In August 2020, Isabel Wilkerson published a remarkable book, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents. In February 2023 she issued a revised edition to account for the events of January 6, and the MAGA movement generally. Shortly after she was on the cover of Time magazine, talking about the efforts of the dominant caste, white people in the United States, to avoid being replaced by people of color. This is the core of the issue for Wilkerson.
Wilkerson uses the term caste to refer to the repression of large groups in stratified societies. 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 Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, there is little that is psychoanalytic about Wilkerson’s book. But her psychological insight is often keen, and she helps make sense of how very large groups of people could experience trauma. 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 in the United States a type of socially sanctioned lynching. Wilkerson seems to believe it is.
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. From this perspective, caste is primarily a containing structure, holding hate so that it doesn’t run amok, but is confined to sacrificial institutions like lynching. Wilkerson sees caste as causing hate; I see it as containing hate, but from a strictly practical perspective it may not make much difference.
I remember my experience as a civil rights worker in Alabama in 1967. Cornered by Governor George Wallace’s special agents in the restroom of the Capitol building in Montgomery, they pushed me into the corner and roughed me up. That was almost to be expected. The part of the experience I still cannot make sense of is the way they pushed their bodies into mine while whispering the ugliest racist words you can imagine. Worse than you can imagine. “N-lover” was just average racism compared to what they said as they pushed themselves into me. If a man can be gang raped by racist hatred, I was. Not physically, but by the embodied force of hatred.
By now it’s been many years, and I’ve become a member of the “last caste,” as Wilkerson puts it, the old (p 435). I can’t say I was ever deeply traumatized by the experience, just baffled. The primal ugliness of their hatred still overwhelms me though, a hatred I experienced in less bizarre forms any number of times, such as a white man’s rage when he heard me call a Black man Mister. I still think caste is the container of primal hatred, not just its source, but I can’t prove it. In any case, Wilkerson is not clear on this issue, moving from the “euphoria of hate” to the “banality of evil” (Arendt) in a way that never quite pays hatred its due.
The narcissism of caste
Wilkerson, who is not psychologically naïve, turns to Erich Fromm to explain politics in today’s America in terms of caste. Citing Fromm, she writes that insecure people transfer their injured narcissism to their caste. In America today, the Republican party has become a caste group.
“The greater the leader,” Fromm wrote, “the greater the follower . . . . The narcissism of the leader who is convinced of his greatness, and who has no doubts, is precisely what attracts the narcissism of those who submit to him.” (Wilkerson, quoting Fromm, p 313)
This is what MAGA means.
Worship of the leader is self-worship reflected in the mirror of caste.
The trauma of forgiveness
In one sense, the experience of trauma is on every page. But Wilkerson theorizes about trauma at length only in her conclusion, writing about an unexpected expression of trauma: the trauma of forgiveness.
She writes about it as a type of Stockholm syndrome, in which Black victims over-identify with white racist perpetrators (p 325). She refers to a case in which a Black man sitting in his apartment was killed by a white policewoman who mistook his apartment for her own. The brother of the slain Black man offered his forgiveness and hugged the policewoman in an image that went all over the world (p 326).
Black forgiveness of dominant-caste sin has become a spiritual form of having to be twice as good, in trauma, as in other aspects of life, to be seen as half as worthy. (p 330)
White people, says Wilkerson, love narratives about forgiveness because it makes it easier to pretend that the world is a fairer place than it actually is and that racism is in the past. “The act of forgiveness seems a silent clause in a one-sided contract between the subordinate and the dominant.” (p 330)
“What white people are really asking for when they demand forgiveness from a traumatized community is absolution . . . They want absolution from the racism that infects us all even though forgiveness cannot reconcile America’s racist sins.” (p 331, Wilkerson quoting Gay)
In 2018, a nine-year-old boy was charged with sexually assaulting a middle-aged woman, an accusation later shown false by the store’s security cameras. The woman was shamed into apologizing for her false accusation, and the story, along with a video that showed the boy’s innocence, went viral. What people most wanted to know was whether the boy had forgiven her.
The boy had not learned all the rules of caste yet, had not lived long enough to have read the whole script or have it completely downloaded to his subconscious. He was thinking with the still-free mind of an innocent who had not yet faced the consequences of breaking caste. “I don’t forgive the woman,” he said, “and she needs help.” The little boy had the X-ray vision of childhood. He had not accepted the inversion of right and wrong, had not been willing to concede a privilege that should not be extracted but granted freely at the discretion of the aggrieved. (p 331)
Most people don’t think about forgiveness as a mark or symptom of trauma, but it may be. (Alford, 2018). To forgive trauma when it is either unforgivable or not worked through only fuses the experience of trauma with the identity of the traumatized person. Acting as though forgiveness could heal trauma, that it could ‘put the experience behind me,’ is to engage in magical thinking.
Since our world is filled with magical thinking, it’s no surprise that victims would forgive far too readily. Surprising is the contribution of forgiveness to the perpetuation of trauma. Surprising to me, I should say. To someone who has experienced racism most of her life, and thought about it a lot, the connection seems to come as no surprise at all.
Twice as good at trauma to be half as worthy. This is a way of talking about a perpetually traumatized community. Only it’s not just Blacks. Whites too are traumatized not only by the loss of status, but their own racism and hatred. The men who assaulted me in the Montgomery capital were sick with racism.
Of course, I’m not claiming that all, or even most Blacks who suffer from racism suffer from PTSD. That would trivialize both categories. But trauma is not just PTSD. It’s a wound in the psyche.
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded with hatred
So sings Bob Dylan, another who now belongs to the oldest caste. And about this, he seems right. A hard rain’s a-gonna fall. But the question still puzzles me. In the end who is the most wounded with hatred? Certainly, those who suffer it, but those who inflict it don’t get away scot-free.
C. Fred Alford is Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he taught ancient and medieval political philosophy for thirty-eight years. He has written eighteen books on diverse subjects: psychoanalysis and politics, natural law, trauma theory, and the legacy of the Holocaust. While not a professional theologian, Alford wrote a book on Emmanuel Levinas, one on natural law, and still another addressing the book of Job.
C. Fred Alford, Trauma and Forgiveness. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Revised and enlarged edition. Viking Press, 1965.
Erich Fromm, The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. Harper & Row, 1964.
Roxane Gay, “Why I Can’t Forgive Dylann Roof,” New York Times, June 23, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/24/opinion/why-i-cant-forgive-dylann-roof.html.