The Parallels of Caste in the United States and India: Book Review

In our final ‘19-‘20 Fellowship publication, “Intersectionalities in Development Practice: Approaches and Anecdotes,” Alumnus Benson Neethipudi (’15-’16) shares powerful reflections on how identity politics compound inequity and injustice. He asks us to consider:

“What drives us to show appreciation for healthcare workers who are saving lives during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, but not offer livable wages or dignity of labor to the army of house helps, municipal sanitation workers, and building society staff who are on an overdrive to keep our homes and surroundings extra clean?”

Although I see myself as a socially conscious, justice-seeking person, the irony of Benson’s question still surprises me. How is it that we often only selectively recognize oppression and inequity right in front of us? What barriers prevent politicians, institutions, corporates, Karens, educators, and others from realizing the injustice we witness on a daily basis?

One answer, according to Isabel Wilkerson, lies in reconceptualizing the idea of caste. In her latest book, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, Wilkerson expands on the idea of a caste system, connecting the ancient varna of India to modern-day apartheid administered and upheld by the United States. She defines caste as “the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.” Perhaps, in response to Benson’s question, Wilkerson would argue that we fail to protect workers because our social framework does not consider them people worthy of that dignity. Re-imagining the U.S. social order as a caste system, then, allows us to re-frame racism not just in terms of public policy or institutions, but to consciously reconcile whom society deems worthy, and whom it does not.

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson with the cover of her book. Photo credit:

Wilkerson also offers the concept of caste to explain how those in upper castes become comfortable with lived oppression, which runs deeper than implicit bias or internalized racism. Those in the upper castes fundamentally accept their status, as well as those in the castes they subjugate, as “deserved.”  What conversations on de jure and de facto discrimination (see Rothstein’s The Color of Law) often miss is the internalized superiority that upper castes yield and fail to recognize. For example, many young white, ‘upper caste’ liberals in the United States would likely agree that white supremacy is wrong, but fail to see the ways in which their privileges or successes are due to their elevated status in society and never solely a product of their independent effort and hard work.

After nearly three years living and working on projects based in India, I was intrigued by the parallels Wilkerson draws between societal hierarchy in the U.S. and India. On the surface, our systems could not be more different. The concept of caste, coined by ancient Hindu texts, represents a system thousands of years old defined by varnas and hundreds of jatis. Meanwhile, the American system creates categories through physical features. And yet, Wilkerson writes, “as if operating from the same instruction manual translated to fit their distinctive cultures,” both countries use nearly identical methods of maintaining rigid separation, discrimination, and justification.

In creating separation through caste, both countries rely on purity and inheritability, making the status inescapable. Caste is inherited and passed from parents to their children. Wilkerson quotes scholars Diamond & Cottrol, “Like the Hindu caste system, the Black-white distinction in the United States has supplied a social hierarchy determined at birth, and arguably immutable, even by achievement.” Conveniently, caste is treated as a birth right, making the opportunity for advancement or escape nearly impossible. One’s caste is also controlled by marriage, and both countries have historically legally forbidden marriage outside of one’s caste-group. For example, Alabama became the last state to reverse laws banning intermarriage in the year 2000.

To justify this separation, both countries rely on the dehumanization and stigma of the lower castes, which justifies the inherent superiority of upper castes. The term ‘untouchable’ has been used to characterize lower-castes of Indian society, in reference to practices that forbade contact between upper and lower caste people. “The Dalits were not permitted to drink from the same cups as the dominant castes in India, live in the villages of the upper-caste people, walk through the front doors of upper-caste homes…” Wilkerson writes, “…and neither were African-Americans in much of the United States for most of its history.” Jim Crow laws enacted many literal tenants of untouchability. African-Americans in the South were forced by whites to walk through the side or back-door of any white establishment, while sundown laws forbade them from going out in white towns after sunset. Sheets were separated at hospitals, seats separated on trains, and glasses separated at diners. Underlying this dehumanization is the assumption of deference due to the upper caste and degradation to those born to the lower.

In perpetuating discrimination, both countries relied, and continue to rely on, terror of enforcement. Torture or enslavement of lower castes is a strong, consistent, and disturbingly common trend throughout U.S. and Indian history.  Wilkerson points out the many similar forms of punishment devised by Nazi Germany, upper-caste Indians, and the upper caste Americans, used to remind those in the lower-caste of their place. In both the U.S. and India, police brutality, housing insecurity, sexual violence, and poverty disproportionately affect the lower castes relative to upper castes, reinforcing cycles of poverty, fear, and violence.

This summary, cut short to encourage you to read Wilkerson’s incredible book, barely scratches the surface of the mountain of evidence Wilkerson provides to reinforce her points on the separation, discrimination, and justification of caste. Drawing parallels between the U.S. and India has helped me to more consciously connect what I’ve learned about caste-based discrimination to my own existence and positionality in both contexts. Although terms like ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ caste are inherently problematic in reinforcing negative, dehumanizing generalizations about people and cultures, I do think that recognizing the plights of peoples in all castes, in both countries, can help us all to be more conscious of caste in our daily lives.

Jane is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Yuwa in Ranchi, Jharkhand. For her Fellowship project, she is developing a life skills curriculum for adolescent girls from vulnerable backgrounds around sports-based training to enhance education, build confidence, and improve health. As a student of economics and politics, Jane has been captivated by the beauty and complexity of India throughout her college years. She first traveled to India in the summer of 2017 to work with a social enterprise in Delhi. She has participated in a variety of India-based projects, including working as a research assistant at her university’s Delhi Jal Board Yamuna River Project in New Delhi, co-launching an apparel brand with young female entrepreneurs in rural Uttar Pradesh, and working for a Delhi-based environmental action group to evaluate sustainable solid waste management practices. She interned with the United Nations ESCAP to research women’s entrepreneurship in the informal sector, and participated in the U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship to study Hindi in Jaipur. She is ecstatic about better understanding localized approaches to gender equity and development by serving on the AIF Clinton Fellowship. Ultimately, she hopes to become an expert in poverty alleviation in South Asia and to work in policy implementation by identifying best-practices, promoting accountability through monitoring and evaluation, and collaborating with governments to improve social protection for the most vulnerable.

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