Caste Does Not Explain Race

tags: racism, books, Marxism, intellectual history, caste

Charisse Burden-Stelly is the 2020-2021 Visiting Scholar in the Race and Capitalism Project at the University of Chicago, and an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Political Science at Carleton College. A scholar of critical Black Studies, political theory, political economy, and intellectual history, Burden-Stelly is the co-author, with Gerald Horne, of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Life in American History.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents 
Isabel Wilkerson 
Penguin Random House, $32 (cloth)

In the late 1940s, the Cold War was heating up. In the United States, anticommunism had reached a fever pitch at the same time that antiblack violence had forcefully re-emerged in the form of lynching and race riots. At this auspicious moment, Lincoln University historical sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox published his 1948 624-page tour-de-force, Caste, Class, and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics. Cox’s book put class struggle, racial violence, and relentless political-class competition at the founding of the capitalist world-system in 1492, though it argued that these constitutive features had existed in nascent form since much earlier. Cox contended that economic exploitation was at the root of U.S. racial hierarchy. In particular, it was responsible for structuring relations among the white ruling class, the white masses, and Black people as a racialized class of workers.

Cox’s book refuted the “caste school” of race relations. For nearly a decadeCox had challenged scholars who compared U.S. race relations to the caste system in India—caste being a religious-social structure that preceded the rise of capitalism. In a 1942 article, “The Modern Caste School of Race Relations,” Cox noted that, despite their claims to originality, researchers such as W. Lloyd Warner, Allison Davis, and John Dollard were simply recapitulating a caste hypothesis that had been “quite popular” in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Cox did not speculate why—in the context of the Great Depression, ascending fascism, and increased racial violence—the caste hypothesis had been “made fashionable” again. However, he noted that the resurgence of caste as a model for explaining the racial order in the United States separated race relations from class politics just when a racialized struggle over resources was intensifying.

Academia and popular media largely ignored Caste, Class, and Race, and it soon fell out of print. At the time, U.S. discussions about race were dominated by Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, an influential book that argued that caste defined the situation of the “American Negro.” According to Cox, Myrdal adopted the caste theory of race relations based on the assumption that Southern slavery, and thus all race relations emanating from Southern slavery, constituted a caste system.

The recent publication of Isabel Wilkerson’s widely acclaimed Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents returns to caste to explain U.S. racial hierarchy at a moment when wealth polarization, racial strife, and white supremacist revanchism are again on the rise. To be sure, there is a reason why caste has an enduring appeal as a framework to explain the organization of U.S. society. It offers a convenient explanation for the ongoing violence and discrimination against racialized peoples while avoiding biological conceptions of “race,” which, we are often reminded, is a “social construct.” Caste can be readily employed as shorthand for all forms of subjection emanating from systems of caste, class, and racism—regardless of history, context, geography, and form. Scholars who construe the United States as a caste system emphasize tradition, custom, attitude, and feeling as the sources of social intolerance, sidestepping issues such as capitalist exploitation and class-based antagonism. Following this logic, a social change in how we relate to one another is more feasible than overhauling a global political economy rooted in the hierarchical ordering of humanity.


Read entire article at Boston Review