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Isabel Wilkerson’s ‘Caste’ Is an ‘Instant American Classic’ About Our Abiding Sin
By Dwight Garner
- Published July 31, 2020 Updated Jan. 21, 2021
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A critic shouldn’t often deal in superlatives. He or she is here to explicate, to expand context and to make fine distinctions. But sometimes a reviewer will shout as if into a mountaintop megaphone. I recently came upon William Kennedy’s review of “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” which he called “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.” Kennedy wasn’t far off.
I had these thoughts while reading Isabel Wilkerson’s new book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” It’s an extraordinary document, one that strikes me as an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far. It made the back of my neck prickle from its first pages, and that feeling never went away.
I told more than one person, as I moved through my days this past week, that I was reading one of the most powerful nonfiction books I’d ever encountered.
[Listen to Isabel Wilkerson on Sway: A Black and Asian Female V.P. Doesn’t Mean We’ve Escaped Caste .]
Wilkerson’s book is about how brutal misperceptions about race have disfigured the American experiment. This is a topic that major historians and novelists have examined from many angles, with care, anger, deep feeling and sometimes simmering wit.
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Wilkerson’s book is a work of synthesis. She borrows from all that has come before, and her book stands on many shoulders. “Caste” lands so firmly because the historian, the sociologist and the reporter are not at war with the essayist and the critic inside her. This book has the reverberating and patriotic slap of the best American prose writing.
[ This book is one of our most anticipated titles of August. See the full list . ]
This is a complicated book that does a simple thing. Wilkerson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting while at The New York Times and whose previous book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” won the National Book Critics Circle Award, avoids words like “white” and “race” and “racism” in favor of terms like “dominant caste,” “favored caste,” “upper caste” and “lower caste.”
Some will quibble with her conflation of race and caste. (Social class is a separate matter, which Wilkerson addresses only rarely.) She does not argue that the words are synonyms. She argues that they “can and do coexist in the same culture and serve to reinforce each other. Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin.” The reader does not have to follow her all the way on this point to find her book a fascinating thought experiment. She persuasively pushes the two notions together while addressing the internal wounds that, in America, have failed to clot.
A caste system, she writes, is “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.”
“As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance,” Wilkerson writes. She observes that caste “is about respect, authority and assumptions of competence — who is accorded these and who is not.”
Wilkerson’s usages neatly lift the mind out of old ruts. They enable her to make unsettling comparisons between India’s treatment of its untouchables, or Dalits, Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews and America’s treatment of African-Americans. Each country “relied on stigmatizing those deemed inferior to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement.”
Wilkerson does not shy from the brutality that has gone hand in hand with this kind of dehumanization. As if pulling from a deep reservoir, she always has a prime example at hand. It takes resolve and a strong stomach to stare at the particulars, rather than the generalities, of lives under slavery and Jim Crow and recent American experience. To feel the heat of the furnace of individual experience. It’s the kind of resolve Americans will require more of.
“Caste” gets off to an uncertain start. Its first pages summon, in dystopian-novel fashion, the results of the 2016 election alongside anthrax trapped in the permafrost being released into the atmosphere because of global warming. Wilkerson is making a point about old poisons returning to haunt us. But by pulling in global warming (a subject she never returns to in any real fashion) so early in her book, you wonder if “Caste” will be a mere grab bag of nightmare impressions.
Her consideration of the 2016 election, and American politics in general, is sobering. To anyone who imagined that the election of Barack Obama was a sign that America had begun to enter a post-racial era, she reminds us that the majority of whites did not vote for him.
She poses the question so many intellectuals and pundits on the left have posed, with increasing befuddlement: Why do the white working classes in America vote against their economic interests?
She runs further with the notion of white resentment than many commentators have been willing to, and the juices of her argument follow the course of her knife. What these pundits had not considered, Wilkerson writes, “was that the people voting this way were, in fact, voting their interests. Maintaining the caste system as it had always been was in their interest. And some were willing to accept short-term discomfort, forgo health insurance, risk contamination of the water and air, and even die to protect their long-term interest in the hierarchy as they had known it.”
In her novel “Americanah,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie suggested that “maybe it’s time to just scrap the word ‘racist.’ Find something new. Like Racial Disorder Syndrome. And we could have different categories for sufferers of this syndrome: mild, medium and acute.”
Wilkerson has written a closely argued book that largely avoids the word “racism,” yet stares it down with more humanity and rigor than nearly all but a few books in our literature.
“Caste” deepens our tragic sense of American history. It reads like watching the slow passing of a long and demented cortege. In its suggestion that we need something akin to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, her book points the way toward an alleviation of alienation. It’s a book that seeks to shatter a paralysis of will. It’s a book that changes the weather inside a reader.
While reading “Caste,” I thought often of a pair of sentences from Colson Whitehead’s novel “The Underground Railroad.” “The Declaration [of Independence] is like a map,” he wrote. “You trust that it’s right, but you only know by going out and testing it for yourself.”
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
496 pages, Hardcover
First published August 4, 2020
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Those in the dominant caste who found themselves lagging behind those seen as inherently inferior potentially faced an epic existential crisis. To stand on the same rung as those perceived to be of a lower caste is seen as lowering one's status. In the zero-sum stakes of a caste system upheld by perceived scarcity, if a lower-caste person goes up a rung, an upper-caste person comes down. The elevation of others amounts to a demotion of oneself, thus equality feels like a demotion.
Under the spell of caste, the [baseball] majors, like society itself, were willing to forgo their own advancement and glory, and resulting profits, if these came at the hands of someone seen as subordinate.
A caste system is 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... In the American caste system, the signal of rank is what we call race, the division of humans. "As a social or human division," wrote the political scientist Andrew Hacker of the use of physical traits to form human categories, "it surpasses all others - even gender - in intensity and subordination."
The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. 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.
The anthropologist Ashley Montagu was among the first to argue that race is a human invention, a social construct, not a biological one, and that in seeking to understand the divisions and disparities in the United States, we have typically fallen into the quicksand and mythology of race. “When we speak of the race problem in America,” he wrote in 1942, “what we really mean is the caste system and the problems which that caste system creates in America.
Empathy is no substitute for the experience itself. ... Radical empathy is not about you and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will. It is the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it. ... The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly.
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'caste' argues its most violent manifestation is in treatment of black americans.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson Random House hide caption
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
To read Isabel Wilkerson is to revel in the pleasure of reading — to relax into the virtuosic performance of thought and form one is about to encounter, safe and secure that the structures will not collapse beneath you.
In the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist's first book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, Wilkerson evinced a rare ability to craft deeply insightful analysis of deeply researched evidence — both historical and contemporary — in harmonious structures of language and form.
Now, in her sophomore effort, the former New York Times Chicago bureau chief does not disappoint. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is a masterwork of writing — a profound achievement of scholarship and research that stands also as a triumph of both visceral storytelling and cogent analysis.
What is caste? According to Wilkerson, "caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy." Racism and casteism do overlap, she writes, noting that "what some people call racism could be seen as merely one manifestation of the degree to which we have internalized the larger American caste system."
Wilkerson's central thesis is that caste, while a global occurrence, achieves its most violent manifestation in the treatment of American Blacks, set at the lowest level in society through historical and contemporary oppression, marginalization and violence — all legally maintained through systems of law and order. "The English in North America developed the most rigid and exclusionist from of race ideology," Wilkerson writes, quoting the anthropologists Audrey and Brian Smedley.
Wilkerson establishes a correlation between American Blacks, whom she names the "American untouchables" and the Indian "untouchables," or Dalits, as the lowest caste; while whites in America are the dominant, highest caste equivalent to the Indian Brahmins. Describing the treatment of Blacks in America, Wilkerson writes:
"The institution of slavery was, for a quarter millennium, the conversion of human beings into currency, into machines who existed solely for the profit of their owners, to be worked as long as the owners desired, who had no rights over their bodies or loved ones, who could be mortgaged, bred, won in a bet, given as wedding presents, bequeathed to heirs, sold away from spouses or children to convene an owner's debts or to spite a rival or to settle an estate. They were regularly whipped, raped, and branded, subjected to any whim or distemper of the people who owned them. Some were castrated or endured other tortures too grisly for these pages, tortures that the Geneva Conventions would have banned as war crimes had the conventions applied to people of African descent on this soil."
Wilkerson's argument is based on an exploration of what she names the three resonant caste systems in history: the Indian caste system, the Nazi caste system and the American caste system — which the Nazis researched when creating their own. "There were no other models for miscegenation law that the Nazis could find in the world," Wilkerson writes, citing Yale legal historian James Q. Whitman as evidence: "'Their overwhelming interest was in the 'classic example,' the United States of America."
Wilkerson supports her analysis with an immense compendium of documented research that spans centuries. Through her detailed historical research, she unearths evidence that the violence toward Blacks that the American caste system espoused was too much even for the Nazis; they balked at replicating some of the more horrific acts of American racism toward Blacks. "[Herbert] Kier was just one of several Nazi researchers who thought American law went overboard," Wilkerson writes, while others, like Hans F. K. Günter, thought the American laws so outrageous as to be untrue.
Caste, Wilkerson posits, is dependent upon the dehumanization of the other, most powerfully seen in the use of Jews and Blacks as the subject of horrific experiments by the respective dominant caste systems of Germany and America. "German scientists and SS doctors conducted more than two dozen types of experiments on Jews and others they held captive," while "in the United States, from slavery well into the twentieth century, doctors used African-Americans as a supply chain for experimentation, as subjects deprived of either consent or anesthesia," Wilkerson writes.
One of the most poignant examples Wilkerson describes is the violence done by Dr. J. Marion Sims, lauded as the founder of American gynecology, on the bodies of Black women:
"He came to his discoveries by acquiring enslaved women in Alabama and conducting savage surgeries that often ended in disfigurement or death. He refused to administer anesthesia, saying vaginal surgery on them was not painful enough to justify the trouble. ..."
Wilkerson says Sims would "invite leading men in town and apprentices in to see for themselves. He later wrote, 'I saw everything as no man had seen before.' "
Medical experiments were also carried out on Black men and Black children: Wilkerson notes Harriet Washington's research in Medical Apartheid in which a plantation doctor "made incisions into a black baby's head to test a theory for curing seizures" with "cobbler's tools" and "the point of a crooked awl." The horror is legion.
Wilkerson documents the pogroms of violence against the caste of American untouchables as waves throughout history — whether the violence of slavery or the waves of vigilante violence that that rose during Reconstruction and have continued since; incidents such the Ocoee, Fla., massacre in 1920 or the 1921 destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Okla., are set in a continuum that meets with the attacks on Black Americans in Birmingham, Ala., 40 years later in the 1960s, and then again in Charleston, S.C., by Dylann Roof on a Black church five years ago. This violent terror is a marker of the caste system, Wilkerson writes. The descriptions are vivid in their horror; the connections travel across history and time to resonate in the mind.
This structural move is a classic trademark of Wilkerson's style, and one of the attributes of her unique voice that imbues her writing with such textured depth. Wilkerson's use of a poetic focus on imagery and detailed characterization allows us an intimate and personal relationship with the lives of those she chronicles; when this empathic closeness is juxtaposed with the harsh brutality of the historical record the contrast is resonant and haunting, becoming a towering memorial to those violated by the violence of caste.
Caste is divided into six sections exploring the various aspects of caste: its origins, its sustainment and far-reaching "tentacles," and its effects — whether detrimental health for the givers and receivers of racism or the expected white supremacist backlash to the election of the first president of recognizable Black heritage: "The ability of a black person to supplant the racial caste system," Wilkerson writes, quoting the political scientist Andra Gillespie of Emory University, was "the manifestation of a nightmare which would need to be resisted."
Although a claim can be made that the opening chapter or two on the fallout of the 2016 election appear dated, this to be fair, is only because of what has happened to America in the interim since Wilkerson penned those words.
What is problematic is the glaring absence of Africa in a book that aims to position itself as a seminal text on the concept of a global caste system and the positioning of Blackness within that global caste system. Wilkerson glances at this briefly with a scant mention of South Africa in a couple of paragraphs and by quoting a woman identified only as a Nigerian playwright saying that "there are no Black people in Africa" — and then keeps it moving. Both are moments that do need to be unpacked. It is understandable why Wilkerson does not walk through this door to explore caste in Africa — Caste is 400 pages before adding the impressive list of research sources. But if Wilkerson is not opening that door, there does need to be an acknowledgement of why not, an acknowledgement of that absence.
