by Isabel Wilkerson

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“The Eight Pillars of Caste” Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1414

The Foundations of Caste: The Origins of our Discontents

For more than half of American history, slavery was the dominant social institution in the South. Wilkerson argues that even after emancipation, legally sanctioned violence, harassment, and displacement of African Americans remained—and still remains—an existential threat. According to Wilkerson, these behavioral scripts and socially reinforced biases have become deeply encoded in the American psyche at all levels of society, which unconsciously perpetuates the system. Her research demonstrates that all caste systems have the eight essential characteristics in common.

Pillar Number One: Divine Will and the Laws of Nature

Hindu cosmology holds that the caste system is an aspect of the birth of Brahma, the supreme god, who created and populated the world out of various parts of his body in a way corresponding to the social functions dictated by the traditional order. The Judeo-Christian tradition has a contrasting story about the creation of the world’s different races descending from the three sons of the Old Testament patriarch Noah. The two “good” sons who are rewarded for their honor become the fathers of the Eastern and Western races, while the cursed son, Ham, and his own son Canaan are fated to be people of the South, forsaken by God. At the time when Spain and Portugal were beginning their global circumnavigations, the native inhabitants of Africa and India were believed by Europeans to be descendants of the biblical outcasts and thus divinely ordained to suffering and subjugation.

Pillar Number Two: Heritability

In India, caste is inherited through the father’s line, whereas the United States has historically determined caste through the mother. Because enslaved mothers had no legal right to their own children, Black birth became a production process for slave labor, as Black children were regarded as valuable, durable commodities. The major distinction between caste and class, Wilkerson writes, is that caste is predetermined, unchanging, and generationally upheld, whereas class implies an attainment of certain conditions based on merit and effort and is much more inclusive within its respective caste “container.” In the United States, the exclusion of African Americans regardless of their level of social or professional success—an exclusion based on superficial, inescapable, inherited characteristics—resembles in practice the treatment of India’s “untouchable” populations.

Pillar Number Three: Endogamy and the Control of Marriage and Mating

It is essential for a caste system to separate and manage bloodlines in a way that preserves the impenetrability of the dominant gene pool by subordinate-caste DNA. To achieve this, miscegenation laws are passed that restrict marriage and reproduction along caste lines, a policy known as endogamy—and something Hitler admired about the American model. The objective of this kind of social engineering is to achieve racial purity among the dominant caste, but it also concentrates resources, value, and empathy among the various levels of the dominant caste that are systematically denied to non-white subordinates. America’s racial boundaries had been set from its earliest days, and coupled with the nation’s historic exclusion of non-European immigrants, endogamy laws effectively created a process of selective breeding that reinforced caste divisions while reserving for white men the ownership of Black reproduction.

Pillar Number Four: Purity Versus Pollution

The United States has its own unique system of gradations on a scale of racial purity that defines itself in opposition to an obsession with contamination by genetic material from a perceived inferior bloodline. Not only was there the so-called “one-drop rule” that defined Blackness and which the Nazis found so extreme, but there was also an elaborate status-defining class subsystem within the subordinate caste based on skin tone and proportion of African ancestry....

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Systems like the examples Wilkerson uses all share a rabid aversion to the idea of public spaces and utilities, particularly water and swimming pools, being similarly contaminated not by blood but by mere exposure to the skin, breath, sweat, or even shadow of the subordinate caste.

Pillar Number Five: Occupational Hierarchy: The Jatis and the Mudsill

Wilkerson returns to the architectural metaphor she introduced in chapter 2 to describe the house’s most important structural element, where the framing meets the foundation, known as a mudsill. In the segregationist political tradition, the enslaved caste of African American servants and laborers constituted an analogous base to the American social order. The lowly work they performed for lack of choice was seen as the limit of their capabilities and their purpose for existence, a permanent servile class upon which the American economy was built. One major difference between the subordinate Americans and Indian Dalit is that while the Indian system has many subdivisions, known as jatis, within each groupthat determined one’s work, the African American subordinate class has been limited in professional options with few chances to break out except as performers or athletes. Until recently, even these luminaries were expected to reinforce popular racist stereotypes if they were to be accepted by the dominant culture.

Pillar Number Six: Dehumanization and Stigma

In order to justify the extreme and often violent measures taken to maintain the oppressive status quo, dominant-caste authority invariably engages in a process of dehumanizing subordinate groups. By denying subordinates equal regard for their virtue, dignity, and suffering, the dominant caste can so diminish subordinates’ humanity as to make them appear mere beasts of burden, pestilent scourges, or puppets on a string, insensitive to pain and humiliation. The subordinate group thus becomes marked with pariah status, and their punishment is seen as just and moral, commensurate with the perceived bestiality and inhumanity that relegates them to ghettoization and marginalization. This dehumanizing mindset is inculcated in generations of dominant-caste children who are raised believing in their superiority and entitlement, which desensitizes them to the victimization of others, even in brutal extremes.

Pillar Number Seven: Terror as Enforcement, Cruelty as a Means for Control

Wilkerson describes the means necessary for the sustained oppression of an outcast group, which requires only that the members of the dominant class do nothing and remain silent, maintaining a complicity in which the order will thrive. The image of the dreaded slaver’s whip encapsulates the violence and intimidation deemed necessary to hold the subordinates in their “container,” and the public complicity that allows the brutal enforcement of the order is the result of the racist attitudes bred into the dominant caste since childhood. The savage business of terror seems like a part of normal life when it is tolerated by the majority of people.

Pillar Number Eight: Inherent Superiority Versus Inherent Inferiority

Wilkerson uses old Hollywood as an example of a cultural force that helped perpetuate popular stereotypes about African Americans’ inferiority and contributed to the same majority mindset that tolerated Jim Crow cruelty and injustice. In the South, law and custom dictated at all levels of interaction between white and Black citizens that white people enjoy unquestioned superiority, while Black people were expected to treat the dominant caste with false deference and submission. The consequence for African Americans is that these constant reminders from almost every aspect of American culture reinforce the generational effect of believing oneself inferior, resulting in defeatism and despair.


This section includes much of the original scholarly content of Wilkerson’s book, which otherwise draws largely on references to others’ work. The previous two sections can be read as a documentary introduction to this schematic, which synthesizes existing ideas within a novel framework: the eight pillars of caste. This conceptualization will sound familiar to many from two existing cultural references, first from Islam’s defining “Five Pillars of Faith,” the central tents of the religion; and second from the British soldier, adventurer, and arabist T. E. Lawrence’s memoir The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Wilkerson's use of this well-established architectural metaphor places her work within this context of faith, devotion, self-invention, and resistance.

The suggestion of Islam is complex, because while the religion brought liberal reforms to ancient Arab institutions of slavery within the Muslim caliphate, its reforms forced Arab slave traders to turn their focus elsewhere for human cargo. For this reason, they began exploring the Eastern African coasts centuries before Spain and Portugal in the West. The storied Lawrence “of Arabia” was actually born illegitimately to a woman impregnated and abandoned by a high-status British gentleman. Raised with a strong sense of social inferiority, Lawrence channeled his restlessness into his establishment ambitions and the guerrilla campaign he organized for the Arabian tribes to overthrow Ottoman rule during World War I.


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