I want to put forward a critique of Wilkerson’s Caste and hope to generate a dialogue about this critique in this forum post. I want to acknowledge that much of this criticism relies on Dr. Charisse Burden-Stelly’s review of Caste on Boston Review which is well-worth reading in whole.
I want to start by pointing out the stark contrast between solutions offered in last month’s book, Chancellor Williams’ The Destruction of Black Civilization and Wilkerson’s Caste. Whereas Williams rejects the idea of white people playing a role in the liberation of Black people instead asserting a need to center working-class Black Americans in this effort, Wilkerson from the beginning seems to argue that changing the attitudes of (elite) white people is the solution to the cruelties of the caste system, an appeal to “radical empathy.” Indicative of this goal, Wilkerson begins the text, she describes “The Man in the Crowd,” August Landmesser who was captured in an image keeping his arms crossed in a sea of Nazi sympathizers heiling Hitler, asking the reader to imagine what it would look like to follow Landmesser’s lead today. She also opens the book with an Albert Einstein quote, “If the majority knew of the root of this evil, then the road to its cure would not be long.” From the beginning it seems like this is a white audience oriented book.
This appeal to white people, particularly the affluent New York Times readers who have made her book a best seller, though necessary, seems insufficient to address system of racial oppression in this country. Even Wilkerson’s description of the country’s race problem, through the concept of caste, seems sanitized for the white audience whose hearts and minds she hopes to change, without demanding any redistribution of white wealth and power. While she acknowledges the economic motivations of the slave trade which initiated the divisions she describes, she shies away from further analysis of the U.S. capitalist system, and how it historically perpetuated and to this day perpetuates racial antagonism.
In dealing with one of the stanchest critics of applying the caste concept to U.S. race relations (254–55), she dismisses Oliver Cromwell Cox, the marxist sociologist who wrote Caste, Class & Race: A Study in Social Dynamics (1948). Racial antagonism, according to Cox, is rooted in economic exploitation. Cox was critical of the emerging “caste school” of race relations, which seemed devoid of economic analysis. Cox explains that our social system emerged from the necessities of the United States’ slaveocracy, to legally and socially demean enslaved Black laborers for the purpose of perpetuating their economic exploitation. If we lose sight of this origin, then the path of liberation from the social system it has created becomes obscured.
Unfortunately, I think Wilkerson’s description of caste, while helpful in articulating the systemic cruelties and indignities regardless of any individual Black American’s educational and economic achievements, does little to assist a multiracial class struggle. I find that a multiracial class struggle (like the Bessemer, Alabama, Amazon warehouse unionizing effort) is necessary to transform a system of entrenched white supremacy and racialized exploitation. Thus, I find that an political economic analysis of racial capitalism is more important for our historical moment than an analysis of racial caste.