Simply put: With colonization, European colonizers brought their caste system to Africa and implemented it over the already existing caste systems among many African ethnic groups.
Perhaps the absence of Africa is because of the caste system Wilkerson speaks of itself — to get people in the dominant caste to care about a narrative about Blackness and Brownness, about the lower castes, there must be a strong presence of whiteness in the conversation because it is the dominant caste system within the narrative.
And thus the caste system rears its head to affect a work about the caste system in real time.
This points, ultimately, to the role of personal accountability within a caste system. What does one do with this knowledge of the violence of caste? Does one perpetuate it? Eradicate it?
Interestingly, Wilkerson at times seems to argue not for an eradication of caste, but to create space for her, and others she meets, who have been miscast in their "caste" — regulated to the lowest caste when by intelligence or other attribute they should be in the higher caste, or vice versa. "We had defied our caste assignments: He was not a warrior or ruler. He was a geologist. I was not a domestic. I was an author," Wilkerson writes. Even the ending "Awakening" section, couched as a look forward, is depicted less of an articulation of the possibilities of a world without caste, and more of her desire simply to be seen as equal to those of the dominant caste.
In this, Wilkerson leans to biology. She offers the example of wolves as her support for the necessity of this hierarchal structure — the necessity not just of the alpha, but of the omega, or the underdog, beaten and abused by the others, the "untouchable." When the underdog dies, she writes, the whole pack is destabilized. No one wants to be the lowest of the low, "the scapegoat," but the pack needs one to survive.
Without the untouchable, Wilkerson argues here, society collapses. The untouchable is needed. Wilkerson just does not want to be one.
"The great tragedy among humans is that people have often been assigned to or seen as qualified for alpha positions — as CEOs, quarterbacks, coaches, directors of film, presidents of colleges or countries — not necessarily on the basis of innate leadership traits but, historically on the basis of having been born to the dominant caste or the dominant gender or to the right family within the dominant caste."
I would argue that the tragedy, rather, is the need for these positions such as "omega" to still exist, which then justifies the need for this caste structure and its continued existence — even if it exists with Wilkerson's proffered edit that would allow an individual, no matter "background or caste," to hop into their desired caste and profit from the continued oppression of others the caste system welds.
If we are to look at biology as evidence, let us consider the research of Eli D. Strauss and Kay E. Holekamp on hyenas in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the official journal of the National Academy of Sciences, which offers another model for social positioning. Within the hyena community, as with wolves, there is a strict hierarchy of dominant caste and lower castes. But, if a female understands the hierarchy as unjust and challenges a more dominant member of the higher caste and her female peer group agrees with her, they will rise up across caste and challenge the dominant caste; if this female cross-caste coalition wins, the hierarchy is destabilized, and this radical feminist hyena and her cross-caste pack become the new dominant caste.
It is not enough, but it is a start.
Let us think not just about our own individual desires to be seen as a member of the dominant caste and benefit accordingly, but about the necessity to challenge this entire system of oppression radically. Let us think not just about replicating oppressive patriarchal systems but about alternative models such as matrilineal cross-cultural communication and connection.
Let us look not to the wolves, but to the hyenas.
Hope Wabuke is a poet, writer and assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
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A memorable, provocative book that exposes an American history in which few can take pride.
Kirkus Reviews' Best Books Of 2020
Kirkus Prize finalist
New York Times Bestseller
National Book Critics Circle Finalist
THE ORIGINS OF OUR DISCONTENTS
by Isabel Wilkerson ‧ RELEASE DATE: Aug. 11, 2020
The Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist chronicles the formation and fortunes of social hierarchy.
Caste is principally associated with India, which figures in the book—an impressive follow-up to her magisterial The Warmth of Other Suns —but Wilkerson focuses on the U.S. We tend to think of divisions as being racial rather than caste-based. However, as the author writes, “caste is the infrastructure of our divisions. It is the architecture of human hierarchy, the subconscious code of instructions for maintaining, in our case, a four-hundred-year-old social order.” That social order was imposed on Africans unwillingly brought to this country—but, notes Wilkerson, “caste and race are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive.” If Africans ranked at the bottom of the scale, members of other ethnic orders, such as Irish indentured servants, also suffered discrimination even if they were categorized as white and thus hierarchically superior. Wilkerson writes that American caste structures were broadly influential for Nazi theorists when they formulated their racial and social classifications; they “knew that the United States was centuries ahead of them with its anti-miscegenation statutes and race-based immigration bans.” Indeed, the Nazi term “ untermensch ,” or “under-man,” owes to an American eugenicist whose writings became required reading in German schools under the Third Reich, and the distinction between Jew and Aryan owes to the one-drop rules of the American South. If race links closely to caste in much of Wilkerson’s account, it departs from it toward the end. As she notes, the U.S. is rapidly becoming a “majority minority” country whose demographics will more closely resemble South Africa’s than the norms of a half-century ago. What matters is what we do with the hierarchical divisions we inherit, which are not hewn in stone: “We are responsible for ourselves and our own deeds or misdeeds in our time and in our own space and will be judged accordingly by succeeding generations.”
Pub Date: Aug. 11, 2020
Page Count: 496
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online: May 30, 2020
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2020
Categories: CURRENT EVENTS & SOCIAL ISSUES | ISSUES & CONTROVERSIES | ETHNICITY & RACE | UNITED STATES | HISTORY | PUBLIC POLICY | AFRICAN AMERICAN
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Even if they're pie-in-the-sky exercises, Sanders’ pitched arguments bear consideration by nonbillionaires.
IT'S OK TO BE ANGRY ABOUT CAPITALISM
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Everyone’s favorite avuncular socialist sends up a rousing call to remake the American way of doing business.
“In the twenty-first century we can end the vicious dog-eat-dog economy in which the vast majority struggle to survive,” writes Sanders, “while a handful of billionaires have more wealth than they could spend in a thousand lifetimes.” With that statement, the author updates an argument as old as Marx and Proudhon. In a nice play on words, he condemns “the uber-capitalist system under which we live,” showing how it benefits only the slimmest slice of the few while imposing undue burdens on everyone else. Along the way, Sanders notes that resentment over this inequality was powerful fuel for the disastrous Trump administration, since the Democratic Party thoughtlessly largely abandoned underprivileged voters in favor of “wealthy campaign contributors and the ‘beautiful people.’ ” The author looks squarely at Jeff Bezos, whose company “paid nothing in federal income taxes in 2017 and 2018.” Indeed, writes Sanders, “Bezos is the embodiment of the extreme corporate greed that shapes our times.” Aside from a few passages putting a face to avarice, Sanders lays forth a well-reasoned platform of programs to retool the American economy for greater equity, including investment in education and taking seriously a progressive (in all senses) corporate and personal taxation system to make the rich pay their fair share. In the end, he urges, “We must stop being afraid to call out capitalism and demand fundamental change to a corrupt and rigged system.” One wonders if this firebrand of a manifesto is the opening gambit in still another Sanders run for the presidency. If it is, well, the plutocrats might want to take cover for the duration.
Pub Date: Feb. 21, 2023
Page Count: 320
Review Posted Online: Feb. 21, 2023
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2023
Categories: CURRENT EVENTS & SOCIAL ISSUES | GENERAL CURRENT EVENTS & SOCIAL ISSUES | ISSUES & CONTROVERSIES | BUSINESS | GENERAL BUSINESS | ECONOMICS | PUBLIC POLICY | LEADERSHIP, MANAGEMENT & COMMUNICATION
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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.
GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES
by Abhijit V. Banerjee & Esther Duflo ‧ RELEASE DATE: Nov. 12, 2019
“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.
It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty , 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.
Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019
Page Count: 432
Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019
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Disparity in Jobs Goes Deeper Than Racism, According to New Book
In Caste , Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson writes that the “image of servitude” has followed Black Americans into the workplace.
A scene from the March on Washington in 1963.
Jobs are on everyone’s mind. The economic and health crisis brought on by the coronavirus has left more than 16 million Americans out of work, pushing up the unemployment rate, at one point, to the highest since the Great Depression.
As bad as that is, it’s been worse for Black Americans, who have an unemployment rate of 15%, compared with 9% for White Americans. Almost half of all Black-owned businesses folded during Covid-19 shutdowns; one study showed that they closed at double the rates of enterprises run by White entrepreneurs.
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Caste Offers a New Word for Injustice in America, Not a New Way of Thinking
What is caste?
“Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions,” Isabel Wilkerson writes in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents . Caste is like the bones of an old house, “the studs and joists that we cannot see in the physical buildings we call home.” It is also like “our bones,” literal bones, the structural integrity of our innards kept mostly invisible without X-ray. Caste is like a detailed medical history. “Caste is a disease.” It is a sluggish poison, “an intravenous drip to the mind,” shoring up an “immune system” that is also vulnerable to its “toxins.” It is cellular, “molecular,” “neurological,” “cardiovascular.” Like subduction-zone activity below the Earth’s surface, caste is “the unseen stirrings of the human heart.” Caste is not, however, about “feelings or morality” (though it does “live on in hearts and habits”). Caste is drama, “a stage of epic proportions” with unremovable costumes and an uncorpseable script. Caste is onstage, “a performance,” and caste is, also, somehow, “the wordless usher in a darkened theater.” It is a magic “spell.” A corporation. A Sith Lord. A high-rise building with a flooded basement. Like in The Matrix , “an unseen force of artificial intelligence has overtaken the human species.” It is a ladder; we exist on its rungs. “Caste is structure,” whatever that means precisely.
What caste is not is “the R-word” — that is, race or racism. It is not reducible to race — nor gender, nor class. This Wilkerson realized during research for her first book, The Warmth of Other Suns , an intensely investigated, intimate narrative of manifold migration in 20th-century America. The Warmth of Other Suns , widely praised and an instant New York Times best seller, went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Heartland Prize for Nonfiction, among other accolades. Working on that book and learning about the Jim Crow underpinnings of what’s often flatly called “the Great Migration,” Wilkerson “discovered … that I was not writing about geography and relocation, but about the American caste system.” Her subjects sought asylum from something much more “insidious” than the age-old Negro question (“How does it feel to be a problem?” W.E.B. Du Bois writes in the well-trodden first chapter of The Souls of Black Folk ). Black Southerners — sharecroppers, domestics, and above all ex-slaves and their children — were escaping a “legal caste system” borne of enslavement, mutated into Jim Crow during the calamitous transition from slavery to freedom deferred. “For this book,” the Pulitzer Prize winner writes, “I wanted to understand the origins and evolution of classifying and elevating one group of people over another.” For that purpose, “racism,” she concluded, “was insufficient.” And as she’s adapted her language, taking on the terms of caste — “the most accurate term to describe the workings of American society” — she beckons readers to do so, too. In that sense Caste is a ride-along, like all persuading histories. “Some of this may sound like a foreign language,” she warns. Foreign isn’t quite the word for it, or not the one I would use. Perhaps messy is, though.
Public conversations about race in America could use some messiness. We could stand to be more awkward amid too much PR. As Wilkerson succinctly identifies, “racism” — and “race” with it — has been so worked over in nomenclature it no longer, if ever it did, pricks the minds of the people who need to be schooled. Though defined sociologically as a compounding entity of bias and power, “racism has often been reduced to a feeling, a character flaw, conflated with prejudice, connected to whether one is a good person or not.” Wilkerson asks, “What does racist mean in an era when even extremists won’t admit to it?” Where are the teeth when a term like “white supremacy” is denounced by gods of mass culture, the likes of Taylor Swift or Donald Trump? In the wake of such rapid, online-propelled appropriation of the literal terms of radical political and cultural judgment, the language is no longer compelling. Just look at recent debates over the usefulness of the acronym BIPOC — “Black peoples and Indigenous peoples and peoples of color” or, as I prefer it, “Black and Indigenous peoples of color” — which exhibit anxiety over the seamless integration of a new racial term without accompanying enlightenment. While it used to emphasize the people Wilkerson might call “lower castes,” whose experiences in America may be unique from that of other people of color in the nation (“middle castes,” in Wilkerson’s terms), BIPOC has quickly become another means for white people, or the “dominant caste,” to run their racial sentiments on autopilot — extending blanket solidarity to “BIPOC co-workers” in workplaces with no apparent Native employees or, as often happened with the predecessor “POC,” applying the term in lieu of “Black.”
