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Caste is a system of social status and hierarchy characterized not only by social rankings, wealth, and prestige, but also by hereditary occupations and endogamy.Wikipedia Well-behaved and properly brought-up members of a caste are supposed to marry within that caste, or occasionally with members of similarly situated castes.

Casteism in contrast to racism is a multi-generationally-entrenched hierarchical system, enforced by religion in the case of Hinduism, or by law and Christianity in the case of the United States and Nazi Germany.[1]:68-69 The concept of race is poorly-defined and arbitrary, but racism may overlap with casteism as it does in the United States.[1]:71-72 Caste restricts people and their descendants to specific occupations, dwellings, and behaviors, so as to perpetuate the hierarchy. People's castes may be so thoroughly embedded that they may not even recognize their position in the system.[1]:33-35,39-40

Legally-entrenched social classes, also endogamous and hereditary, have been found in Europe, while anthropologists associate the paradigmatic ethnographic caste-system with the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka), where it is typically known as JātiWikipedia, from the Sanskrit for "birth" (जाति). Similar social structures have existed in a number of societies, however, including Edo-eraWikipedia Japan and various places in Latin America. The word caste, from the Spanish and Portuguese castaWikipedia ("lineage" or "breed"), originated in Latin America. Spanish and Portuguese colonizers constructed elaborate classifications based on individuals' degree of European, African, and Native American "blood".

In her groundbreaking book Caste, Isabel Wilkerson described eight pillars that are used to maintain and enforce caste, each described in a chapter:[1]:101-164

  1. Divine will and the laws of nature — religion as justification for caste (varna in Hinduism; Curse of Ham and Slavery in the Bible in Christianity)
  2. Heritability — establishment of ancestry as a marker of caste (e.g., one-drop rule in the US, Nuremberg Race Laws in Nazi Germany[2])
  3. Endogamy and the control of marriage and mating — Loving v. Virginia and other anti-miscegenation laws
  4. Purity versus pollution — untouchability, one-drop rule, Laws of ManuWikipedia in India, Curse of Ham in the Bible, forbidding lower castes from bodies of water
  5. Occupational hierarchy — jobs that are considered lowly, dirty, and/or poorly-paid are reserved for the lowest castes, chattel slavery, labor camps
  6. Dehumanization and stigma — treatment as less than human and scapegoating
  7. Terror as enforcement, cruelty as a means of control — pogroms of Jews in Europe leading up to the Holocaust, lynching of African Americans, police brutality aimed at African Americans
  8. Inherent superiority versus inherent inferiority — active prevention of signs of success by the lower caste, even the least qualified upper-caste person must be held superior to the most qualified lower-caste person

In the Indian subcontinent[edit]

The caste system is based on a theological concept called varnaWikipedia again from the Sanskrit for "color" or "form" (वर्ण). Varna divides Hindu society and the many subgroupings of caste into five broad categories:

  • the BrahminsWikipedia: priests, teachers, and preachers.
  • the KshatriyasWikipedia: rulers and warriors.
  • the VaishyasWikipedia: agriculturists, herdsmen, merchants, and artisans.
  • the ShudrasWikipedia: laborers.
  • the DalitsWikipedia: (outside the caste system) streetsweepers, latrine cleaners.

In the Hindu theology of reincarnation, the first three varnas are held to have been "twice born", meaning that those born into those groups must have spiritually progressed in their prior incarnations as human beings. Only members of the first three varnas are permitted to study the Vedas.[3]

These varnas were organized into castes during the British rule of India:[4] the castes became much more elaborate than this fourfold theological division, and include multiple subgroupings (jāti) that vary from one region to another.[5]

Untouchable and defiling castes[edit]

In many places, it is considered defiling for members of the higher castes to have any dealings or conversation with certain low-caste people. These people have occupations that are locally considered unclean but necessary, such as burying the dead or butchering animals. This group of the "untouchable" people is collectively called the Dalits in India. The term Untouchable is now considered pejorative, and B. R. Ambedkar, himself a Dalit advocated for the use of this term to refer to his people instead, dalit meaning "broken people".[1]:26

Dalits have suffered from untouchability,Wikipedia such that it is defiling for a member of a non-untouchable caste:

  • to be touched by a Dalit,
  • to touch an object previously touched by a Dalit,
  • to touch a Dalit's shoes or clothing,
  • to eat with a Dalit,
  • to enter the home of a Dalit, or
  • for a Dalit to enter the home of a non-untouchable.

A statute in IndiaWikipedia has sought to redress social problems caused by discrimination against Dalits, but enforcement has been only sporadic and discrimination within the legal system continues to exist.[6] The Hindu caste system is nevertheless slowly succumbing to social change due to improved transportation infrastructure and capitalism. Marriages outside the caste have increased, especially since the 1970s, a process which blurs the lineages upon which caste itself is founded. However, while marriages among different jati have increased, marriages outside the four varna remain relatively less common.[7]

Similar untouchable or outcast groups have existed elsewhere, including:

In Latin America[edit]

A comparably elaborate system of racial classification existed in Latin America. The Spanish and Portuguese colonists of the New World brought with them a pre-existing notion of limpieza de sangreWikipedia 'purity of blood', which they had already developed as a result of the ReconquistaWikipedia the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the Islamic Moors of Grenada and Andalusia.

