Caste, The Origins of Our Discontents: A Historical Reflection On Two Cultures

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Ibrahim K Sundiata


In 2020 Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, published Caste, The Origins of Our Discontents. An African American, she used the age-old hierarchy of India to hold up a light to the hierarchical ‘racial’ orders in the United States (Nazi Germany was included as a third case). Ever since the 1940s debate has raged over whether such a comparison is apt. In the United States, more than almost any other group, African Americans are in-marrying, residentially segregated, poor, linked to past forced labor, and stigmatized because of it. One argument put forward against comparison was that the Indian Dalits (the former ‘untouchables’) were inured to a system that was millennia old. However, slaves on Southern plantations were often described as being as humble and compliant as any Dalit. White slaveholders often thought of the India caste model. However, the very brevity of the full-fledged Cotton Kingdom (1820–1860) militated against the coalescence of a fully formed national caste consensus. The United States, unlike most places on the globe, had a constitutional armature in which, following the Civil War, former bonds people could go from being property to voters de jure. In both societies the carapace of caste is now being cracked open, but this leaves open the question of whether we should reform caste or abolish it.

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Sundiata, I. (2021). Caste, The Origins of Our Discontents: A Historical Reflection On Two Cultures. CASTE / A Global Journal on Social Exclusion, 2(1), 17-29.
Research Articles
Author Biography

Ibrahim K Sundiata, Brandeis University

Emeritus Professor of History and African and African American Studies at Brandeis University