Caste takes precedence because of precedent — Wilkerson prefers the word caste because it is, in a word, ancient. She describes race as a strictly visible phenomenon, “a hologram,” “decoy,” or “front man” with respect to caste. Though the book includes evidence of race acting otherwise — like the 1922 case Takao Ozawa v. United States in which, Wilkerson writes, “the Court held unanimously that white meant not skin color but ‘Caucasian’” — these moments, per the book, only underscore how unqualified racial analysis leaves itself bound to the ambivalent whims of the American racial imagination. By contrast, caste is firm, “fixed and rigid,” so rigid it “shape-shifted to keep the upper caste pure by its own terms.” In the United States, 19th- and early-20th-century European immigrants such as the Irish entered the nation and were called “Negroes turned inside out” (Black people, in turn, were called “smoked Irish”) — not a century later whiteness evolved and enveloped them, folding their descendants and contemporary equivalents into the body politic. The ethnic, religious, and cultural makeup of the upper caste has changed since Plymouth Rock, but the necessity of a bottom caste has not. Despite race’s mutability, the American bottom caste, Wilkerson argues, is and has always been Black — or her preferred designation, “African-American.”
Caste does not abandon racial terms. Wilkerson does not leave us to flounder with the labels she wants incorporated, though at times I wished she would. In a chapter called “The Intrusion of Caste in Everyday Life,” Wilkerson describes an interlude between “a white contractor,” “a white engineer,” and “a Black engineer,” “who happened to be African-American and a woman.” The characters retain these titles just until the very end of the story, which transforms the white engineer into “a dominant-caste man.” Maybe, in keeping with the book’s soft spot for metaphors of pathology (and metaphor in general), this is a spoonful of the old ways to help the new vocab go down. But as I progressed through this big book, saddled with terms I’m to understand are inadequate, I wondered why, a couple hundred pages in, I still wasn’t trusted with the training wheels off. Perhaps the many scenes selected from the primary pages of history, the chilling tales of caste at work, would have read less poignantly without the not-so-classical window dressing of whiteness and Blackness and, more rarely, other forms of racialized otherness. Or maybe Wilkerson acquiesces that the modality of race, perceived by senses in addition to sight, accounts for something caste cannot.
Blackness, for one. The book’s insistence on “African-American” for Black people within the nation’s borders reads old-school at best and, at worse, intensely awkward in contemporary contexts. Consider one endnote that refers to today’s regular police killings of “unarmed African-Americans,” citing the research group, Mapping Police Violence. However, Mapping Police Violence tracks victims who are, among other races, best described as “black.” The 2015 data cited by Wilkerson, for example, includes NYPD’s murder of David Felix, a Haitian man with schizophrenia. For anyone not accustomed to thinking diversely about Blackness, this might sound like the smallest of grievances, and yet it can hardly be unimportant to the book’s urge for more precise terminology. Caste proposes a remedy, yet its national articulation of present-day Black people raises more questions than answers. If Black immigrants reside in the upper reaches of the lowest caste — due to their actual and perceived difference from descendants of the American South — as outlined in chapter 16, how ought we to account for their representation as frequent victims of state violence? Where do we place their children, Black Americans whose descendants’ migrations do not fit the regional patterns explicated in The Warmth of Other Suns ?
But this is not actually a problem for the interior life of the book, which doesn’t care much for post-’70s history, in which Blackness in America became more ethnically hybrid. It also mostly concerns itself with the South; the primary, and a good portion of secondary, research (including an oft-cited 1956 study of slavery by late historian Kenneth M. Stampp) emerges from the expanse of Jim Crow. And contemporary scenes tend toward autobiography. In scenes such as these, another awkwardly unavoidable term emerges, the C-word: class. In Caste , class is, like race, variable, its privileges “acquired through hard work and ingenuity or lost through poor decisions or calamity.” Caste is fascinated by scenarios in which white people misread Black affluence, bringing them low in the face of pedigree, education, and the fineness of their dress. In chapter 23, “Shock Troops on the Borders of Hierarchy,” Wilkerson shares three personal encounters at the scene of a plane’s front cabin. Though “I frequently have cause to be seated in first or business class,” she writes, the occasion “can turn me into a living, breathing social experiment without wanting to be.” She is judged, gossiped about, ignored by staff, accosted by a passenger who retrieves his luggage as if her body isn’t there, while the rest of the cabin watches silently. The chapter concludes with an incident that happened to someone else, David Dao, who was dragged by his legs down the aisle of a United Airlines plane at O’Hare. Dao, a Vietnamese-American physician, belongs to the racially and ethnically jumbled category of “middle caste,” according to Wilkerson, and therefore on a higher rung of the ladder, or higher floor of the apartment complex, than she. It is thus not clear what the proximity of these narratives is meant to illuminate. Deprived the terms of race, class, and gender, not much is revealed besides the cross-caste indignities of air travel.
I am being only a bit facetious, conforming to the language of caste in Caste , which I now suspect is more unyielding than caste itself, unprepared for anomalies that, if one spends enough time observing Earth, tend to amass into banalities. (In the case of the white officer, Eric Casebolt, who body-slammed a teenage Black girl at a McKinney, Texas, pool party in 2015, Wilkerson remarks that it “would be hard to imagine” an officer doing the same “with a young girl from the same caste”; the following chapter, however, includes the circumstances of Freddie Gray, who was killed by officers who shared his caste, as an example of “the otherwise illogical phenomenon” of intra-caste violence.) Caste could benefit from more, or maybe deeper, research on the histories of resistance movements, particularly the work of late Caribbean scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot, whose Silencing the Past appears as a bibliographic entry but is not cited in the body of Caste . As Trouillot writes in that book, historians, or readers of history, cannot assume that our inheritance of the past is identical to the past as it unfolded in its time. There is danger in drawing too fine a parallel.
Wilkerson knows this well enough when she ventures across the Atlantic for firsthand research into Indian caste and German Nazism, the other two castes she considers as formidable as America’s own. This is another benefit of caste language — historical comparison, getting America and Germany and the Indian subcontinent on the same page, which she stresses is a unique feat of her book. Though historical and cultural asides about how caste exists or existed in these places are numerous, anecdotes are selected by glint of their similarity to U.S. formulations of caste. If you thought the Nazis were awful, well, they learned it from Jim Crow, and even softened some aspects of U.S. caste deemed too severe for a German populace.
If caste is us, the book asks, how does one “dig up the taproots of hierarchy” without killing the tree, or torching the house, or whatever image one prefers. It would seem that it can’t be done, an answer fine by me. If caste is “who we are” — inside of us, deep, to the bone, in the nerves, at the heart of our matter — it leads to reason that the only answer to a problem of caste is self-immolation. But the book does not end on such a note, or anything like it. Instead, it finds comfort in sentimentality, faith that the answer lies in the heart — “the Last Frontier,” according to the final full chapter. I can’t blame Wilkerson, it’s a nice place to be, a place where we can believe people in power are one sincere interaction away from radical empathy. A place where the phrase “newly minted anti-racist, anti-casteist, upper-caste woman,” given to a family friend after she tells off a waiter who neglects their interracial table in favor of white patrons, rolls off the tongue without irony. The language is slightly different, but we’ve been here before, have we not?
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Connect. inform. inspire., isabel wilkerson’s new book ‘caste’ clings to the past.
In March 2008, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign nearly imploded when reporters revealed that his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., regularly blasted the United States as irredeemably racist. “[The United States] government lied about their belief that all men were created equal,” Wright preached. “The truth is they believed that all white men were created equal.” So, “No, no, no, not God bless America,” Wright concluded: “God damn America.”
Reeling, repudiating his pastor, Obama embraced the U.S. and the American ideal. “The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society,” Obama said, after acknowledging the ugliness of slavery and the lingering bigotry still haunting Black people, “it’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country … is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen — is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation.”
Twelve years later, Wright seems to have won. Anyone echoing Obama’s optimism and faith in America now risks being labeled Trumpian — by those who don’t consider that a compliment. The party line pronounces the American experiment dead on arrival. They assume America is incorrigible, doomed by the crimes of slavery and the ongoing curse of “systemic racism.”
The latest boost to Wright’s wrongheaded reading of America comes from talented reporter Isabel Wilkerson. A glowing New York Times review pronounced her new book, “ Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents ,” “an extraordinary document … an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far.” Offering the highest pop culture compliment a book can get — and the greatest of sales boosts — Oprah Winfrey enthusiastically included “Caste” in her book club.
Wilkerson’s book has many merits. However, if a work offering such a pessimistic reading of U.S. history is “the keynote” for our times, we are in serious trouble.
A lyrical writer, Wilkerson has an extraordinary ability to make dense material accessible and to bring alive scenes, feelings and ideas. It’s hard not to read her book without the occasional lump in your throat or tear in your eye as she describes the evils of slavery and the ongoing wounds of racism. Consider this story from 1944, when a 16-year-old Black girl in Ohio entered an essay contest that asked: “What to do with Hitler after the War?” Wilkerson’s devastating punchline: She won “with a single sentence: ‘Put him in a black skin and let him live the rest of his life in America.’ ”
In addition to adding poignant examples that advance the ongoing reckoning about race in America — including some of her most humiliating moments at the hands of piggish, thoughtless whites — Wilkerson ambitiously tries shifting the conversation from “race” to “caste.” Exploring what she claims are the two other caste systems that “have stood out” in human history, in India and Nazi Germany, she identifies eight “pillars” traditionally used in constructing castes.
In addition to adding poignant examples that advance the ongoing reckoning about race in America — including some of her most humiliating moments at the hands of piggish, thoughtless whites — Wilkerson ambitiously tries shifting the conversation from “race” to “caste.”
Caste systems are propped up by claims that discrimination is natural, even divinely sanctioned; that the condition is heritable; that you must marry within your caste; that the “higher” castes are pure, the lower orders polluted; and that certain menial jobs are most suited to the oppressed, who then are dehumanized, terrorized and made to feel inferior.
Wilkerson prefers talking about caste instead of race for two reasons. First, she wonders, “What does racist mean in an era when even extremists won’t admit it? … The fixation with smoking out individual racists or sexists can seem a losing battle in which we fool ourselves into thinking we are rooting out injustice by forcing an admission that (a) is not likely to come, (b) keeps the focus on a single individual rather than the system that created that individual, and (c) gives cover for those who, by aiming at others, can present themselves as noble and bias-free for having pointed the finger first, all of which keeps the hierarchy intact.”
By contrast, caste is invisible, insidious, like the “wordless usher in a darkened theater” steering you to inferior seats or the “stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation” of what looks like the “beautiful home” you inherited.
Here, then, is the real issue — and the real bias distorting the book. Wilkerson, like so many today, freezes the United States in its racism, calling the American caste system “the architecture of human hierarchy, the subconscious code of instructions for maintaining, in our case, a four-hundred-year-old social order.” She views these race-conscious, anti-Black handcuffs as mostly unchanging.
Wilkerson comes down unequivocally on one side of the longstanding historical — and existential — debate over whether slavery made racism America’s most crippling yet curable disease, or, as she believes, its chronic condition, with occasional flare-ups that cause even more pain than the usual anguish. “Slavery in this land was not merely an unfortunate thing that happened to black people,” she writes. “It was an American innovation, an American institution created by and for the benefit of the elites of the dominant caste and enforced by poorer members of the dominant caste who tied their lot to the caste system rather than to their consciences.” Wilkerson agrees with sociologist Stephen Steinberg that slavery wasn’t just a torn thread in “an otherwise perfect cloth. It would be closer to say that slavery provided the fabric out of which the cloth was made.”
Wilkerson, like so many today, freezes the United States in its racism.
Similarly, Wilkerson puts post-Civil War racism front and center. This reorientation rewrites the history of many phenomena, including immigration. Instead of the “uprooted” from the Old World coming to the New World and finding salvation by becoming American, it becomes a story of Europeans coming to the New World and becoming white — on the backs of Black people. “Hostility toward the lowest caste” — Black people — “became part of the initiation rite into citizenship in America. Thus, people who had descended from Africans became the unifying foil in solidifying the caste system, the bar against which all others could measure themselves approvingly.” Again, she boosts her claim by quoting an academic, in this case Yale historian Matthew Frye Jacobson, who wrote: “It was their whiteness, not any kind of New World magnanimity, that opened the Golden Door.”
In a telling exchange bringing this new nihilism up to date, Wilkerson asked author Taylor Branch after the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, “With everything going on, where do you think we are now? Are you still thinking 1950s? I’m thinking 1880s.”
