Skip to navigation | Skip to content

Comparing race and caste

In 1990 the eminent sociologist of India, Andre Béteille, commented, ‘Although the subject of caste has been discussed threadbare by students of Indian society and culture, the comparison with race has hardly figured, if at all, in the last twenty to twenty-five years’ (Béteille 1991:15). When I think back to when I myself was an undergraduate, I remember feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of books and articles we were asked to read about caste. And yet, if I remember correctly, none of the books we read featured any comparison with race. I don’t think this is unusual; most current scholars of caste are not required to engage that much with the literature on race. The same may be true, I suspect, of scholars of race in America. Race and caste have become such large and politicised subjects in themselves that the task of comparison is not only thought to be unnecessary now but for some it is positively off-putting. And there is enough debate and disagreement within each of the two topics to keep students of either subject occupied for a lifetime.

And yet for an earlier generation of scholars, comparison was commonplace. As Fuller’s (2011) article ‘Caste, race, and hierarchy in the American South’ shows, the word ‘caste’ was regularly used to describe race relations in America in the early to mid-twentieth century. There are a number of well-known examples: John Dollards’ ethnographic study of race in the 1930s was called, Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937). Allison Davis, Burleigh Gardner and Mary Gardner referred to their study of Mississippi in the 1940s as ‘a social anthropological study of caste and class’. Gunnar Myrdal’s celebrated book An American Dilemma (1944) advanced a theory of race-as-caste. From the Indian perspective, too, Indianists such as Gerald Berreman (1960) found convincing parallels between race and caste.

But even early on, critics raised serious doubts about the utility of the comparison, pointing out that American scholars had used caste simply to differentiate it from class without having much understanding of caste in India (Fuller 2011:616). Fuller and Béteille suggest that the principal motive for using the term ‘caste’ with respect to America was to differentiate it from class and to avoid using the loaded term ‘race’ – not because of any well-worked out understanding of parallels between the two things (Béteille 1991:17, Fuller 2011:614). On the Indian side, perhaps due to the influence of Louis Dumont and his insistence on the incomparability of caste, writings bringing race and caste together dwindled (Fuller 2011:618). And yet the parallels are so striking that one can’t help wondering how and why the race-caste comparison has failed to re-kindle much interest among scholars since then, perhaps especially given the expansion and development of Dalit movements since Dumont’s time.

Gyanendra Pandey’s book is an important corrective to this and serves as an excellent example of how fruitful it can be to analyse race and caste side by side. A History of Prejudice is at once an ambitious and cautious book; his theoretical scope is broad and his material is unorthodox, and yet he is also sensitive to the pitfalls of cross-cultural comparison. This is neither a shopping list of similarities and differences between two histories of resistance nor is it a butterfly collection of forms of discrimination. His aim is not so much to compare India’s Dalits with African Americans nor is it to contrast the Civil Rights movement with the Dalit movement per se. Rather, in his own words, Pandey examines ‘the different articulations of what these struggles mean’ and also what they ‘tell us about our societies and our conceptions of ourselves’ (Pandey cited in Williams 2012). This venture takes him into theoretically (and methodologically) complex terrain: an analysis of prejudice and the history of it. Pandey’s central argument is that there are two types of prejudice: vernacular and universal. Vernacular is that which is local, visible, readily apparent and recognisable: attitudes or actions which unfairly discriminate against people on the basis of colour, gender, sexuality, religion or ethnicity. This is identifiable as racism, homophobia, chauvinism, etc., and the state and judiciary may try to prevent it (p.1-2). The other form is universal, invisible and naturalised: it is found in the very language of the judiciary and state itself and it passes for the ‘common sense of the modern’ (p.27). It is unseen because it is not acknowledged to be prejudice. In this sense, far from representing the triumph of reason and rationality, modern democracies show us the continuing importance of ‘inherited structures of prejudice and denial’ (p.22), Pandey argues.

One of his illustrations of this is a section of Gunnar Myrdal’s American Dilemma in which Myrdal says, ‘the American thinks, talks, and acts under the influence of high national and Christian precepts, and, on the other hand […] group prejudice against particular persons or types of people…dominate his outlook’ (p.23). And yet Pandey’s point is a little different. It is not just that there is a contradiction between the sacred ideals of the nation and the practices of its population. But rather, that there is hypocrisy in those very ideals because ‘discourses’ of freedom and development in modern nation states tend to disfavour the poor, the lower class, the lower caste, the dark-skinned, female and uneducated, rendering them ‘marked’ citizens (i.e. ‘Native Americans’, ‘Hispanic Americans’, ‘Muslim Indians’, etc.) while the dominant majority can enjoy the natural citizenship of the unmarked (p.27).

