Class vs Caste: What’s the Difference?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Caste" by Isabel Wilkerson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the difference between class vs caste? Can a subordinate caste member rise above their hereditary caste by climbing the class ladder?

Class vs caste comes down to a difference in social mobility. While both are distinctions of group status, they are not synonymous. Class is a socioeconomic distinction, whereas caste is usually a fixed hereditary group.

Read more to learn about the differences in class vs caste and how it manifests in the American society.

Class vs Caste: What’s the Difference?

Class vs caste are both delineations of group status. However, they don’t mean the same thing. Class refers to a group of people within a society who possess the same socioeconomic status. In contrast, caste is a man-made social order where group rank is determined by birth.

Some argue that a lower caste member can improve their circumstances and rise above their caste, but this idea relates to class, which is different. Class is a socioeconomic distinction. A rich man can lose everything and become lower class overnight. Likewise, a poor man can win the lottery and start moving in high-class society. But caste position never changes.

The difference between class vs caste is evident in American society. Many members of the subordinate class are able to elevate their status by becoming famous, wealthy, or people of distinction. These factors help them live a better life, but they do not insulate them from the beliefs about and treatment of members of their caste. 

There are several examples of wealthy and accomplished subordinate caste members who could not rise above their caste. For instance, in 2015, Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker entered an upscale deli in Manhattan but decided to leave without ordering. An employee blocked his path and frisked him to make sure he hadn’t stolen anything. Also in 2015, police officers broke the leg of a black Atlanta Hawks forward during a skirmish outside a nightclub in New York City, ending his season. In 2018, a police officer choked a former Houston Texans player after a traffic incident. 

These are just a few examples of how a higher class status doesn’t erase a person’s caste status or the oppression they experience from the dominant caste

Class vs Caste: What’s the Difference?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Isabel Wilkerson's "Caste" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Caste summary:

  • How a racial caste system exists in America today
  • How caste systems around the world are detrimental to everyone
  • How the infrastructure of the racial hierarchy can be traced back hundreds of years

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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