Without sugar-coating the problems of today or being insensitive to the persistent suffering of so many Blacks at the hands of subtle, polite, covered-up racists, to see 2020 as 1880 takes work. It helps if you only tell personal stories of encountering racists without ever recounting your triumphs, from landing a job at The New York Times to winning the Pulitzer Prize to writing an award-winning, instant classic of a first book in 2010, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” It helps if you only read Barack Obama’s presidency and Donald Trump’s election through the lens of “caste” — really, race — essentially treating every criticism of Obama as anti-Black and every vote for Trump as pro-white. It helps if you see the United States as a “harsh landscape, a less benevolent society than other wealthy nations,” thanks to “our caste system.” And it really helps if you cleverly clump together the American, Indian and Nazi caste systems — while avoiding any discussion of caste in Africa.
Wilkerson sees her focus on caste as an X-ray, illuminating the invisible, unchanging dimensions of American life.
Comparing American racism to the Nazi’s genocidal Aryanism is particularly outrageous. Wilkerson props up that proposition in three misleading ways. First, she usually writes about “America” or “The United States,” then references specific laws or incidents from Southern states, especially Mississippi. It’s true; we Northerners sometimes minimize racism as a Southern problem — that’s too self-serving. But America is not the South, and the North certainly isn’t the South. The North defeated the South and never established a Jim Crow segregationist regime. Over the decades, the North didn’t become very Southernized, but the South did become quite Northernized — for the better.
Second, and most misleading, is a lack of proportion. The Nazis killed 6 million Jews in six years, murdering two to three thousand Jews an hour when Auschwitz was running at its peak. According to the NAACP, from 1882 to 1968, there were 4,743 lynchings, with 72.7% of the victims — 3,446 people — being Black. That was horrific enough. Yet Wilkerson compares the public hangings and other abuses the Nazis imposed on Jews to “lynchings, preceded by mutilation,” as simply “a feature of the southern landscape.” She ignores the numbers, likely because real data would prove the comparison absurd.
Finally, neither India nor Nazi Germany struggled with the kind of guilt, hypocrisy and paradox that vexed most Americans. True, some wondered how “cultured” Germans could act so brutally. But that confusion didn’t compare to the anguished, centuries-old American struggle over slavery and now racism. That embarrassment is part of this peculiarly American striving to perfect our union.
Some analytical tools serve as mirrors, reflecting reality. Some are flashlights, highlighting particular phenomena, or prisms, singling out specific rays. Wilkerson sees her focus on caste as an X-ray, illuminating the invisible, unchanging dimensions of American life. Unfortunately, in her book — and in the broader debate today — her approach functions more like a strobe light, commanding attention but ultimately blinding us to the truth.
America isn’t a static “four-hundred-year-old social order”; it’s a dynamic, ever-striving, ever-improving democracy.
You can still fight racism while acknowledging all the progress that has been made; in fact, progress is the best guarantee of more progress. So, the fact that so many Americans resist the label “racist” is laudable — not a cover. We should rejoice that the United States today is not the Virginia of 1619 when the first slave ship arrived, the slave-owning society of 1860 on the eve of the Civil War, or the Jim Crow South of 1950. Both the changes and the increasingly marginalized nature of the worst of America suggest that Obama was right: America isn’t a static “four-hundred-year-old social order”; it’s a dynamic, ever-striving, ever-improving democracy.
Alas, that optimism has been shaken, badly and broadly — but not universally.
In a bizarre twist that proves the world is round, the nihilism of the anti-racist “Social Justice Warrior Woke Left” oddly overlaps with the nihilism of the Trumpean “Make America Great Again” crowd. Both view U.S. history in simplistic, stick-figure terms. Both see the world as “dog eat dog,” “us versus them” and “zero sum,” with one group’s gain being the other group’s loss.
What’s most disturbing about this bleak, Europeanized, Hobbesian rejection of New World reformism and optimistic, integrative E Pluribus Unumism is that it’s self-defeating. Wilkerson ends by calling for “radical empathy,” meaning “putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel.” It’s hard to cultivate “radical empathy” or any hope for change when you tell people they are incurably racist and pronounce our racial predicament unchanging.
The message of U.S. history, the lessons Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Barack and Michelle Obama, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson taught, is that America changes by appealing to the best of Americans, to the aspirational America, to the hope for hope, not the assumption that we’re hopeless.
I’d rather lead the race to stop judging people by race than believe the die is cast because we’ll always be cast in castes.
Gil Troy , a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, is the author of “The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland — Then, Now, Tomorrow.”
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Comparing Race to Caste Is an Interesting Idea, But There Are Crucial Differences Between Both
Isabel Wilkerson's book 'Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents' uses anecdotes and allegory to advance her thesis, which however does not stand on a strong structural foundation.
Photo: Reuters/Russell Cheyne
In my early twenties, I was a graduate student working on my doctorate at an obscure but prestigious department at the University of Chicago called The Committee on Social Thought. The programme required all students to read a small list of ‘Great Books’, usually 12 or 13, which we called the ‘Fundamentals’ and our course work was intended to help us master the right way to read these books.
According to our teachers, that way was to read the books in as close to the original as possible (even if in translation) and to avoid (at all costs) the vast secondary literature of commentary, criticism and interpretation which surrounded them. We thus confronted Plato and Augustine, Machiavelli and Marx, Shakespeare and Tolstoy, all in the raw, without any friendly secondary assistance.
This method is what I adopted when I read Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents , without wading through the luxuriant forest of reviews of it that have already appeared, several by writers I know and admire. Accompanied by Oprah Winfrey’s hailing of this book as a work for the centuries, the nomination of Kamala Harris as running mate to Joseph Biden, as well as the renewed rage about race and racism sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement, Wilkerson’s book was pre-sold as a bestseller.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents Isabelle Wilkerson Penguin, August 2020
So, let me say right away that reading it was a strange experience. From the very first few pages, which describe the deadly effect of a heatwave on a nomadic population in Siberia, I sensed I was in a genre I knew but did not quite recognise.
As I read on, through a series of allegories about climate, animals, and epic battles between mythic groups, as well as of metaphors about houses, foundations, roofs, sills, and more, I gradually realised that I was experiencing a pedagogic genre of writing. This book is about big, bad things like race, caste, cruelty and torture presented as a series of modern epics. Wilkerson’s book is a guide to race and racial brutality in the US, told through the allegory of caste, the latter viewed as the skeleton under the flesh of black-white relationships in the 400-year history of what became the US. Its primary audience seems to be the mass liberal reading public of the US.
Once I understood the genre, I had no trouble understanding why every chapter, often every page, contained facts, anecdotes, reports and examples with which many of us are already familiar. This is not a book which claims to be based on original research. It is a polemical and pedagogical work, the single-minded aim of which is to show that what we mistakenly think of as race in the history of the US is, in fact, better thought of as caste, an underlying code, programme, skeleton, or structure which accounts for racist behaviour and institutions, which are simply its primary instrument and expression.
The place which exemplifies caste is India, and Wilkerson succeeds in marshalling many descriptive and analytic verities about caste in India that we have heard for a century: its rigidity, its fixity, its tyranny, its permanence, and the quasi-religious foundations which define both its foundation and its reach over daily life.
I cannot resist the temptation to criticise Wilkerson’s book from the vantage point of a specialist in the anthropology of India, who has spent the better part of four decades poring over hundreds of books and essays about caste. That might seem both too easy and somehow beside the point for a book in which caste is mostly a device to offer a new picture of the racialised world of the US.
Yet, it is important to point out a few differences which make a difference, between caste and race. Caste crystallised over several millennia of Indian history, primarily as a cosmology which allowed pastoral and agricultural colonisers from the Northwest of the subcontinent to gradually colonise thousands of groups and communities who were previously not organised into castes. The new framework allowed many locally dominant groups to organise their local subordinates into a system which conflated rank, occupation and purity into a single status system. This is very different from the creation of whiteness as a category of domination in the context of the colonial and later independent US.
Then, there is the matter of purity and pollution, also discussed by Wilkerson, which many of us see as the driving source of caste ideology in India, whereas in the US, the polluting status of black Americans is an effect of racialised ranking and not a cause. Also, the Indian caste system is geared to an infinity of caste ranks, and many Indian villages have 30 or more hierarchically ranked castes ( jatis ), all keenly aware of who is above them and who is below.
Finally, while the top of the Indian caste system, usually composed of Brahmins, is permanent, closed and unquestionable, the bottom, which is certainly defined by Dalits (Untouchables) is strangely porous, since every Indian caste, including the lowest, has someone or some group, usually in a neighbouring village, who performs polluting services (like cremation, scavenging and hair-cutting) for them, and is therefore lower than they are. In short, no group in India, however low, lacks a group beneath them that lets them feel purer. This is very different from the exclusionary logic of race, which is binary (black versus white) and lacks any cosmological basis for one black person to feel racially superior to another black.
For these reasons, mobility at every level has been part of the history of caste in India, (contra the myth of its rigidity) and here the semiotics of pigment in American race relations is a massive obstacle to such mobility, actual or aspirational. Even in the past 50 years in India, the entry of Dalits into Indian political parties, elections and in the bureaucracy has been both numerically impressive and irreversible, even if the upper caste backlash against this mobility, in terms of rape, arson and public humiliation of Dalits has also intensified.
Wilkerson is right to note the flow of ideas between Dalits and African Americans, involving figures as different as Martin Luther King, W.E.B. Dubois, Angela Davis, Ambedkar and groups such as the Black Panthers and the Dalit Panthers. This is one of many cases of such mutual admiration in human history among both oppressors and oppressed. The mutual identification of various kinds of proletariat in the long period of socialist internationalism is a major example of such traffic. But such mutual admiration cannot be the basis for the sort of deep structural comparison that Wilkerson is keen to make.
Dalit women carry a portrait of Ambedkar as they block traffic during a protest in Ahmedabad. Credit: PTI/Files
I must raise one other question, since Wilkerson expends a great deal of effort to show why the similarities between caste in India and race in the US are so striking, so relevant and so much more important than the differences. My question is this: if caste in the US is a kind of code, which is buried deep under the surface of race (and of the brutal etiquette and institutions of race and racism), how can we compare it to a society like India, where caste is both the code and the everyday reality? Put another way, either India has no underlying social programme, grammar and theory, and its social world is simply caste all the way up and down (something I doubt) , or Wilkerson’s dramatic unearthing of caste under the surface of race in the US is just a literary device to tell a familiar American story in an unfamiliar way, and is not based on a genuine similarity.
I lean towards the latter reading.
Also read: Book Review: Urging the US to Once Again Become the Beacon for the Rest of the World
And then there is the joker in the pack, the case of Nazi Germany and its appearance in Wilkerson’s book as the third example of the value of caste as a lens into a story which is not normally discussed in caste terms. The objections here have been made by others but they are crippling: the relative shortness of the dominance of Nazi ideology; the entirely different history of antisemitism in European history, by comparison with colourism in the US and casteism in the Indian subcontinent; the Nazi wish to truly exterminate Jews, rather than to simply exploit, degrade and isolate in the Dalit and African-American cases, as cogs in some sort of economic machine.
The value of Wilkerson’s book is in the dignity of her narration, her refusal to vent excessively about her personal wounds as an African American writer and thinker, her clarity about the ethics of structural racism, and her highly accessible style.
But the biggest challenge that Wilkerson does not address, speaking from my vantage point as a social scientist in 2020, is one about race and caste as social constructions. Wilkerson is at pains to show, in stunning detail, that the ideology and practices of racism in the US are crafted, built, shored up, repaired, restored and updated, on a continuous basis: in short, they are socially constructed.
The puzzle that I and many others would have loved to see Wilkerson tackle is hardly touched on. And that puzzle is why some constructions acquire the sort of durability that resists all counter-evidence, all discovery, all qualification, all falsification, while others are as fragile as a flower and as quick to disappear as a rainstorm. Caste and race are monsters of resilience, and for this we need some third point of leverage for a truly powerful explanation.
Meanwhile, we can be grateful to Wilkerson for reminding us of their affinities.
Arjun Appadurai teaches in New York and Berlin. His most recent book, co-authored with Neta Alexander, is Failure (London: Polity Press, 2019).
This article was published more than 2 years ago
Running deeper than race: America’s caste system
The air was hazy on a January night in 2018 when Isabel Wilkerson, the journalist and author of a much-lauded narrative account of the Black migration out of the American South, arrived in Delhi. Wilkerson’s visit had been prompted by a book she was writing that used the Indian caste system to illuminate America’s racial hierarchy. It was her first trip to India, but one aspect of what she saw there seemed instantly familiar. She quickly discovered that, as an African American woman schooled in the folkways of race in her home country, she could easily distinguish upper-caste Indians from Dalits, or Untouchables. In turn, “Dalits . . . gravitated toward me like long-lost relatives.” Patterns of deference and social performance marked caste onto her hosts’ bodies, even when Indians did their best to shake them off.
