Race and Caste

The reading list under Race and Caste introduces theories, concepts and everyday experiences that exemplify common experiences of discrimination and privilege of caste(ism) and race(ism) while acknowledging that these categories have distinctive forms and lived experiences of inequalities.

This complicated entangling of race and caste as logics of oppression has a long history. For instance, in the 19th century, one early anti-caste reformist, Jyotirao Phule (1827–1890), responded to the British racialization of caste by inverting the race theory—accepting the racial argument, but re-labelling supposed Aryans as invaders of India’s original inhabitants, the Bahujans (common folks). On the other hand, Babasaheb Ambedkar (1891–1956), the anti-caste philosopher, socio-legal reformer, and Dalit leader, rejected the racial origins and anatomical characteristics of caste while recognising Aryans as a distinctive ethnic group (Ambedkar, 1989, p. 4).

In the south of India, Iyothee Thoss (1845–1914) made a revolutionary declaration that Dalits were not Hindus and belonged to casteless Dravidian – an ethno-linguist group - stock (Aloysius, 1999). This idea later crystallised into Dravidian identity politics under Periyaar EV Ramasamy’s (1879–1973) leadership, which continues to be a powerful political force in Tamil Nadu.

The interrelationship of race and caste has continued to be taken up outside of India in both helpful and harmful ways. In Europe, during the 20th century, Max Weber drew connections between the entangled structures of caste, race, and religion: “(T)he problem of ancient Jewry, although unique in the socio-historical study of religion, can best be understood in comparison with the problem of the Indian caste order,” (Weber, 1952: 3). Weber's study of Jewish religious history inaugurated a new form of comparative history of minoritised groups (Kawade 2021). Later, Hanna Arendt further observed the connection: “the pariah is one Jewish type to be opposed (and preferred) to another Jewish type, the parvenu” (Momigliano, 1980). Nevertheless, Jews were never inserted into a caste system. Nor did Jews share a socio-religious system that ostracised each other. 

Weber’s and Arendt's use of the term “Pariah” led to careless canonisation of the word in western sociology and politics as a metaphor for alienation and ostracisation of an individual, group, leader, or even state (Kawade 2021). Such flippant use has removed the original meaning of the Tamil caste word Paraiyar (an oppressed caste drummer attached to a caste group).

Letter exchanges between Babasaheb Ambedkar and W.E.B. Du Bois seemed to indicate that “there was so much similarity between the position a position of the Untouchables in India and of the position of the Negroes in America that the study of the latter is not only natural but necessary.”

The key for considering caste alongside race, therefore, is to emphasise the similarities in logics of oppression and the possibilities for solidarity, while avoiding the reduction of any category to another, or undoing the specific cultural boundaries.


Early American and European sociologists on race and caste
Arendt, H. (2007). “The Jew as Pariah: A Hidden Tradition,” in The Jewish Writings, eds. Jerome Kohn and Ron H. Feldman. New York: Schocken Books. pp. 275-297.
Cox, O. C. (2018). Caste, Class, and Race (Classic Reprint): A Study in Social Dynamics. Forgotten Books. Chapter 19.
Myrdal, G. (1996). An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, Volume 2 (Black & African-American Studies) (1st ed.). Routledge. Chapters 31 & 32
Berreman, G. D. (1960). Caste in India and the United States. American Journal of Sociology, 66(2), 120–127.
Bois, D. W. (2020). The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois. Independently published.

1. For Weber, caste was an example of what he described as “status groups.” They were like ethnic communities, completely closed to outsiders. Recruitment to a caste group, as to an ethnic group, was based exclusively on birth. Though closed castes where physical contact is considered ritually prohibitive exist only when status groups evolve into their extreme forms, caste divisions, for Weber, were a normal social phenomenon.
Weber, Max. 1968. Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology. Vol. 1. Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

2. A short research paper where Warner tries to understand the significance of racial differences in the American context by using the framework of caste and compares the reality of caste status with that of class.
Warner, W. Lloyd. 1936. American caste and class. American Journal of Sociology 42.2: 234–237.

3. Cohn provides a useful account of how the categories used by British colonial rulers to describe and classify the native population reinforced certain practices among different social groups in Indian society.
Cohn, Bernard. 1996. Colonialism and its forms of knowledge: The British in India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

Contemporary discussions
4. A succinct analysis of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s thoughts on the myths of Aryan Invasion Theory.
Sharma, A. (2005). Dr. B. R. Ambedkar on the Aryan Invasion and the Emergence of the Caste System in India.

Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 73(3), 843–870. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4139922
Cháirez-Garza, J. F. (2018). B.R. Ambedkar, Franz Boas and the Rejection of Racial Theories of Untouchability. South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 41(2), 281–296.
Cháirez-Garza, J. F., Gergan, M. D., Ranganathan, M., & Vasudevan, P. (2021). Introduction to the special issue: Rethinking difference in India through racialization. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 45(2), 193–215.
Harris, C. I. (1993). Whiteness as Property. Harvard Law Review, 106(8), 1707–1791.
Natrajan, B. (2021). Racialisation and ethnicisation: Hindutva hegemony and caste. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 45(2), 298–318.
Rao, A. (2020, November 17). Are Caste and Race Really Analogous? Examining Caste-Based Discrimination in America. Michigan Journal of Race & Law.

5. For Rupa Viswanath, "Pariah is a cruel word… Casually employed by journalists and others for whom it is just a metaphor—often in reference to a person or state that deserves to be reviled—it is a word that causes the descendants of those it once named to visibly wince."
Viswanath, R. (2014). Preface on Terminology. In The Pariah Problem: Caste, Religion, and the Social in Modern India (p. XI–XII). Columbia University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/visw16306.3

Wilkerson, I. (2020, July 1). America’s Enduring Caste System. The New York Times Magazine.
Yengde, S. (2021, January 1). Iterations of shared Dalit-black solidarity. India Seminar.
Yengde, S. (2021). Global Castes. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 45(2), 340–360. https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2021.1924394