throughline@npr.org or hit us up on Twitter @throughlineNPR. Thanks for listening.

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