Wilkerson spent much of the 2010s researching and writing her book, just as the United States was moving in a direction that seemed to validate its thesis. A series of killings of African Americans, often by police officers, helped birth a new anti-racist social movement. Athletes knelt, monuments to slavery began to come down, reparations for enslavement and its long aftermath became a mainstream idea, and the politics of White grievance took over the White House. When she finished her book, she titled it “ Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents .” Wilkerson’s thesis is that Americans’ current obsession with race is somewhat misplaced, for there is a deeper and more intractable system that hides behind the chimera of race, and that system is properly called American caste.
Caste, Wilkerson argues, is something we internalize unconsciously. “Race is fluid and superficial,” she asserts, joining the many scholars who have pointed out that race — with all its assumptions of the innate intellectual and moral superiority of one arbitrarily designated group of people over another — is an illusion. “Caste,” on the other hand, “is fixed and rigid.” “Caste, like grammar, becomes an invisible guide not only to how we speak, but to how we process information.” The caste system disguises itself by making us see race traits as real and immutable, and anti-racist work as simply the elimination of prejudiced thinking. The real problem, Wilkerson argues, goes deeper.
Caste has its origins in slavery, where “there emerged a ladder of humanity, global in nature,” with “the English Protestants at the very top” while all others “rank in descending order” until one comes to the “African captives transported to build the New World.” These Africans were analogous to the “mudsill,” she writes — the wooden beam that anchors a house to its foundation and provides support for the whole structure. Since the Civil War era, many commentators have referred to Black Americans as the essential mudsills of our society. Caste is like a “container” for the aspirations of these darker-skinned Americans, Wilkerson argues — a set of unstated assumptions about where and how they are supposed to exist. While there have been a variety of racial regimes as the country has moved from slavery to freedom to the post-civil-rights era, the assumptions of caste have remained relatively constant, often invisible and nearly impossible to dislodge.
Wilkerson’s book is strongest when she illustrates her points through poignant stories, like that of a Black woman born in Texas after the civil rights era to parents who simply named her Miss, in defiance of the caste assumptions that required Black people to be addressed by their first names. At other points, Wilkerson narrates the stories of Dalits in India, who, despite the protections for them enshrined in the Indian constitution, can find simple things like trying on clothes in a store to be nearly impossible because of disrespect and harassment from high-caste Indians who believe that people at the bottom of the social ranking should do no such things. One interviewee simply resigns himself to wearing shoes that don’t fit.
Wilkerson also shares her own experiences as a prominent journalist, seemingly outside the caste that is assigned to a person of her hue, such as when a boutique manager simply cannot believe that she is the Isabel Wilkerson who has asked to interview him, even after she provides him with her identification. Caste continues to do tangible harm to those at the lowest rung , Wilkerson argues, harm that can be quantified in terms of measurable phenomena such as different health outcomes for people who have to live under the assumptions that attach to the bottom caste.
Wilkerson’s book is a powerful, illuminating and heartfelt account of how hierarchy reproduces itself, as well as a call to action for the difficult work of undoing it, but the fundamental conceit that drives its analysis is one of recognition. Wilkerson sees something familiar about the Dalits in India, and about the racial hierarchies that the Nazi regime constructed in Germany. “Throughout human history,” she asserts, “three caste systems have stood out” — those of the United States, India and Nazi Germany. Indeed, a central section of the book is devoted to setting out the “eight pillars of caste.” These are features that these three systems all have in common, such as hierarchies that are supposedly natural or divinely ordered, heritability of status, controls on marriage and sexuality across caste lines, prohibitions on pollution of the upper caste by contact with the lower, caste-based occupational hierarchy, and terror and violence as means of enforcement . Yet Wilkerson devotes only limited space to comparing the Nazi regime to America or India, although she does mine that regime for other purposes. The Nazi regime, she argues, relying on recent work by the legal historian James Whitman , borrowed some of the legal structure for its notorious Nuremberg Laws from American statutes such as racial-intermarriage prohibitions that were on the books in most U.S. states. Present-day Germany, she also points out, officially repudiates and remembers the horrors of its racial past, while the United States often celebrates the defenders of slavery. Still, it is the recognition of the similarities between the United States and India that provides the foundation for this book.
As Wilkerson acknowledges, many others have also felt a sense of kinship between Indian caste and American race. Since the middle of the 19th century, critics of caste and British colonialism in India, and anti-racist activists in the United States, have mined the analogy to productive effect. Martin Luther King Jr. visited India, the Dalit leader Bhimrao Ambedkar studied in the United States, and a host of writers, activists and intellectuals in India and America also made use of the analogy, as the historian Nico Slate and others have shown. Proponents of white supremacy have done so as well, analogizing high-caste Indians, who tend to be lighter-skinned, to the “Caucasian” race through an imagined reading of the word “Aryan.” Mid-20th -century social scientists, including Allison Davis, Oliver Cromwell Cox, John Dollard and Gunnar Myrdal, also argued about the Indian-American analogy.
The proposition that Indian caste — with its four main group distinctions (which exclude Dalits and other groups known as “Tribals”) and its innumerable other distinctions based on geography, occupation and other things — is the same system as one that developed in a country with an entirely different history is easily disprovable. At times, Wilkerson criticizes those, particularly Black Americans, who object to her caste framework as manifesting a form of false consciousness, when there is a legitimate debate over the term’s applicability to the United States. Yet, for Wilkerson, like many others, caste is more of a metaphor than anything else. Her real point is that there is something of a family resemblance in how many societies treat their mudsills.
“Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” reaches the public in the midst of an intense debate over the history of racial oppression and the persistence of what is often called structural racial inequality. Amid proposals to reform or abolish police departments and prisons, to explore reparations for slavery, to undo the racial foundations of capitalism, and to reconstruct many institutions of American life, Wilkerson reminds us that this is not the first time the United States, like other societies, has tried to come to grips with its foundational problem. Unless one reaches for those foundations and tears them out, she warns, caste is likely to remain with us long after our current moment of racial reckoning is done.
The Origins of Our Discontents
By Isabel Wilkerson
Random House. 476 pp. $32
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Caste: The Lies That Divide Us by Isabel Wilkerson – review
A Pulitzer prize winner draws parallels between America, India and Nazi Germany in her unsettling history of racial hierarchies
I n the late 1960s, in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King and the subsequent social unrest, a white school teacher in the farm town of Riceville, Iowa, undertook a now famous experiment on her all-white class of third graders.
She separated the blue-eyed kids from those with brown eyes, telling them that the brown-eyed kids were not as good as the blue-eyed kids; that they were slower, not as smart, would not be allowed to drink from the water fountain and could not play with the blue-eyed ones. She wanted them, like so many African American children, to experience, if only for a moment, prejudice based on an arbitrary physical trait.
By break-time, “brown eyes” had been adopted as a playground insult. Soon after, the brown-eyed children “looked downcast and defeated” and by the end of the day the impact on their academic performance was apparent as brown-eyed children were taking twice as long as normal to finish their phonics exercises.
Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and acclaimed author Isabel Wilkerson recounts this story in Caste: The Lies That Divide Us as a key illustration of the way that, beyond the specific categorisations of race or class, this process of creating artificial hierarchies can work to subjugate people in any culture.
Wilkerson invites us to see this as the deeper psychological process that defines 400 years of racism – what she calls America’s caste system – drawing a comparison with two other such structures – “ the tragically accelerated, chilling and officially vanquished caste system of Nazi Germany” and “the lingering, millennia-long caste system of India”. In each of these cases, one group sets out to stigmatise and dehumanise another to justify a state of lasting domination.
Laying bare the roots and machinations of that process in a style that combines history, personal testimony and analysis, Wilkerson itemises “eight pillars of caste”, which range from assertions of divine will and natural law to strategies of “terror as enforcement” and “cruelty as a means of control”. If race is the language in which Americans have been trained to see humans, she argues, then caste is its grammar and enduring structure.
Wilkerson was the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer, for her feature reporting of the midwestern floods in 1993, when she worked for the New York Times . Since then, she has taught at Emory, Princeton and Boston universities and lectured at more than 200 colleges around the world. Caste is the follow-up to her acclaimed bestselling debut in 2010, The Warmth of Other Suns .
As research for that book, she interviewed more than a thousand African Americans who, between 1915 and 1970, had made “the great migration” in search of jobs and freedom from the entrenched racial hierarchies of the American south, towards the perceived promised land of the country’s northern and western cities.
When she started working on The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson initially thought she was writing about “geography and relocation”. Only later did she realise that she was uncovering the story of “a stigmatised people, 6 million of them, who were seeking freedom … only to discover that the hierarchy followed them wherever they went”. It was these thoughts that led her to explore the history of American racism within the context of other, global systems of exploitation; a “desire to reach out across the oceans to better understand how all of this began”.
The approach she takes is both persuasive and unsettling. In Caste , she demonstrates, for example, how architects of the Third Reich, “in debating how to institutionalise racism [in Germany], began by asking how the Americans did it” and found, in the US, the “classic example” of a “racist jurisdiction”, leaving us to consider how far this legacy persists, whether in modern America today or elsewhere.
In the everyday acts of subtle racism – at the airport, in a restaurant, at an academic conference – Wilkerson finds that this “unseen hierarchy” repeatedly undermines her self-image as a middle-class professional, and even a member of the cultural elite. It suggests that beneath the veneer of meritocratic idealism lie deeper layers of the American psyche where white supremacy still reigns.
But the case Wilkerson puts forward is inspiring and hopeful. Her writing incorporates and reflects the anti-racist traditions embodied by figures such as African American liberationist WEB Du Bois and the trailblazer of India’s Dalit movement, Bhimrao Ambedkar, who wrote: “Caste is [just] a notion; it is a state of mind.” Like him, Wilkerson wants us to recognise that caste can be dismantled, setting everyone free.
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Caste Summary and Review | Isabel Wilkerson
posted on August 22, 2021
The Lies That Divide Us
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Isabel Wilkerson’s Perspective
Isabel Wilkerson studies journalism at Howard University. Here she became the editor-in-chief of the college newspaper, The Hilltop. Subsequently, she obtained internships at the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. Isabel became the first woman of African-American heritage to win the Pulitzer Prize in journalism. Additionally, she has also won the National Humanities Medal. Her debut work, The Warmth of Other Suns, won several awards. It was also shortlisted for both the Pen-Galbraith Literary Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
Structural Problems Persist
Structural problems will become gradually more challenging to fix the longer they are left unaddressed. The authors explain this point by using the analogy of inheriting an old house that needs considerable structural work. Suppose you notice a crack in the ceiling but decide to just leave it, as you believe it is merely superficial cosmetic damage. Subsequently, this crack continues to grow until a specialist identifies damage to the integrity of the foundation of your home. Clearly, these problems were caused by mistakes made by those building the house. However, this does not mean these structural problems are not your responsibility. You have the responsibility to identify these mistakes as wrong and remove them from the foundations. Otherwise, these problems will just fester and become worse.
As with this house, structural problems within your country are unlikely to be a direct cause of you. However, the author argues this does not mean you shouldn’t take responsibility for these problems. You now live within this ‘home’ filled with structural problems. Importantly, if you keep passing the blame and avoiding these problems they will only grow bigger. Then, it will be even more challenging for future generations to eradicate these structural problems.
America is now over three hundred years old. Hence, the structural problems apparent at the inception of the country are becoming increasingly influential. Specifically, Isabel Wilkerson talks about drastic income gaps, ongoing police violence, and issues with healthcare highlighted by the Coronavirus pandemic.
Caste’s Influence on Systemic Racism
Isabel Wilkerson outlines we can only truly understand the structural problem of systemic racism present today by considering caste. Caste has allowed systemic racism to be particularly resistant to change. Caste is a social hierarchy in which people experience varying degrees of superiority. Subsequently, some individuals will experience subjugation purely based on the caste to which they belong.
A caste system has been used for thousands of years within India. However, American society has also had a caste system since its inception. Caste systems essentially mean that being born into poverty significantly increases your chances of living in poverty for the entirety of your life. Similarly, if you are born into wealth, then you will have greater opportunities to continue creating wealth.
India has attempted to pass legislation to reduce the discrimination associated with their caste system. Despite this, prejudice against the lower classes still exists. For example, the Dalit people are those in the lowest tier within the caste system. These individuals are frequent victims of acts of violence and are treated as outcasts in their own country. This caste system has existed in India since Ancient India thousands of years ago. Therefore, it has become increasingly challenging to remove it from society.
