For some time, a good friend of mine has been asking me to read the book Caste, by the journalist Isabel Wilkerson. In response I have been making my way through it. Wilkerson argues, essentially, that black Americans, like Jews in Nazi Germany and the Untouchables in India, have been defined by their societies as inferior beings, subject to any indignity. Wilkerson’s book includes 388 pages of text, with sweeping historical claims in almost every paragraph. It presents a particular form of critical race theory, which has become mainstream in the last few years. A full analysis of her claims and sources would require a book as long as hers. I can’t possibly undertake it, but I think that I can identify some essential weaknesses in her argument and approach that undermine her central point: that the assignment of black Americans to an inferior caste has been, and remains, the foundation of American social and political life. My own study of history has persuaded me that this is only half the story. The many attempts by whites to consign blacks to inferior status have always had to contend with an opposite view embodied in the founding documents of the United States, which proclaimed that all men were created equal and, in the federal Constitution, made no separate mention of whites or blacks, or for that matter of men and women, but only to “persons.” American history tells the story of a long struggle between those two views—one in which victory ultimately goes, again and again, to the universal one.
Slavery, Wilkerson reminds us again and again, existed in what became the United States for more than 200 years. (She recognizes that there is a controversy over whether the Africans who landed in Jamestown in 1619 were in fact slaves as we came to understand that term. I have read in another authority that they were only held to service for the remainder of their lives, and that hereditary slavery as we know it was not defined in Virginia until the 1650s.) She says repeatedly that the white colonists created a particularly cruel form of slavery in which the slaves had no rights and were entirely at the mercy of their masters. I shall return to that point in a moment, but first I want to broaden out our perspectives a bit. Wilkerson wants us to believe not only that caste was a feature of early American civilization, but also that it was created by the slaveholders, and that slavery was the only manifestation of caste with which that civilization had to deal. Those last two arguments, I think, are highly questionable.
The original slaves who arrived in Jamestown were on a Spanish ship that had blown off course. The Spaniards and Portuguese had been bringing African slaves into the Caribbean and South America for many decades by 1621. Slavery was endemic in the ancient world and was surely practiced in much, if not most, of the globe in previous times, but the western European states had not only outlawed it, but ended serfdom, by the 17th century. When their colonists in the Americas revived it, they tried to stop it, but the great distances involved made that impossible. Slavery was not, therefore, a phenomenon particular to the American colonies, and the institution was already fighting against new intellectual and political trends that eventually defined the modern world as we know it. Against the background of those trends, slavery was an aberration—which was why it was not destined to survive.
Wilkerson also chooses not to mention where the slaves came from, and how they had become slaves. She refers at one point to the Europeans having kidnapped them from Africa, but that was not what happened. The Europeans purchased the slaves from Africa, where warring tribes customarily captured, enslaved and sold members of other tribes. (The original 1970s television version of Roots got this wrong: the producers of a more recent cable television version deserve credit for getting it right.) Slavery was eventually abolished in the Americas before it was abolished in West Africa, and it survived in Mauretania into the late twentieth century. It was not, in short, a sin unique to what became the United States, or even to the Americas. It is a millennia-old feature of human civilization, which modern civilization fortunately came to reject and to eliminate.
This, however, is not all. Like so many other critical race theorists, Wilkerson insists that the white-black distinction is the fundamental divide within American society and the key to the identity of both blacks and whites. It is not merely a caste divide, it is the only significant caste divide (except, it seems at times, for the divide between men and women, which she seems to believe is also highly significant.) In fact, the whole American experiment attacked caste in the very important ways in which it structured European society in the early modern period, and the greater significance of the founding of the United States is that it created a Constitution and a legal system which did not recognize traditional orders.
