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Review: Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, Random House, NY, 2020

Disclaimer: Posts are solely the views of the author and do not represent the views of Brandeis University or The Institute on Assets and Social Policy.

Seldom has a new publication arrived with such a splash. If your email is similar to ours, you will have received several notices. The book has several major flaws. Weaknesses aside, it is useful documentation of information, especially for the reader not fully immersed in the literature of race and racism. However, it is precisely because of its potential appeal to readers less academically oriented that a critical review is warranted. The author, Isabel Wilkerson, poses an extremely ambitious thesis, and in our view, completely unwarranted. Ms. Wilkerson offers that Caste is a preferred paradigm and negates racism. It is an unnecessary claim, and nowhere in the 395 pages of text does she come close to offering a justification for the negation. Minimally, the expectation is that an explanation for the necessity of such a fundamental negation would be forthcoming. If the author had been satisfied with offering an analysis suggesting how caste and racism are analogous, or how the distinct components (i.e., population cohorts) of caste and race are analogous; then the study would deserve acclaim and an audience interested in the caste-racism/race comparisons.


Comparisons of caste with racism and race require analysis and methodology for which she lacks training.

One possible source of the problem is Ms. Wilkerson’s background. She is a journalist and not a social scientist. Comparisons of caste with racism and race require analysis and methodology for which she lacks training. Instead, the reader is offered an array of anecdotes; many of which are compelling, and most of which will be familiar to those embedded in the litany of injustices which confront the oppressed in their daily lives, however, none of which answers the core question posed by Ms. Wilkerson: why or how does Caste serve a more compelling purpose, analytically or strategically, than racism or race?

Ms. Wilkerson commits an understandable error very early when she references Ashley Montagu as a source for negating the validity of race. Montagu was the rapporteur, in1950, for the UNESCO statement, The Race Question. As a young man he changed his name from Ehrenberg to “Montague Frances Ashley-Montagu.” After relocating to the United States, he used the name “Ashley Montagu.” Importantly, Ms. Wilkerson merely followed the diverse footsteps of multiple esteemed scientists who similarly pursued the idea of the invalidation of race, including references to Montagu. In referencing Montagu, she followed; did not lead. Because this is a thesis that undermines new knowledge and ideas; it is compelling that a man obviously discomforted with his own origins would serve as a model for the negation of the origin of others. Montagu was a trained Anthropologist; and while Ms. Wilkerson’s references were broad, the majority were from the discipline of Anthropology. Anthropology is a science more plagued with reductionist modeling of populations than other social sciences; often erring on a fixation with behavior and a singular construct of culture. The error of reductionism makes Anthropology the least qualified of the social sciences to grapple with the complexity of the social construct of race.


She offers a series of examples of how caste is injurious to the victim(s); but by the mere act of closing one’s eyes and substituting racism for caste one is left without a difference.

Ms. Wilkerson conflates caste with racism. On the surface there is nothing terribly wrong with this equation. The problem is that she then dismisses racism, but never explains why. Instead, she offers a series of examples of how caste is injurious to the victim(s); but by the mere act of closing one’s eyes and substituting racism for caste one is left without a difference. Wilkerson defines eight pillars upon which caste is grounded. Yet each pillar—such as the laws of nature and heritability—align with the underlying assumptions of racial inferiority. In essence, why caste is preferable compared to racism is not addressed. At some point in her life she developed a fixation with caste and pursued it with diligence. However, perseverance, while noble, is not science.

Ms. Wilkerson proceeds to commit a similar error with race; but at least she provides a distinction. In an interview with Amanpour, Wilkerson states that race is the skin and caste is the bone. In the text she says, similarly, that race is color and caste is rank. Bone and rank are apparently metaphors for structure and hierarchy. She then proceeds, as do others, to mutilate race. She provides that race is a social construct but then refutes it by noting the underlying biology of skin color. The point is that you cannot have it both ways. You cannot reference social construct, especially in the absence of even a minimal effort to define and/or develop the construct (again, she is not alone), and then destroy the social construct with the implicit negation of scientific racism and the biological cornerstones upon which this “science” is founded. Do not blame Wilkerson for the error or the illogic. She is not a social scientist and it is not her responsibility. Accountable are the legions of Black social scientists who have proclaimed the same thesis and committed the same error; except it is their responsibility to resolve, not perpetuate, the error.

The weakness—different from error—of the analysis is the relentless pursuit of the injustices associated with caste, or for the objective reader, the perils of racism. In this regard she again mirrors the state of art of our social and medical sciences; a systemic refusal or inability to focus on solution rather than problem analysis. Robinson has written elsewhere where this stems directly from the paucity of attention given the social construct of Race, the absence of theoretical and methodological frameworks; and relatedly, a failure to assert an organic relationship between Race and Community which allows attention to assets and progressive models of development and competency. One cannot blame Ms. Wilkerson for a failure to free herself from the tar of pervasive mediocre analysis prevalent in the literature. However, this failure to go beyond problem analysis and the indicators of racism is, perhaps, a fault more philosophical than scientific. We empower racism by the obsessiveness of our focus. It is not only a failure of imagination; it is a relinquishing of our responsibility in the historical moment. It challenges our capacity to focus on the act of being and becoming. Where else lies our solutions and our future? We are projections of the oppressor translated through the array of racist modalities at their and the system’s disposal. Minimally, it is how racism is mediated psychologically. Racism (or caste) is empowered. The problem rules. Empowerment or self-determination is subsumed by the mainstream paradigms of caste, racism, or race. Race serves as mirror to caste or racism— projections, back and forth, eternally. Why do we permit ourselves to be defined by the pathological modalities of the other?