Colonized America has a significantly shorter history than India. Despite this, a caste system is still concrete and has been since its founding. In America, African-Americans have been placed in the lowest caste since day one. African-Americans have fought to be free from this caste system for centuries to no avail. The power is with the ‘dominant’ caste of white Americans who seek to maintain the status quo within the system. The dominant caste will avoid change as they are currently benefiting from the structure of society.
Caste and Slavery
Generally, people get class and caste confused. As Isabel Wilkerson states, class can be easily transcended through marriage or employment. However, there is no viable way of escaping the caste you have been placed in at birth. Isabel also points out that racism and casteism are not equivalent. There can be significant overlap between these two forms of prejudice. However, race is a relatively new concept while caste has been present in society for thousands of years. The reason these two prejudices are often conflated is that the US’ caste system has been built around ideas of racial superiority and inferiority.
The author explains the idea of race was first introduced during the transatlantic slave trade. Race was used as a way of categorizing the people that European colonists experienced. Crucially, this use of race was a way of excluding certain people within society. Despite this, race is a pseudo-scientific concept. The author provides an example of the origin of the term Caucasian. She explains that Johann Blumenbach, a German professor of medicine, was credited as coining the term Caucasian. He had a passion for collecting and analyzing human skulls. In 1795, he found what he considered the best shaped skull that came from the Caucasus Mountains in Russia. Subsequently, due to European society’s belief that they were genetically superior, Blumenbach gave Europeans the name Caucasian.
The mapping of the human genome in 2000 made it clearer than ever that race was arbitrary. All humans could be traced back to a handful of tribes originating in Africa. Despite this, race has still been used to categorize people based on arbitrary features, such as height, hair color, or eye color. In America, skin color became the feature that determined caste lines.
Jim Crow Laws
There have been attempts post-slavery to include African-Americans within the white caste. However, instead of creating a genuine positive change, Jim Crow Laws were introduced in the late 19th century. Southern leaders were encouraged to introduce reconstruction efforts. Freed slaves would have a path to equality. Instead, Jim Crow Laws were established that created a new type of slavery. By introducing these laws, the government was actively aiming to maintain the caste system.
These laws were associated with segregation and a constant threat of violence and lynching. These threats helped keep African-Americans at the bottom of the caste system as they were dissuaded from changing their circumstances. For example, African-Americans attempting to start their own business or to move North were often blocked by people in higher castes. For example, Black people were kept out of higher-caste neighborhoods through redlining.
Redlining was a nationwide policy of denying financing and movement between zones for people from predominantly African-American neighborhoods.
Foundational Pillars of Casteism
The caste system has a foundation of eight pillars.
- Divine Will and the Laws of Nature – The caste system within India is based on religious teachings. Specifically, ancient Hindu texts explain Manu, an all-knowing being who explained a social order within society. Additionally, due to their religious beliefs, society believed that people deserved their lower caste level due to karma from a previous life. The American caste system is also based on a religious foundation. Within the Bible, Noah has one son named Ham. One day, Ham walked into a tent and accidentally saw Noah naked. Subsequently, Noah cursed Ham’s son, Canaan. Hence, some biblical interpreters suggest Ham had black skin.
- Heritability – Essentially, this pillar suggests you are born into a specific caste. However, there are also specific rules within this. For example, colonial America stated it was the mother’s caste status that dictated the caste of their children.
- Endogamy and the Control of Marriage and Mating – Endogamy suggests that people should marry their caste. Within India, this is brutally enforced. Within America today, society has made interracial relationships a taboo. However, historically, any suggestion of a Black man touching a White woman would have been met by a lynching.
- Purity Versus Pollution – Individuals from a lower caste have been consistently considered polluters. This is the same idea propagated in Nazi Germany. In America, whole swimming pools would be drained and cleaned if an African-American was known to have been in a swimming pool.
- Occupational Hierarchy – There are menial jobs within society that few people want to complete. There is a history of politicians stating that the Black ‘race’ are the best fit for these jobs.
- Dehumanization and Stigma – Humans naturally understand we are all human beings and no better or worse than the next. Hence, we struggle to dehumanize individuals. Instead, we aim our dehumanization to large groups of people. This is exactly how the Nazis dehumanized the entire Jewish community and the same dehumanization is taking place in the US with African-Americans. In both countries, the people in the lowest castes were subjected to medical experiments and tortured for the amusement of the dominant castes. For example, at amusement parks in the US, there were “Son of Ham” shows. At these shows, people could pay money to throw baseballs at a Black man’s head. In this way and others, generations were desensitized to racial violence.
- Terror and Cruelty – Caste is perpetuated by using terror as enforcement and cruelty as a means of control. Violence has been used on African-Americans as a way of producing control and providing warnings. For example, American slave owners would deliver as many as four hundred whippings. These whippings were public, as were hangings and burnings. Those in the higher castes wanted the lower caste to imagine what could happen to them if they stepped out of line. Although some might wish to believe that hangings and burnings stopped with the slave trade, these practices actually continued into the twentieth century.
- Inherent Superiority Versus Inherent Inferiority – There are several unspoken expectations within society relating to caste. Within India, the Dalit are expected to wear poorly kept clothing to reflect their inferiority. Similarly, lower-caste people in America are expected to move out of the way if a dominant caste person is walking past.
Monuments Either Support or Dismantle Caste
All humans are susceptible to propaganda. Adolf Hitler was cheered by mass crowds of Germans. We may tell ourselves that we wouldn’t be one of those people, but it is impossible for us to say this. We naturally fall into a position within society and it can take considerable courage to stand up to the majority of society.
Additionally, although Nazi Germany is viewed as an independent evil, the Nazis actually took significant inspiration from America. They wrote their laws, including racial segregation and punishment, based on the existing US laws. In fact, they even made decisions about what people were allowed to wear based on the US’ laws at the time. Isabel Wilkerson explains that the tides have turned. Now, the US needs to learn from modern, democratic Germany.
Monuments are one way that America is continuing to encourage a caste system. In 2015, there were still 230 memorials to Robert E. Lee. He was the commander of the Confederate Army during the Civil War. In 2015, New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu set in motion an effort to take down one of General Lee’s statues. This sparked angry debate from Confederate sympathizers. However, Richard Westmoreland, a retired lieutenant colonel, explained that Germany was ashamed by their equivalent general, Erwin Rommel. Instead of putting statues up of generals who perpetuated casteism, Germany erected memorials for the victims of the Nazis. In fact, Berlin is filled with individual names embedded on the sidewalks of the homes where Jewish victims were taken. This approach humanizes these victims and prevents them from becoming a number. This is generally accepted as the most positive way of utilizing statues and monuments. In America, there were several death threats sent to the contractors who were offered the job of removing the statue in New Orleans.
The Caste System Remains Post-Obama
Obama’s two terms in power are often considered a turning point in American history. For some, these political events were a sign of a country that had removed its systemic racism. However, Wilkerson highlights this impact was fictional. Obama’s presidency was merely a fantasy of a turning point rather than a turning point itself.
How Can We Break Down the Pillars?
Isabel Wilkerson ends the book by outlining how readers can start to dismantle the pillars of casteism. COVID-19 has only re-surfaced the presence of a caste system within America. Those within dominant castes have benefited from health-care insurance offered through their jobs. In comparison, those in lower castes have had to continue working with no healthcare coverage. The statistics from the pandemic have shown it is disproportionately deadlier to marginalized communities.
Here are the tips that Isabel Wilkerson provides on how you can start breaking down the pillars of caste:
- Make people aware of the presence of a caste system within the US.
- Support people who have managed to break free from their subordinate castes.
- See people as individuals with ideas in common rather than part of a homogeneous group. This should help prevent dehumanization.
- Vote with an awareness of how the caste system is currently dominating politics.
Final Summary and Review of Caste
Caste describes racism in the United States as an aspect of a caste system. America is like the caste systems of Nazi Germany and modern India. African-Americans are considered lower in society’s hierarchy. Subsequently, they are excluded from certain opportunities, included with certain negative labels, and considered impure. These characteristics drive the worse social and economic outcomes for African-Americans, the taboo surrounding interracial relationships, and many more social issues. Isabel Wilkerson explains why race is an arbitrary concept introduced based on racist ideas. We are all far more genetically similar than we think. Skin color has been arbitrarily used to form a caste system in America and parts of Europe. Caste was chosen to be part of Oprah Winfrey’s 2020 book club.
We rate this book 4.3/5.
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Caste by Isabel Wilkerson Is a Trailblazing Work on the Birth of Inequality
And it may be the book that helps save us.
Her historical opus draws on years of research, stories, and previously published works to reveal, for example, that the Nazis used U.S. miscegenation laws as a blueprint for their own approach to genocide, and that Martin Luther King Jr., on a 1959 visit to India, observed, “Yes, I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States of America is an untouchable.” That realization informed his civil rights work thereafter. Wilkerson unearths bone-chilling parallels in systems of oppressive regimes that otherwise seem radically dissimilar to explain caste and how it predated and helped define racism in America.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
Caste opens with an iconic image from a 1936 Nazi rally in Germany, in which all the shipyard workers photographed, except one, are saluting the führer. That lone man stands, arms crossed, refusing to heil Hitler, “on the right side of history,” epitomizing the energy and resilience we all must summon to get free of “the shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid” that still molds our society.
More From Oprah Daily
Weaving in and out of past and present, Wilkerson provides the kind of history lesson that gives rise to countless aha moments. She shares relatable personal anecdotes alongside inspirational accounts of how people from Albert Einstein to Satchel Paige found their own unique ways to oppose racism. Wilkerson also revisits chapters of American history often ignored in textbooks and delineates what she terms “eight pillars of caste.”
“We in the developed world,” she observes, “are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside, but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even.”
We may not have built the house—or the caste system—but we are its heirs, and it’s up to us to acknowledge that what we ignore will not fix itself. “Whatever you are wishing away will gnaw at you until you gather the courage to face what you would rather not see,” writes Wilkerson. Caste offers a forward-facing vision. Bursting with insight and love, this book may well help save us.
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Emily Bernard is author of the acclaimed 2019 essay collection Black is the Body: Stories from my Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine . She holds a PhD in American Studies from Yale and is Professor of English at the University of Vermont.
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Review: Feeling Like an Outcast
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Feeling Like an Outcast
The bestselling book “caste” brilliantly frames racial hierarchies in the united states but largely ignores the horrors of india’s caste structure..
In early September 2001, at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, Indian Dalit activists were desperately rallying support to get caste recognized as a manifestation of racism. The term Dalit, derived from the Sanskrit word for oppressed, is used to describe people placed by India’s caste system at the very bottom of the social hierarchy and once called “untouchables.”
As delegates from around the world lobbied in Durban, Dalits had reportedly won the backing of the spokesperson of the European Union, as well as that of representatives from Guatemala and Switzerland. A handful of other European countries had also promised their support. But months of strategizing and advocacy failed to materialize when the Dalits were let down by a crucial constituency: their own government.
For decades, New Delhi had championed boycotts against apartheid-era South Africa. But at an international platform designed to hold nations accountable for the continued mistreatment of marginalized populations, the Indian government informed the world that the issue of caste—and the institutionalized suppression of those who fall at the bottom of its hierarchies—was an internal matter.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents , Isabel Wilkerson, Random House, 496 pp., $32, August 2020
In the new bestseller Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents , a work Oprah Winfrey has said “might be the most important book I’ve ever chosen for my book club,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning Isabel Wilkerson ensures that the topic of caste gets a major platform. Wilkerson introduces caste as a framework to analyze the United States’ graded racial hierarchy that holds African Americans near the bottom and explains why conventional concepts of racism alone are no longer sufficient to explain how it has endured, nearly intact, for four centuries. In order to understand how an unconscious ranking of human characteristics has been “used to justify brutalities against entire groups within our species,” she looks to the concentrated evil of Nazi Germany, which lasted 12 years, and the Hinduism-rooted caste system of varnas in India, which has lasted, in various forms, for millenniums. Wilkerson patiently peels each carefully matted layer of racial hierarchy to lay bare the history of oppression that people such as myself, a Dalit, have inherited from our ancestors. And in some 400 pages, she obliterates decades of New Delhi’s diplomatic attempts to prevent caste from getting the global notoriety it has always deserved.