Although the European societies of the 16th-18th centuries were racially homogenous, they did not treat their inhabitants equally. Nobility, clergy, and the common people had different legal status and were subject to different laws. They (like black Americans in much of the post-1865 South, as Wilkerson points out) were excluded from particular occupations, and often from meaningful political participation. From their very beginning in the 17th century, the New England colonies, at least, created societies and political systems without meaningful class distinctions among different men. Their towns governed themselves in town meetings in which every man voted, and no one enjoyed immunity from either taxation or the common law. Although an aristocracy of slaveholders developed south of the Mason-Dixon line, with fateful political and social consequences from then to now, the colonists eventually made their revolution in the 1780s based upon the very radical idea of equal legal and social rights. Today’s critical race theorists—and many feminists as well—insist upon seeing those principles as a sham because their impact was not yet universal. In fact such principles had to start with a more limited application—but the sweeping terms in which the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and Bill of Rights stated them were bound to create pressure for a general one, as indeed they did within another half a century. Those principles, not slavery or racial prejudice, gave the founding of the United States its greatest historical significance. Because of their power, they inspired Europeans as well, first in France in the 1790s, where their application did not lead to democracy, and then throughout Western Europe, to varying degrees, in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century those principles played a key role in bringing European colonial empires to an end.
And despite Wilkerson’s ceaseless attempts to convince of the contrary, those principles did from the beginning of the United States affect how many Americans saw slavery. They led the northern states to abolish the institution in the years immediately following the American Revolution. They led the leaders of the Constitutional Convention—including the Virginian James Madison, a slaveowner himself—to refuse southern requests to put some explicit recognition of slavery within the founding document. Despite what Chief Justice Tawney claimed in the Dred Scott decision in 1857, many northern states accepted black people as citizens, as two brilliant dissents to his opinion pointed out at the time. That was not all. In Virginia and Maryland, many slave-owners set their slaves free in the wake of the revolution, the Congress abolished the international slave trade as soon as the Constitution allowed it to do so in 1807, and many looked forward to the institution’s disappearance. A great change, alas, occurred with the advent of the cotton gin, which made slavery far more profitable, and with the advent of a new, post-revolutionary generation in the South, many of whom really did decide, as Wilkerson says, that slavery was a positive good and the foundation of their civilization. In the 1850s the southern political leadership tried to impose that view on the national government—but the result was the election of Lincoln in 1860, the secession of most of the slave states, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments proclaiming equal rights for all—the legal destruction, not the affirmation, of the principle of caste.
That was not, of course, the end of racial oppression or inequality in the United Sates, and I shall turn to Wilkerson’s treatment of later periods in a moment. First, however, I would like to raise some questions even about her characterization of slavery in the American South, some of which involve her comparison with the fate of Jews in Nazi Germany. She refers to plantations as labor camps and claims that their black inhabitants lived under a regime similar to that of Nazi labor camps. She also says, again and again, that masters exercised absolute power, amounting to life and death, over slaves. That was not true. In his classic, beautifully documented history of slavery, Roll, Jordan Roll, Eugene Genovese established that the murder of a slave was a serious crime in the antebellum South, in rare instances even punished with death. And while the Nazis in their labor camps purposely starved inmates to death (partly because, after the Second World War broke out, they did not have enough food supply to feed everyone under their control), the slave population of the southern US was the only such population in the Americas to show significant natural increase. One can acknowledge these facts without in any way excusing slavery, just as one can note the statement of W. E. B. DuBois, a founder of the NAACP, a great historian, and old enough to have known many former slaves, that “of the humanity of large numbers of southern masters there can be no doubt.” And this leads me to the biggest flaw in Wilkerson’s book, her treatment of white folks.
That the United States has given birth to large numbers of hard core white racists is not open to doubt. Such people enjoyed brilliant political careers in much of the American South in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries—at least until the 1960s—not in spite of their openly professed racism, but because of it. And such men, as Wilkerson argues, did impose a lower-caste status on black people for 80 years after the Civil War, including segregation, denial of opportunity, and denial of political rights—all enforced, intermittently at least, by violence, including lynchings. The US also produced racial theorists in both the South and the North who proclaimed white (or Anglo-Saxon) superiority in the early 20th century. Racist attitudes have been too common throughout American history and although they are much less common today, they are still too influential. And Wilkerson, quoting historian James Q. Whitman, shows how Nazi planners designing the first round of anti-Jewish legislation in 1934 drew upon precedents from southern states. For the last fifty years, however, things have been going in the other direction. Even in the South, the legal badges of caste have disappeared, and nonwhites can be found in the upper reaches of all professions. We simply are not the same country that we were in the 1950s when racial barriers were starting to come down.