For Pandey, modernity has not only produced such an unmarked citizen but also a way of talking and acting which is seen as rational, secular, enlightened, masculine, civilised, liberal and democratic. It is also middle-class: ‘It is merit, not inherited wealth or privilege or sectional loyalty or networks, that counts in the making of the middle-class world, we are told…Those who do not make it are simply not determined or talented enough’ (p.19). (This is perhaps more applicable to American modernity than European, but his point about merit is certainly pertinent to the debate over affirmative action in India). Dalits and African Americans are not excluded simply because of their skin colour but because they are declared to be ‘lazy’ or without merit and therefore ‘culturally unsuited’ to middle-class modernity. The minority of Dalits and African Americans who have managed to become middle class face different kinds of dilemmas, as Pandey shows in his final chapter. Theirs is a question of how to fit in when they are so often seen as ‘out of place’, and how to relate to those left behind (p.217). In reality, the idea of ‘middleclassness’, based as it is on the myth of merit, has always been ‘defined by a series of exclusions’, of workers, non-whites and women (p.19). But the ‘middle-class’ aspect is only one part of the myth. The narrative of modernity as a historically-situated universal – shaped by the west, by imperialism and nationalism – serves to efface the destructive nature of modern capitalism and the ‘structures of prejudice’ on which it has been built.

Of course, this plays out in contrasting ways in the two settings, as Pandey’s discussion of different types of ‘difference’ shows. Notably, he asserts that ‘there has been less open engagement with the stigma and humiliation caste practices, and the underlying question of Untouchability, in India’ (p.10). He reasons that ‘this was because the “Muslim problem,” and the struggle for and ultimate establishment of a separate Muslim nation called Pakistan, had long been seen as the national question in India’ (p.10), thereby obscuring the caste question. This may have been the case in north India, but not in the southern states where caste has been for a long time more of a problem than communalism. But it is true that at India’s Independence everyone assumed that caste was a remnant of a feudal past that would naturally die out as India modernised. Little did they realise that the opposite was to happen. In the US, on the other hand, race has long been recognised as the fundamental challenge to America’s status as an egalitarian democracy.

Pandey’s discussion not only highlights crucial similarities between Dalit and black populations, he usefully contrasts them with other minorities too: ‘The specific character of the Dalit or black…case is that it is seen as being marked above all by conditions of subordination and deprivation, as opposed to the Jewish/Muslim case, which is reckoned primarily in terms of what would be described as “cultural deviance” (p.37). Theirs is a problem of ‘internal colonisation’ (p.63): ‘they have no territory of their own: they cannot emigrate, they cannot send the colonisers home. What is more they cannot easily lay claim to an independent history and culture – indeed they gain their identity at least in part by their incorporation into dominant culture or society’ (p.63). It is true that the ambiguity of their position is often acute, being as they are both inside and outside society, as Deliège (1999) demonstrates for Dalits, and W.E.B. Du Bois (1903) showed in relation to African American ‘double consciousness’. But Pandey’s statement is somewhat overblown: Dalits and black people have rejected dominant norms and forged their own distinct positon through political agitation, literature, art, music and religious practice, and by using once-stigmatising differences to create a positive political identity as the basis on which to claim rights and resources. More attention to these efforts would have been useful. Pandey highlights religious conversion (especially to Buddhism) in the Dalit case, while black military service and the Double Victory campaign is foremost in his discussion of the American Civil Rights movement. In the latter case, Pandey’s attention to gender – the ‘masculinism’ and militarism of American citizenship, the role of women and the interplay between civil rights and women’s rights – enriches his account.

The gendered focus is carried through in the two chapters which are based on the autobiographical writings of Viola Andrews, a working-class black woman from Georgia who grew up in the early twentieth century, and Baby Kamble, a Dalit woman born in 1923 in western India. In both chapters, Pandey does not shy away from the vexed question of patriarchy, showing how difficult it can be for black and Dalit women to address patriarchy, inequality and mistreatment in the home when the needs of the community are impressed upon them as foremost.