The concept of limpieza de sangre originally involved favoring purely European and Christian ancestry over descendants of African Moors and other disfavored groups, including Jews. After the last Muslim state in the Iberian Peninsula fell to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492, the remaining Jews and Muslims were given the ultimatum to convert to Catholicism, leave, or die. Those who chose conversion faced abiding persecution in Spanish society (and to a lesser extent in Latin America), and their ancestors were often believed to practice Judaism or Islam in secret.

The Latin American system, though it gave English the word caste, is not a true caste system, lacking the critical component of endogamy, marriage within the caste. Indeed, the system recognizes the inevitability of miscegenation, and is based on classifying people according to their numbers of European, African, and Native American ancestors. In fact, one of the core components of the Spanish colonial caste system is the notion of blanqueamientoWikipedia, the rather absurd belief that "lesser" peoples could be "redeemed" by marrying into European ancestry.

This 18th century Mexican painting illustrates the elaborate system of racial and hereditary classifications in use in Spanish Latin America.

In the United States[edit]

The beginning of the caste system in the United States began with the first enslaved Africans were brought to North America in 1619. It developed with the institutionalization of permanent slavery of individuals and their descendants. It continued after the emancipation of all slaves after the end of the American Civil War and Reconstruction with legally-enforced Jim Crow laws and segregation.

It may appear odd to some that inequality and oppression in the US is referred to as casteism rather than racism, but reference to a caste system dates back to at least 1849 when abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner[1]:24 referred to it in a Massachusetts Supreme Court case:[8]

The separation of children in the Schools, on account of race or color, is in the nature of Caste, and, on this account, a violation of Equality.

The concept caste in America has been used for decades by anthropologists and scholars,[1]:24 When Martin Luther King Jr. visited India, he was recognized by dalits as the leader of American dalits, which he came to accept.[1]:22[9]

Mainly, but far from exclusively, in the U.S. South it gave rise to racialized identities such as "quadroon" and "octoroon", the "one-drop rule", "The Pocahontas Exception", and anti-miscegenation laws (Loving v. Virginia).

In Nazi Germany[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Nazi Germany

During the period when Adolf Hitler was still consolidating power, a committee of Nazi bureaucrats was formed in June 1934 to discuss racial 'purity' and how to differentiate Aryans from Jews.[1]:78 The committee included 17 lawyers who had studied the American caste system of laws, using the laws as a model.[1]:79-81 The committee was particularly impressed by the writings of two American eugenicists, Lothrop StoddardWikipedia and Madison Grant.[1]:80 Some of the members of the committee even thought that the American laws went too far.[1]:84-85 Eventually the more radical members of the committee prevailed, and the resulting document of the committee formed what was to become the Nuremberg Laws that specifically targeted Jews and thus created a caste system.[1]:79,86

Caste and colorism[edit]

Colorism is a worldwide phenomenon in which people of the same group with lighter skin colors are prejudicially preferred over people with darker skin colors. In the United States, colorism coincides with caste for African Americans.[1]:238-239 In connection to this,[1]:238 sociologist Erving Goffman noted:

The stigmatized individual exhibits a tendency to stratify his "own" according to the degree to which their stigma is apparent and obtrusive. He can then take up in regard to those who are more evidently stigmatized than himself the attitudes the normals take to him.[10]:107

Nearly everyone suffers[edit]

While it is unarguable that the people of lower castes suffer the most from casteism, but people in higher castes also suffer. A caste system is inherently anti-meritocratic, in other words the people who are most qualified are often not chosen for positions, damaging government and social system as a whole.[1]:384-385 A more direct way in which this happens upper caste people can suffer from so-called "deaths of despair", from suicide, drug overdoses, and alcoholism.[1]:178-186

See also[edit]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (2020) Random House. ISBN 0593230256.
  2. What were the Nuremberg Race Laws? United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  3. Juergensmeyer, Mark (2006). The Oxford Handbook of Global Religions. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 27. ISBN 978-0-19972-761-2.
  4. The Logic of Affirmative Action: Caste, Class and Quotas in India
  5. Basham, Arthur L. (1954), The Wonder That Was India: A Survey of the Culture of the Indian Sub-Continent before the Coming of the Muslims, Grove Press, p. 148
  6. Human Rights Watch, Broken People: Caste Violence Against India’s “Untouchables” (March 1999)
  7. Karen Leonard and Susan Weller, "Declining subcaste endogamy in India: the Hyderabad Kayasths, 1900 - 1975, American Ethnologist 7(3), August 1980.
  8. Equality before the law, unconstitutionality of separate colored schools in Massachusetts Argument Of Charles Sumner, Esq., Before The Supreme Court Of Massachusetts, In The Case Of Sarah C. Roberts vs. The City Of Boston, December 4, 1849. Via Library of Congress.
  9. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr.: Chapter 13: Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, edited by Clayborne Carson (1998) Intellectual Properties Management in association with Warner Books. ISBN 0446676500. Via The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University.
  10. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity by Erving Goffman (1986) Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0671622447.