The parallels between caste and race are not new, and Wilkerson leans heavily on the work of several early 20th-century researchers, notably the pathbreaking African American anthropologist Allison Davis, to trace how racial inequalities in the United States mirrored those in India and how the inhuman life conditions of African Americans reflected those of Dalits. Yet Wilkerson, like many before her, unequivocally centers her work on the United States, with caste as a larger framework—a structure of gradation to explain how race represents the skin atop the bones of the fixed, immovable ranking that is known as caste. In doing so, Wilkerson gives us a language uniquely tailored for our times. As the Black Lives Matter movement forces the United States to contend with its history of racism, many of its white residents now recognize themselves as beneficiaries of centuries of caste privilege (along with many others who resent this interrogation and cling tighter to their assumed superiority).
Wilkerson gives us a language uniquely tailored for our times.
While the United States’ liberal ideology of multiculturalism was once content with overlooking the factions and frictions within the various communities labeled as nonwhite, the world is now openly examining the striations within racial hierarchies—and within races themselves. The supposed solidarity of Latinx people, Middle Eastern Americans, and East Asian and South Asian Americans, all of whom gained from the advances made by the often violent struggles of African Americans during the civil rights movement and beyond, is rightfully under scrutiny at a time when Black folk fight to bring attention to their modern-day lynchings at the hands of the police system. An estimated 90 percent of Indian Americans are upper caste—they also comprise the highest-earning ethnic group in the United States—so it is understandable then that discussions about the horrors of the Indian caste system are only just entering mainstream American discourse. This makes Wilkerson’s definitions of dominant caste (white), middle castes (Latinx and Asian), subordinate caste (African American), and indigenous people (Native American) in the United States a radical intervention. It not only makes visible the plainly manifest yet stubbornly obscured reality of racial suppression of African Americans but also supplies other people of color with a vocabulary to understand their place in the lattice of racial and social order in the United States. As a Dalit woman and immigrant from a formerly untouchable manual scavenging caste in India, my place in the Indian social order lies at the very bottom. But as a brown resident in the United States, I fall somewhere in the middle of the racial caste pyramid.
The brilliance of Wilkerson’s book lies in her painstaking research, her clear understanding of the different executions of caste, and her ability to draw a single direct thread that goes from the enslavement of African natives, captured and brought to Virginia in 1619, to nearly every form of inequity inflicted on Black folk—public lynchings, segregation, legal slavery under Jim Crow, redlining, mass incarceration, underrepresentation, voter disenfranchisement, suppression, killings by police, medical mistreatment, and constant microaggressions. She deftly and neatly reveals how systemic coding and learned cultural assumptions of white superiority—along with the unconscious biases—are often responsible for upholding the racial hierarchy of caste.
There is perhaps no aspect of Black life, including the knee-jerk social distancing of newer African immigrants from African Americans, that, in Wilkerson’s telling, is unrelated to the well-worn, comforting grooves of caste. In a later chapter, she describes how a Nigerian student at first did not identify with being Black, something that had no meaning for him back home and which led him to believe that if they were being passed on for jobs and promotions, then “[m]aybe the African-Americans were not working hard enough.” But after spending a few years in the United States, he knew better than to dismiss the reality of his race as a perceived determining factor in his worth.
As she unbraids each knot of the United States’ complex racial caste system, however, the absence of a critique of the capitalist forces that define the American social order is glaring. While Wilkerson connects both the mass incarceration of African Americans and an absence of universal health care to slavery, there is no mention of the prison industrial complex or the crooked lobbying by insurance and pharmaceutical firms to keep the health care system as broken as it is. Ibram X. Kendi, the National Book Award-winning author of How to Be an Antiracist , whom Wilkerson also prominently acknowledges in her book, has noted that the origins of racism cannot be separated from the origins of capitalism in the slave trade that provided the economic fuel of a new world order.
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While racism is commonly understood as a form of personal hatred, Wilkerson frames it as a consolidation of power. She explains that for members of the dominant caste to loathe the progress of African Americans, or for them to feel discomfort at seeing Black people in positions of influence, the disgust at an assertion of equality isn’t an individual response but a result of the collective conditioning of white populations. It is a superiority reinforced through nearly every cultural, social, economic, legal, and judicial aspect of American life. Seen through Wilkerson’s framework, when a supposed majority of white women vote for a presidential candidate who has conclusively proved to be harmful to their interests—over a seemingly more competent white woman—they are choosing the cultural aspect of their identity that brings them closest to power. Or when a white working-class voter is willing to suffer from an inflamed liver rather than vote for the Affordable Care Act, he is acting in the interests of the collective superiority of his dominant white male caste that rebukes any shared solidarity with those lower than him on the caste order.
In a culture that defines us often exclusively with our identities (as opposed to, as Wilkerson argues, who we are on the inside), it is staggering to imagine the power of a Black female journalist unpacking how caste structures can hurt even white men when most of the inequality she seems to have faced comes at the behest of that same dominant caste. Making a case for radical empathy, Wilkerson asserts—somewhat tidily and with a mild case of moral grandstanding—that our prejudices are systemic yet our awakening can only be individual. But if that is so, then it’s difficult to imagine how structural power and privilege might spontaneously topple in the wake of the personal recognition of inequality. But this seemingly naive and even simplistic belief in our humanity might possibly be the single most subversive statement in Wilkerson’s laborious undertaking.
Wilkerson’s definition of caste makes one expect that her book would underline the ongoing horrors of the caste system in India and within Indian communities in the United States and elsewhere. Reading Caste , however, it would be hard to know that. Serving a uniquely American argument, Wilkerson expediently relies on B.R. Ambedkar, the Dalit architect of the Indian Constitution and the foremost leader of anti-caste ideology, whom she calls the “Martin Luther King of India.” Readers of Ambedkar’s work will recognize his words and phrases generously sprinkled throughout Wilkerson’s book. For Dalits, who have almost single-handedly kept Ambedkar’s legacy alive despite abject neglect from Indian institutions and have struggled to see him recognized as the preeminent leader of Dalit rights on a global stage, it is a moment of pride. Wilkerson recalls forming her initial theory of the eight pillars of caste, which serve as the foundation of her argument, through a lecture she was invited to deliver at a meeting of Dalit Ambedkarites in Massachusetts. Later, she recounts her visits to India, a caste conference in the United Kingdom, and outlines conversations she had with Dalit academics, researchers, and theorists.
What captures most of Wilkerson’s attention, however, is the treatment of Dalits as it aligned with the enslavement of African Americans and in the Jim Crow era that followed. Wilkerson gives little space to the inequities that affect Dalits today, some of which are more brutal and dehumanizing than even before India’s independence. Describing her first trip to India a few years ago, she mentions the roadside religious shrines lined on the streets of New Delhi and admits to finding them slightly exotic, only to later compare them to the spontaneous memorials that appear at the site of a police shooting or at gun violence in U.S. schools.
Wilkerson fails to mention how Dalits in India are routinely abused and subjected to violence.
Yet she fails to mention how Dalits in India are routinely abused and subjected to violence and even murder for supposedly desecrating a religious shrine or a temple with their so-called polluting touch—a concept to which Wilkerson devotes an entire chapter when she explains the different pillars of caste. One such pillar is titled “Endogamy and the Control of Marriage and Mating,” an idea Ambedkar explored extensively as a graduate student at Columbia University in 1916. Endogamy, or the practice of marrying within one’s caste to maintain caste superiority and purity, is the basis of arranged marriages, one of India’s more recognizable cultural exports to the United States. Neither that nor the heartless so-called honor killings (of Dalit and dominant caste couples by their family members) to preserve the superiority of their caste find mention in her pages.
In support of her larger argument, Wilkerson investigates the blood-curdling horrors inflicted by the Third Reich and draws attention to how the miscegenation regulations of the Southern United States were extreme even for the drafters of the Nuremberg laws. But even as the most sensitive analyst, Wilkerson appears to give in to the idea of American exceptionalism and centers Western narratives while failing to dig into the continued brutalization of Dalits who largely reside in India—in the global south. Despite her humanist and internationalist approach to bring all three systems of caste on par with each other, the original Indian version, as Wilkerson calls it, suffers the most in the service of the greater rationalization and possibly in favor of a largely American audience.
Wilkerson’s radical framing of racial injustice as a system of caste, aligning the struggles of Black Americans with those of Dalits, elevates thousands of years of Dalit trauma and struggle into the global spotlight in a single swoop. Her construct unquestionably cements the solidarity between Black and Dalit movements after decades of foiled attempts, from the brief correspondence between Ambedkar and W.E.B. Du Bois to the revolutionary Dalit Panther Party modeled after the Black Panthers. But overlooking the ongoing horrors and implications of the Indian caste system on Dalit lives ultimately serves the dominant caste’s straw man argument that casteism is a fading reality in the Indian subcontinent. Wilkerson plays an assessor shining a spotlight on the decaying foundations of the house that is America, festered with the rot of the racial caste system. She powerfully reveals the American story, unearthing the chapters that have been deliberately buried by a white supremacist version of history. Wilkerson forces readers to confront the implications of a skewed racial hierarchy. Yet for me, a Dalit reader often marginalized and restricted to the bottom of an even more lopsided global order, it often feels like being left out of my own history.
Yashica Dutt is a New York City-based Indian writer and journalist and the author of Coming Out as Dalit . Twitter: @YashicaDutt
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Is America Trapped in a Caste System?
Isabel wilkerson compares american racism to structures of oppression in india and nazi germany..
ILLUSTRATION BY SIMONE NORONHA
Three-quarters of the way into Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents , Isabel Wilkerson describes the humiliation suffered by Black passengers on a steamship in the American South before the Civil War. All women, and all free during slavery’s reign, they confounded the captain, who had to decide how to integrate them into the dining protocols aboard. The ship, a floating microcosm of antebellum society, followed social codes determined by the era’s prevailing hierarchies of class as well as race. The white passengers ate first, followed by the white crew, followed by the Black crew, whether enslaved or free. The Black passengers ate after everyone else, in the kitchen pantry rather than the dining room, standing up at the butler’s table rather than seated. Punished for not conforming to expectations that they be subordinate, they were treated worse than the Black laborers aboard, in bondage or not, who were of lower status.
This snippet of history is drawn from a study of Southern etiquette as a tool of white supremacist control, written in 1937 by Bertram Wilbur Doyle, an African American sociologist at a historically Black college in Tennessee. The anecdote captures Wilkerson’s view that for African Americans, class matters less than race and racism, its endurance foreclosing the possibilities of any true ascent in status—a tension that she seeks to illuminate by seeing through the lens of caste and casteism.
A hierarchy born millennia ago in the Indian subcontinent, as old as the creation stories of Hinduism, caste delineates identities based in religion, occupation, and kinship. The word itself comes from the Portuguese casta , meaning “breed” or “race,” via South Asia’s modern encounter with European colonizers, who codified caste and, according to many historians of empire, ossified its ancient system of ranking in recent centuries. Attempting to show the workings of caste beyond these origins, Wilkerson’s provocative book compares the experience of African Americans with the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany and the subjugation of Dalits, the lowest caste in India, so low as to be considered outside the caste system. (The word “dalit” means “broken down” or “oppressed.”) She likens caste to an “underlying grammar,” to architecture, to a computer operating system, and to a playwright assigning us all fixed roles. Or, to use her simplest, most effective analogy, “caste is the bones, race the skin.”
In an evocative style, with a keen eye for metaphor, Wilkerson is popularizing an idea first put forward almost a century ago and reasserted every generation since by some scholars. The notion that race is a form of caste has always been met with resistance from varied quarters, including from African American critics who found the comparison too bleak to bear, because they conceived of caste as too rigid to be overthrown. The hope of caste analysis is in making visible the invisible structures of oppression; the anxiety is that those structures, once recognized, will appear immovable.
Wilkerson’s epic first book, The Warmth of Other Suns , plunged readers into individual lives, plotting the arc across decades of several characters caught up in the Great Migration north by African Americans, their settings and their struggles re-created in vivid, almost omniscient detail through hundreds of hours of interviews and primary-source research and reporting. Caste is a different kind of book—not narrative, but an argument resting on anecdote and analogy, an extended essay in which Wilkerson mines a mighty bibliography of secondary sources, synthesizing research in history, sociology, medicine, psychology, and anthropology as well as a vast array of reporting by others, and supplementing it with impressionistic material from her own life.