The thesis risks more harm than good. It does not advance racial equity, racial diversity, and racial inclusion.

There remains a problem potentially more problematic than the existential dilemma of allowing self/collective identity to be imposed by societal projections of racism. Wilkerson’s focus on caste and negation of racism provides an entirely new nomenclature upon which US citizenry will need to focus and learn. Instead of thinking about solutions we will spin our wheels formulating principles related to caste. In addition, it provides an opportunity for White people to disengage racism and replace it with the latest paradigm of oppression. Spin the wheel and discover what caste or sub-caste defines you best. The thesis risks more harm than good. It does not advance racial equity, racial diversity, and racial inclusion. More specifically, it does not advance practice to dismantle racism.

Wilkerson offers a series of anecdotal experiences, some of which were personal. This was troublesome. In not one example did she exemplify an effort to protest the situation; rather, she accommodated the injustice in an effort not to make a scene. In one incident on a plane (always first class) a White male imposed himself on her body while reaching for his luggage. It was a horrendous description. She looked pleadingly, in utter futility, into the eyes of White female passengers. The flight attendant was African American. Wilkerson allowed her body to be pummeled. The flight attendant whispered an apology upon exiting. Wilkerson proclaimed it was not the fault of the Airlines. It was due to the privilege born of rank from the upper caste individual. Of course it was the fault of the Airlines. The Airlines failed to solve, or even engage, her problem. This raises a question of a relationship to Wilkerson’s consistent use of the hyphenated African-American. Wilkerson invariably referenced Latino or Asian; never Latino-American or Asian-American. Since race is a social construct and theoretically detached from blood, how much of the Black population are African and how much American? In essence, this suggests a confusion of identity that is possibly manifest in Wilkerson’s escape to caste—no need to visit the Ghetto, fly to India—rather than racism, and a complete absence of a logical treatment of race. The social construct of race expresses the organic relationship of Black people to the Nation’s history, culture, context, and geography. We are the quintessential Americans. We built it.

Wilkerson’s conclusion shows a somewhat utopian fantasy. “A world without caste would set everyone free.” Caste in India, similar to slavery in the US, is illegal; a status that has failed completely in establishing freedom. In an analysis absent more than a glimpse into the dynamics of social structure, apart from descriptive ranking, solutions can be framed symbolically rather than strategically, or, for that matter, coherently. In her final pages, Wilkerson laments the Manichean price of oppressor-oppressed by referencing that the final caste may be our aged. It is atheoretical given the heterogeneity of the “aged,” comprised of an infinite array of race(s) and ethnicities. The theoretical inconsistency goes unnoticed. Presumably, since race has been dismissed, we need only concern ourselves with rank; thus, the morbid conclusion regarding the aged. In the absence of theory, such errors are inevitable. 

By Robert G. Robinson and Christian H. Bijoux

Robert Robinson, MSW, DrPH, retired from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2006.  His focus was on Race and population disparities. He developed national programs that targeted the needs of minorities, women, blue collar, LGBT, agricultural workers, and low-income youth His publications center on the development of Race as a social construct and its organic relationship to Community.  In essence, he addresses the failure of the social sciences to assess progressively the theory of race and community; and relatedly. the need for the social and medical sciences to prioritize prevention rather than treatment and control. Community Development and Community Competence are critical components of the proposed theoretical model addressing these weaknesses.  Prior to CDC he worked with the Fox Chase Cancer Center :(’88-’93) and developed Pathways to Freedom, the state-of-the-art tobacco cessation guide for African Americans and was one of four leaders in Philadelphia in the successful effort to prevent RJ Reynolds from marketing UPTOWN cigarette, the first brand created specifically for and targeted to the African American smoker.  He worked at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and prior to receiving his doctorate in Public Health from the University of California, Berkeley (’83), he served as Chairperson for the African American Studies Department at Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. (’69-’76)

Christian H. Bijoux, MPH, MBA is the Founder and Managing Partner of Bijoux Consulting Group LLC and Director for the Dually Involved Initiative in Santa Clara County. He consults with public health and advocacy groups and community organizations on program and policy issues related to state and federal youth and young adult programs, rooted in enhancing and advancing racial equity, racial diversity, and racial inclusion within organizations. He is currently undertaking a Doctor of Philosophy, Social Policy at Brandeis University. He is a graduate of City College of the City University of New York (CUNY), with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and a graduate of Drexel University School of Public Health, with a Master of Public Health in Health Management & Policy.