Review of “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson

This book is illuminating, depressing, infuriating, and crucial to our understanding of what is happening in America today.

“Racism” has become such a contested word lately, with the definition itself becoming an important factor in calls for change in America. Thus Wilkerson’s new book is all the more critical, as she posits that the main organizing principle in American life is better described as “caste” rather than “race,” although they intersect.

She characterizes a caste system as:

“an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoriting the dominant caste whose forebears designed it.”

Importantly, she notes of caste:

“It is about power – which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources – which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence – who is accorded these and who is not.”

She compares three caste systems that have stood out in modern history: the one used in Nazi Germany to distinguish, with lethal effect, “Aryan” from others; India’s caste system, which is among the world’s oldest form of surviving social stratification; and “the shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the United States.”

Her discussion of Nazi Germany is particularly chilling, because she describes how the Nazis studied race laws in the United States to get ideas for their own caste system, and were “astonished” by both the extent of race legislation in America to keep the population segregated, and the fact that they could get away with it “yet retain such a sterling reputation on the world stage.” Even more shocking is the fact that, at first, some of the rules used by Americans seemed “too harsh” to them. Eventually, she observed, the more radical Nazis prevailed, in part, one historian wrote, because they did not want to seem less rigorous than the Americans!

She then analyzes what she sees as “the eight pillars of caste,” such as dehumanization and stigma, using terror as enforcement, and control of marriage and mating. She also discusses “the tentacles of caste” – i.e., how difficult it is to escape the system. In her poignant and sad chapter “The Intrusion of Caste in Everyday Life,” she details how norms and stereotypes associated with caste constantly affect the lives of families at the bottom. And finally she talks about blowback – what happens, for example, when a black man is elected President of the United States. Unfortunately, we are now living with the results of that blowback, as well as the long-term effects of centuries of racism. As Siri Hustvedt writes in “Tear Them Down: Old Statues, Bad Science, and Ideas That Just Won’t Die”:

“Murder, rape, as well as physical and psychological torture were instruments of terror inherent to the institution of slavery, and they did not end with the defeat of the Confederacy. The enduring legacy of slavery in the US is essential to the Black Lives Matter message. If George Floyd’s murder constitutes a breaking point in US history it is because the image of a white man with his knee on a black man’s neck as he slowly suffocates his victim to death is understood as part of centuries of domination and cruelty rooted in a pernicious racial ideology that has permeated all our institutions.”

Wilkerson also recounts the long-term effects of discriminatory housing policies. In another timely essay detailing Wilkerson’s points, this Washington Post essay demonstrates how the practice of redlining (the steering of blacks and whites into different neighborhoods by both banks and realtors) had secondary long-term deleterious effects of wealth disparities and educational achievement gaps.

In her last chapter, Wilkerson asks, “How dare anyone cause harm to another soul, curtail their life or life’s potential, when our lives are so short to begin with?” She writes, “Caste is a disease, and none of us is immune.” But it is not a hopeless situation. She avers:

“Once awakened, we then have a choice. We can be born to the dominant caste but choose not to dominate. We can be born to a subordinated caste but resist the box others force upon us. And all of us can sharpen our powers of discernment to see past the external and to value the character of a person rather than demean those who are already marginalized or worship those born to false pedestals.”

A world without caste, she argues, would set everyone free.

Evaluation: This brilliant book should be an essential part of history and instruction. Sadly, because of the very factors she discusses, it probably will only be read by a handful of citizens. If you are disinclined to read non-fiction, but are willing to read shorter articles that encapsulate what she is writing about, please consider the essays linked to above, as well as this poignant essay by Caroline Randall Williams published in the New York Times, which begins:

“I have rape-colored skin. My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South.

If there are those who want to remember the legacy of the Confederacy, if they want monuments, well, then, my body is a monument. My skin is a monument.”

Rating: 5/5

Published by Random House, 2020

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