Unfortunately, because of the way that Wilkerson cherry-picks her evidence, her book (and not only hers) gives the impression that white racists are not only common in America, but they are and always have been typical, or even archetypal, speaking for the essence of what it means to be white in America. If that were true, we would have had a Constitution defining citizenship as a white prerogative, we would not have fought the civil war, and we would not have passed the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments—much less the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Wilkerson’s selectivity extends even to anecdotes from her own life. Early in the book (p. 59), she describes a series of interviews she did at leading retail establishments in Chicago for a story she was writing for the New York Times. “The interviews,” she writes, “went as expected until the last one.” The last interview subject knew that he had an appointment with a reporter from the Times, but refused to believe that it was her, because she was a black woman. That was rude, ignorant, and racist—but why is he so much more significant than all the other subjects who cooperated willingly and evidently without surprise? Only because he is the one she can cite as evidence of white America’s hopeless, enduring racism, coded subconsciously, she claims, into all our brains. There are other such incidents in the book, and they are infuriating—but are they typical?
The same tendency to filter data through a damning lens occurs in other parts of the book. On p. 111, in a chapter on endogamy—restrictions on interracial marriage—she states that 41 of the 50 American states eventually passed laws making intermarriage a crime. Although she elaborates on this in a source note on p. 409, she does not give any source for the statistic. An excellent Wikipedia page actually shows that 44 states had such laws at one time or another—but it also shows that 12 of those states had repealed those laws in the 19th century, and fourteen more between 1946 and 1967. Only 16 such states—all former Confederacy or border states, plus Oklahoma—still had such laws when the Supreme Court finally struck them all down in 1967.
Some months ago, I heard Coleman Hughes, an extraordinarily wise young man, remark that under the new orthodoxy on race, certain breakthroughs for black people are held to be impossible—but when they occur nonetheless, we are told that they have not changed anything. Wilkerson’s long discussion of the election and re-election of Barack Obama fits this pattern. He won, she argues, partly because of the economic crisis, and partly because his white ancestry allowed members of “the dominant caste”—that is, all white people—to identify with him. Then, she says, came an enormous backlash against him, fueled by white anxiety over the loss of power. The Republican opposition to Obama was certainly intense, but it would have been at least equally so against Hillary Clinton, his major rival for the nomination, had she been elected. And it did not prevent Obama, of course, from winning a solid re-election victory in 2012. Wilkerson responds to that by documenting the extreme reaction of Rush Limbaugh and a few other whites. And frankly—there is no way I can avoid saying this—she welcomes the election of Donald Trump as proof of her view of the hopeless racism of white America, its terror, as she sees it, of the moment in 2042 (predicted) when whites will no longer be in the majority. The book evidently went to press well before the 2020 election, in which a substantial swing of white voters back towards the Democrats outweighed a shift towards Trump among nonwhites and gave Biden a very solid plurality of seven million popular votes. I doubt however that it would have changed her attitude. “Regardless of who prevails in any given election,” she writes, “the country still labors under the divisions that a caste system creates, and the fears and resentments of a dominant caste that is too often in opposition to the yearnings of those deemed beneath them.”
“Caste is a disease,’ she writes, “and none of us is immune. It is as if alcoholism is encoded into the country’s DNA, and can never be declared fully cured.” This is also the view of Ibram X Kendhi, who believes we need a Department of Antiracism composed of “experts” like himself to vet all federal, state and local legislation for signs of racism, and of Robin DiAngelo, who views racism, as Coleman Hughes has noted, like original sin. They call for massive re-education campaigns at least moderate our supposedly incurable disease. The question for me is, is this supposed cultural, deeply embedded psychological racism the key to understand the United States? Or have we always had within our own political and intellectual tradition all the tools we need to fight it? That is the question that we must all now fight out, and I have been delighted to find that there are younger Americans, black and white and Hispanic and Asian, who also reject the prevailing orthodoxy.