Reading The South Through the Lens of Caste

I recently finished reading Adolph L. Reed, Jr’s memoir of life in the Jim Crow South and afterwards.  Having read Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste just before (and The Warmth of Other Suns years earlier), I went into Reed’s slim volume looking for points of agreement and points of conflict  between it and Wilkerson’s previous works.

I hadn’t read any of Reed’s book-length work prior to The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives, but from a few of his articles I understand him to be a left-wing critic of anti-racism and identity politics.  The memoir focuses far more on the way Jim Crow functioned in practice than on criticism of anti-racism and identity politics in the present.  Like Wilkerson’s previous works, Reed’s memoir highlights the arbitrary nature of the penalties to blacks people for challenging the social and legal structures of Jim Crow.  The capriciousness of enforcement is heightened by Reed’s stories of travel from points north to places where Jim Crow governed expectations of behavior even after it was officially repudiated.  As depicted by Reed, the level of effort black people had to go through to comply with the strictures of Jim Crow was substantial, and a thing he only realized in retrospect. 

Reed doesn’t soft pedal the apartheid system Jim Crow was in the least, nor the nature of the chattel slavery system that preceded it. He quotes at length from the infamous Cornerstone Speech, references other ordinances of secession from southern states,  and makes clear that the South shot first with the aim of preserving slavery.  White supremacy clearly undergirds both slavery and Jim Crow in Reed’s telling.  But ultimately, Reed’s memoir reinforces his “class-first” worldview and that of others on the left (including his preferred presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders). 

Reed’s account of life under Jim Crow and afterwards is very enlightening. His lived experiences across decades and regions of the United States are both broad and deep, including New York City, DC, and parts of Louisiana (including New Orleans), Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Georgia. That said, I think there are limits to the power of the Jim Crow experience to explain the present. Reed’s book was published just last year, in the wake of a Trump presidency (a direct repudiation of the nation’s only black president) Trump’s role in encouraging an insurrection to remain in power, and the continuing engagement in overt appeals to white nationalism by numerous GOP pols and those in their orbit. I find it difficult to square these facts with assertions that “race essentialism” on the part of black folks is the real problem.

Wilkerson’s Caste, published in the summer of 2020, does a better job of capturing the subtleties and nuances of how we engage with each other by broadening our vision beyond race (race and class, instead of race or class). I still remember her interview with Terry Gross, and being initially skeptical of the book because of her response to the question of why the apartheid system in South Africa was not included in the book.

My response on Twitter in a thread with Thomas Chatterton Williams regarding Wilkerson’s Caste

Actually reading the book revealed not only a larger number of commonalities between the way race and class interact in the U.S. and the way caste works in India than I realized, but a wealth of research in the U.S. during Jim Crow which studied it from the inside and called it a caste system. Some of the takeaways on Caste I took note of separately (so as to keep the copy I borrowed from the public library as pristine as possible):

  • Dalits had an equivalent to the sharecropping system some black farmers endured
  • W.E.B. DuBois and Bhimrao Ambedkar corresponded at least once regarding the similarity of the position of their people in their respective countries
  • Madison Grant (a popular eugenicist of the early 20th century) saw India’s caste system as a model to be emulated
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was seen by Indian untouchables as an American untouchable
  • Among the earliest of the people to use the term “caste” to describe segregated schools in Boston was abolitionist and U.S. senator Charles Sumner.
  • Gunnar Myrdal (Swedish social economist) and Ashley Montagu (British-American anthropologist) used the term “caste” to describe the the way black people (and others) were treated in the U.S.

While I have seen pushback elsewhere regarding aspects of Wilkerson’s book (mainly people attributing causes other than racism to the personal experiences she recounts in the book), the only place I really disagreed with Wilkerson’s book was the suggestion that the indigenous people of America were exiled from the caste system. From reading The Great Oklahoma Swindle, I learned (among other things) that the Five Civilized Tribes fought on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War and owned black people as slaves.

Wilkerson’s book is a lot longer than Reed’s, but no less valuable to the reader attempting to increase their understanding of the American experience for black people. Reading them close together in time provoked thoughts and revealed insights I suspect I would not otherwise have had.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.