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Caste, hate, and the trauma of forgiveness

The Origins of our DiscontentsA remarkable recent book, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, by Isabel
Wilkerson, suggests a new way of thinking about the trauma experienced by
large groups in stratified societies. Wilkerson calls these groups “castes,” and her examples are Blacks in the United States, Jews in Germany, and Dalits (“untouchables,” but literally “broken people”) in India. I’ll focus on the United States, as she does.

While the subtitle of Caste suggests that Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents might have been an inspiration, there is little that is psychoanalytic about Wilkerson’s book. Nevertheless, her psychological insight is often keen, and she helps makes sense of the difficult question of how very large groups of people could experience trauma. Through their shared experience of belonging to a particular caste is her answer. Hers is not the whole answer, but it’s a neglected part.


Caste, writes Wilkerson, sets the supremacy of one group against the inferiority of other groups based on ancestry and other immutable traits, such as skin color (p 40). Caste is the bones, race is the skin. Caste is the institutional structure that keeps people in their place. Race is the marker, and is fluid and superficial. Above all, race is a social structure, not a biological one. We are all descended from the same group of tribes that migrated out of Africa in the last 100,000 years.*

Though she never quite says it out loud, Wilkerson seems to hold that the division of humans into a higher and lower status is a natural human tendency, shared with other primates and pack animals such as wolves. What’s optional is whether race is the identifier. In India it’s jati, or kinship group, generally rendered as caste. 

Also optional is whether this hierarchy is built upon the humiliation, devaluation, and exploitation of those at the bottom, as it generally is, at least among humans. That’s not the rule among primates and wolves.  

So where’s the trauma?

Consider the most horrendous humiliation and devaluation of those at the bottom, the lynching festival, the last of which was carried out by the KKK in 1981 in Mobile, Alabama. Unless that is, you consider the spate of police murders of Black men a type of socially sanctioned lynching. Wilkerson seems to believe it is (pp 400-403).  

Lynchings were part carnival, part torture chamber, and attracted thousands of onlookers who collectively became accomplices to public sadism. Photographers were tipped off in advance and installed portable printing presses at the lynching sites to sell to lynchers and onlookers like photographers at a prom. They made postcards out of the gelatin prints for people to send to their loved ones. People mailed postcards of the severed, half-burned head of Will James atop a pole in Cairo, Illinois, in 1907. They sent postcards of burned torsos that looked like the petrified victims of Vesuvius, only these horrors had come at the hands of human beings in modern times. Some people framed the lynching photographs with locks of the victim’s hair under glass if they had been able to secure any. . . .

This was singularly American. “Even the Nazis did not stoop to selling souvenirs of Auschwitz,” wrote Time magazine many years later. Lynching postcards were so common a form of communication in turn-of-the-twentieth-century America that lynching scenes “became a burgeoning subdepartment of the postcard industry.” (p 123)

The euphoria of hate

Wilkerson titles her description of lynching “the euphoria of hate.” (p 304). Lower-caste whites, who suffer their own relative devaluation in the caste system, need a Black sacrifice to reassert their superior status. For Wilkerson, even rumored violations of caste are so profoundly threatening as to fuel evil and hate.

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