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America's racial subconscious


Isabel Wilkerson argues in the influential essay 'Casta' that the ethnic-based inequalities that exist in the US are the “infrastructure” that explains social divisions

As Introductory Sociology teachers, we usually explain to our students that classical sociological theory distinguished three fundamental dimensions of inequality, related to the material situation, social prestige, and political power. It is a very stylized classification, but it helps to understand the long debate around the relationship between the different sources of inequality that exist in our societies. In particular, there has been a recurring discussion around the hierarchy of these principles of social stratification and the possible explanatory priority of some - typically economic ones - over others.Precisely one of the fundamental innovations in contemporary inequality analyzes is the demand for greater attention to some very important inequities - for example, those related to gender, sexuality, age or ethnicity - that had been subsumed in different ways. categories of the traditional stratification model and that deserve to be considered as independent forms of inequality.

The latest essay by journalist Isabel Wilkerson participates in this trend, claiming the autonomy of inequalities based on race ascription in the United States with respect to other dimensions of the social stratification process.


argues that racial inequalities are the "infrastructure" of social divisions in the United States: categories rooted in social patterns of representation, interpretation and communication that cause a wide series of injustices that range from invisibility to disrespect, through exclusion and all kinds of aggressions. But Wilkerson takes an extra step. He not only defends the explanatory priority of racism in the face of economic or political inequalities. In addition, he proposes to dissolve the specificity of ethnic inequalities as they exist in the United States in a transhistoric category - caste - that would have only had two precedents: pre-modern India and Nazi Germany.

It is an extreme version of a controversial thesis and not very original. In a strict sense, the caste system is a characteristic social structure of traditional India with some extremely specific features, such as a system of religious legitimation in which the belief in reincarnation plays an important role or a radical limitation of any possibility of mobility. Social. There has been much debate as to whether it makes sense to use this model to describe other social and historical situations, such as


South African.

At least since the fifties of the last century, the possibility of using the concept of caste to analyze American racial discrimination has been valued - as Wilkerson herself recalls - on different occasions.

The most reasonable conclusion is that applying this category to a liberal democracy with a market economy, as much as it may be useful to denounce racism, does not contribute much to clarify a system of inequality that is reproduced, precisely, in a larval and insidious in a formally egalitarian and meritocratic system.

The problem arises when trying to turn the metaphor into a principle of rigorous analysis

Wilkerson uses the metaphor of caste to highlight how structural racism causes a deficit of respect and dignity among subaltern groups whose effects are pervasive throughout American society. It is a descriptively valuable idea. In the same way, it is legitimate to speak of extremely exploitative labor relations as if they were slavery relations, as long as we are clear that it is only a rhetorical figure. The problem arises when trying to turn the metaphor into a principle of rigorous analysis, which dilutes the specific differences of American racism on the night when all inequalities are brown. On the one hand, it is striking that in


Economic inequities - manifestly related to inequalities of status - are scarcely mentioned, perhaps because something like this would raise an argumentative difficulty. The American system of racial discrimination, as Wilkerson herself recalls, has its roots in nineteenth-century slavery, that is, in a system of economic exploitation whose foundation is the property of some people by others and that, in its modern form, is intimately related to the origins of capitalism. On the other hand, if the notion of caste is used in a broad and figurative sense, it is not well understood why it should be limited to Indian, American and, in a very specific period, German society.There are endless examples of societies with sophisticated systems of discrimination of some groups on the basis of socially constructed categorizations.

In reality, perhaps it is unfair to make a judgment of


based on its explanatory aspirations. As a journalistic essay, it is an exciting and informative book, with great expressive power and that vehemently points out the depth of the wounds that racism has left in American society.When Wilkerson sets aside theoretical pretensions and oracular tone - "The eight pillars of the castes" and things like that - is shown as a great essayist, capable of investigating the darkest folds of ethnic self-perception of North American society through a


of historical testimonies, autobiographical accounts and current information.


It is a trip to the racial subconscious of his country that points out traumas that manifest themselves over and over again in shared life.

But it also offers valuable lessons for European societies, in which racial ascriptions are often less explicit, but lead to underrecognized and yet pervasive structural inequalities.


The origin of what divides us 


Isabel Wilkerson.


Paidós, 2021.


520 pages.

24 euros.

Buy for € 22.80 on Amazon

Look for it in your bookstore

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Source: elparis

All news articles on 2021-07-24

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