These accounts are interesting and important in themselves, but the understanding of these women’s experiences would have been deepened with greater sociological contextualisation, something that is arguably somewhat lacking throughout the book. The life stories of these women are part of the archive Pandey uses to explore prejudice. This archive, he claims, is ‘shadowy’; it is the ‘gesture of disdain, contempt, disgust, the pause and the recoil, the refusal to touch’ (p.2). ‘How, out of what archive,’ he asks, ‘are we to write a history of these gestures?’ (p.2). His question is rhetorical but one can find an answer of sorts in empirical studies that have documented not only these gestures but a whole range of acts of subordination, discrimination and marginalisation as manifestations of systematic, ethnically-based, socio-economic exploitation and political disenfranchisement. In India, certainly, many Dalits would claim that prejudice is not that shadowy. And there are detailed historical and contemporary studies of how it plays out in everyday life, then and now. But Pandey does not refer to much of this historical and ethnographic work. Instead, he unapologetically asserts that his main source is autobiographical writings, songs, poetry, letters, and blogs (p.31). It is true that Pandey’s aim is less a comparative account of the lives of Dalits and African Americans and more a theory of modernity through the lens of the ‘subaltern’. Even so, a little more anthropological or social historical detail would have grounded the theory.

Pandey’s focus on modernity leads him away from the central controversy over economic inequality, and his position on class is at times unclear: to what extent does economic exploitation lie at the root of the subordination of both groups? He asserts that Dalits and African Americans are characterised by ‘the overwhelming poverty of large sections’, ‘degradation’ and ‘deprivation’ (p.18); but he does not fully follow this up and some statements required more discussion. For example, he says that India’s Dalits are ‘in [a] more intractable position than African Americans because of a poorer economy and slower economic growth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and because of the more restricted opportunities of escape from the stranglehold of caste which is countrywide in its spread and has long been shored up by a claimed religious sanction in the prevailing (Hindu) tradition of social organisation and interaction’ (p.16). But these statements don’t necessarily link together. Are Dalits in fact in a more intractable position? And if so, can that be explained simply by the fact that they live in a poorer economy?

For me, perhaps anticipating the Dalit reaction, there is an obvious tension that runs throughout the book. A History of Prejudice offers an adroit critique of modernity, using the case of Dalits and African Americans to illustrate modernity’s structures of prejudice. But following Ambedkar (India’s first Law Minister, architect of the constitution, and leader of Dalits), some of the strongest advocates of modernity have in fact been Dalit activists. They don’t need less modernity, they would say, they need more of it, despite the way it operates. As in many black communities in the American South, the past is a spectre of oppression and degradation to be swept away in favour of the new and the modern. Ambedkar tried to inaugurate a caste-free, un-hierarchical, secular, modern, egalitarian democracy and his followers still strive for it today. Pandey discusses Ambedkar quite extensively in the book and the Dalit men and women featured (Baby Kamble, Narendra Jadhav, for example) are devoted Ambedkarites. But in his discussion of Ambedkar’s view on Aboriginal Tribes, Pandey argues that Ambedkar ‘expressed many of the signature contradictions of liberalism’ (p.32). The paradox of writing against modernity, in the name of those who are for it, is a striking one.

Nevertheless, activists in India and America, whose historical links run back to the nineteenth century, will surely value the astute comparisons that Pandey makes here. And there is no doubt that A History of Prejudice stands as an important contribution to history written from the perspective of those who have never easily fitted in to national fables of modernity. Pandey’s re-examination of two histories of resistance, so clearly shaped by feminist and post-colonial scholarship, shows how innovative comparative work can be when undertaken with theoretical ambition, attention to unconventional sources and close consideration of the specificities of each phenomenon. As such, this provocative book may prove to be a welcome initiation of a new discussion of race and caste, racism and caste-ism, and the powerful resistance movements against them.


Béteille, A. 1991 [1990]. ‘Race, Caste and Gender’. In Society and Politics in India: Essays in Comparative Perspective. London: Athlone. Pp. 15-36.

Cox, O. 1945. ‘Race and Caste: a distinction’. American Journal of Sociology. 50. Pp. 360-368.

Davis, A., B.B. Gardner and M.R. Gardner 1965. Deep South: a Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class. Chicago University Press.

Deliège, R. 1999. The Untouchables of India. Oxford: Berg.

Dollard, J. 1957 [1937]. Caste and Class in a Southern Town. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor.

Du Bois, W.E.B. 1999 [1903]. The Souls of Black Folk: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. (eds. H. L. Gates and T.H. Oliver). New York: Norton.

Fuller, C. J. 2011. ‘Caste, Race, and Hierarchy in the American South’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 17. pp. 604-621.

Myrdal, G. 1944. An American Dilemma: the Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. New York: Harper.

Williams, K. 2012. ‘Emory Profiles: Interview with Gyanendra Pandey: Refocusing the Lens of History’. Emory Report, Emory News Center. 05.10.2012 (accessed 21.12.2014):

Please join our mailing list to receive notification of new issues