The story she tells foregrounds upwardly mobile figures, whose abraded psyches and encumbered potential indicate the unseen boundaries of a caste society. She calls these men and women “shock troops at the front lines of hierarchy.” Like Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize–winning former national correspondent for The New York Times , they are “people who appear in places or positions where they are not expected,” people who “can become foot soldiers in an ongoing quest for respect and legitimacy in a fight they had hoped was long over.” The story of the steamboat passengers launches a chapter that catalogs indignities meted out in the present, to Wilkerson and others who are mobile in more than one sense. They’re each literally in motion, on trains and planes, and each is stopped by a hostile encounter: members of a Black women’s book club insulted on a Napa Valley wine tour in 2015; Wilkerson herself subjected to a flight attendant’s disbelief that she was flying first class; a Black baby slapped in 2013 by a white passenger, a stranger irritated by the infant’s cries with a change in altitude.
For Wilkerson, such incidents suggest that race is a form of caste because they’re anchored in attitudes that Black people are less worthy and can therefore be mistreated with impunity. She identifies a stubborn belief in the inherent inferiority of those at the bottom (and, conversely, the inherent superiority of those at the top) as one pillar of any caste system. In all, she enumerates eight pillars of caste and links them to the way that race has been lived in the United States. Caste is etched in Scripture and therefore justified as divinely ordained. It is inherited. Terror is used to enforce it. Endogamy, or restricting marriage within the group, preserves it. An obsession with the polluting touch of the other characterizes caste consciousness, leading to elaborate and often absurd regulations to maintain purity. Occupational hierarchy also marks caste, and it operates through the dehumanization of those deemed lowest.
The concept of race, used to rationalize slavery and segregation, has outlived its exploitative purposes in the United States. It’s vestigial, like an appendix ever on the verge of rupturing. Our hard-wrested understanding that, biologically, race is a fiction calls for another analytical frame. Viewing race as a form of caste provides a way for Wilkerson to explain how and why race still traumatizes American society. The comparison comes perhaps from the need to reckon with persistent injustice.
Wilkerson connects the United States, the world’s most powerful democracy, with India, the world’s largest, through the stratifications that have given the lie to real democracy in both countries. Dalits were forbidden from learning to read and write, as enslaved Africans were. Both groups were denied a chance at education and the opportunity it represents. Custom, meant to reinforce degraded status, required both Dalits and African Americans to enter by back doors and to wear coarse, unattractive clothing. Attempts to remedy past handicaps, through affirmative action here and a system of “reservations” there, have provoked similar backlashes, ringing with cries of reverse discrimination. In sundown towns that made the presence of African Americans illegal after dark, Wilkerson sees the reflection of Indian villages still restricted to upper-caste people.
Hindu temples continue to be taboo territory for Dalits, as Mormon churches were for African Americans, who were also restricted to back pews in many other Christian churches. The source of the unequal treatment in nearly every sphere was, as Wilkerson argues, traced to scripture in both oppressive systems. According to the origin story in the Hindu holy book The Laws of Manu , the creator god Brahma fashioned the five main castes from different parts of his body, the highest caste of priestly Brahmins from his head, Dalits from below his feet. Generations of slaveholders meanwhile explained their mastery by citing the biblical story of Ham, whose descendants were cursed to eternal bondage after he saw his father naked, and whose dark skin was emphasized in exegeses dating from the Middle Ages.
In the brutality of Nazi Germany, Wilkerson also finds shocking similarities with American racism. The techniques and tools of torture in concentration camps echoed those found on American plantations, where the attics of the pens that housed the enslaved were outfitted with whips of cowhide, iron clamps, rotating stakes, a pulley-equipped contraption called the picket, and other elaborate instruments of pain. Jewish prisoners were strapped to wooden boards to be publicly flogged, made to count their own lashes, and sadistically told that they had miscounted. At the same moment in history, both regimes—Jim Crow and the Third Reich—conducted hangings as spectacle. Wilkerson discerns the true purpose of these staged punishments: sowing terror, to keep those who defy their assigned roles in inferior places. Nazi Germany, the modern epitome of evil, and the United States, widely cast as world defender of democracy since its victory against that evil, are usually paired in antithesis. Revealing a relationship of resemblance instead, Wilkerson offers a breathtaking riposte to America’s image of itself as a moral beacon to the world.
In one particularly compelling chapter, Wilkerson shows that the Nazis in fact took American laws restricting immigration and banning intermarriage as their model for the infamous Blood Laws announced at Nuremberg in 1935. She details a meeting in Berlin a year earlier, during which 17 Nazi legal scholars and government officials debated how to classify who was a Jew—to better know whom to exterminate and whom to disenfranchise in multiple ways, including by making it illegal for them to have sex with and marry “Aryans.” One man at the table, who had studied law in Arkansas and would soon publish the influential book Race Law in the United States , informed the group that intermarriage was a crime punishable with a 10-year prison sentence in many U.S. jurisdictions. Another had come armed with a table of American segregationist laws. Still another, taken with how fractions of ancestry preoccupied American legislators, insisted on discounting anyone one-sixteenth Jewish as Aryan because he didn’t, in the words of a historian cited by Wilkerson, “wish to be less rigorous than the Americans.” One moderate expressed concern that the Americans had gone too far with their “one drop” rule .
In the end, the architects of the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor used the “association clauses” in anti-miscegenation laws in Texas and North Carolina to determine who would be classified as Jewish: anyone with three Jewish grandparents or anyone with two Jewish grandparents who also “associated” further with their Jewishness by practicing Judaism or marrying within that faith. The link is direct: Jim Crow jurisprudence contributed to the antisemitic project in Germany; Hitler took the legal mechanics of “caste” from America.
The comparisons that Wilkerson draws between the United States, India, and Nazi Germany target America’s sense of itself as special. The goal is to disillusion us about ourselves, and to build kinship. In a powerful declaration of affinity, Wilkerson comes to see herself as “an American untouchable,” as Dalits had baptized Martin Luther King Jr. during his visit to India in 1959 . At the academic conferences on caste that she attends across the world, she registers the psychological conditioning that upper castes (like white Americans) receive in their own superiority and the subtle slights against Dalits (like those against Black Americans) that result.
Wilkerson arrives at the understanding of herself as a Black Dalit mainly through her reading of scholarship on caste and race. Her treatment of the Indian caste system lacks the density of harrowing examples that gives her rendering of injustices against African Americans such moral power. Wilkerson offers few detailed stories of Dalit oppression from India’s history or headlines, but instead broadly lays out the precepts of caste there as a backdrop to accentuate the American reality. Although the book circles again and again to devastating scenes of African American lynchings, for example, it doesn’t mention the ongoing lynchings of Dalits. The details, with victims plucked from jails to meet mob justice, echo the savage vigilantism directed against African Americans for more than a century. Nor does Wilkerson write about honor killings and other violence provoked by marriages across caste in India, where intermarriage rates are half what they are in the United States .
The Dalit resistance movement has long been inspired by African American liberation struggles, with the Dalit Panthers christening themselves in the 1970s in homage to Black Power. Wilkerson sketches the history of the affinity, one that stretches back to letters exchanged in 1946 between the prominent African American scholar and civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois and Bhimrao Ambedkar, the Dalit leader and intellectual who helped write India’s constitution. But Ambedkar is one of only two Dalits named in Caste (the other is an editor quoted in passing) and one of fewer than a handful whose individual lives are evoked.
Throughout the book, Wilkerson compresses people namelessly into a single indelible image. She uses this poetic technique to render a range of characters, from a Jewish woman in a fur coat thrown into a pigsty by the Nazis to a Black child who was only allowed to enter an Ohio swimming pool in 1951 in an inner tube to keep his body from touching the water and then only after the white swimmers got out. Einstein is the only Jewish person named. A young Dalit scholar and activist, encountered at an academic conference, is compacted to a telling detail: He wears sneakers that are too big for him, because his self-esteem has been so shattered by caste that he can’t muster the courage to ask for the right size. The scholar, who told me he recognized himself in the anonymous miniature portrait, is Suraj Yengde , a writer and a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, whose book Caste Matters (named in homage to his mentor Cornel West’s landmark Race Matters ) was published to acclaim and wide coverage in India more than a year ago.
As Wilkerson points out, Dalits read Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, and they know the words to “We Shall Overcome.” They have been electrified by Black Lives Matter. But African Americans tend to hear less about the plight of Dalits, a fact that Yengde rued in a recent public dialogue, echoing a Dalit Panther leader. In this context, where a global spotlight illuminates one group’s persecution while the other’s recedes into obscurity, naming matters.
By neglecting individualized Dalit experience, by skipping stories about the violence against lower castes in India, Wilkerson misses an opportunity to achieve a more radical goal: to build popular and more reciprocal solidarities on a global level—between the resistance movements against anti-Blackness here and casteism there, for one. Ironically, her approach embodies one aspect of the American exceptionalism she challenges: It centers the United States, using the world outside our borders mostly as reference point, as foil to show Americans that we are not better.
A larger question is why Wilkerson is one of so few today to imagine American racism as a form of caste. A scholarly tradition linking oppression in the United States to the Indian concept of caste dates back to the 1930s, when it began to dominate social scientific thinking about race, attracting funding from corporate philanthropies and attaining influence. Bertram Wilbur Doyle belonged to that tradition, which emphasized the importance of custom, mores, and ritual over analyses of class in the attempt to grapple with the nature of American injustice.
Wilkerson drew on some of that scholarship for The Warmth of Other Suns , as she traced how race limited the mobility of her characters from the Jim Crow South even as they migrated north, and in Caste she devotes a fascinating chapter to a Black anthropologist couple, Allison Davis and his wife, Elizabeth, who went undercover for two years in a Mississippi town to study segregation. Its social codes forced them to meet their co-authors, a white couple, in a car parked on a backwoods road to discuss their findings, all the while under surveillance by the local sheriff. Wilkerson contends that in a deeper sense, too, the Davises were victims of the very system they documented in their ethnography Deep South , published in 1941—that their book, delayed and forgotten for generations, met with that fate partly because of criticism from other African American social scientists, who had internalized the psychology of caste, posing questions about their project that they wouldn’t have put to white academics.
Books by white authors became the canonical ones framing race as a form of caste. Predominant among them was the monumental two-volume An American Dilemma , published in 1944. Commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation, and written by the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, with help from Allison Davis and other American researchers, it famously declared: “The American Negro problem is a problem in the heart of the American.” With its emphasis on the heart—on emotion, on attitudes and folkways that are the trappings of caste—the book averted its gaze from the economic structures of oppression, in which the corporate philanthropy underwriting it was embedded.
An American Dilemma , and the work of the Davises and Doyle, faced criticism from African American thinkers who worried that they had not paid enough attention to the role of capitalism and empire in the invention of race. These critics included the novelist Ralph Ellison and the Trinidadian-born sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox. Writing at the outset of the Cold War, Cox drew on Marx and was penalized for doing so, but his insight into race as a systemic problem in the United States was ahead of its time by about two decades. His 1948 book, Caste, Class, and Race , challenged the prevalent thinking of the day, which saw racism as a problem of beliefs and psychology and tended to discount the role of class. Seen in retrospect as an important early theorist of racial capitalism, Cox believed that the origins of race as a concept as well as of racist laws, institutions, and behaviors were to be found in imperial capitalism, as a strategy of colonial planters to justify their exploitation of the enslaved.
Wilkerson does not locate Cox in this tradition. She sympathetically characterizes the Davises’ detractors as afraid to face the notion of caste because “if their status was seen as a fixed one, there might be no hope of rising above it.” Their thinking was that caste, as lived and understood in South Asia, was seen as sacred, determined by one’s actions in past lives, and was therefore fatalistically not resisted. Cox did maintain that, but he rejected caste as the frame for understanding race in America for a more fundamental reason: He believed that racism was instead rooted in colonialism and an extractive economic system. Wilkerson, who examines neither class nor empire closely in this book, dismisses him without mentioning that aspect of his argument.
Caste is not as static and uncontested as the critics of “the caste school of race relations” imagined. There’s a robust tradition of resistance against caste that includes Ambedkar and the Dalit Panthers, as Wilkerson emphasizes. Caste also bends in other ways that Wilkerson doesn’t convey. Many people in contemporary India don’t perform the traditional occupations expected of their caste. Historically, groups of people have moved from one part of India to another and reinvented themselves, maneuvering themselves up the rungs. And migration out of India has also challenged the way caste works.
Depending on the particular place and context, it can be more fluid than Wilkerson herself often portrays it to be in Caste . “In India, it is said that you can try to leave caste, but caste never leaves you,” she writes. For Dalits who “manage to make it across the ocean, caste often migrates with them.” But movement across the globe has also given rise to people who are so intersectional as to complicate the categories, people who sit at the crossroads defying expectations, the kind of “shock troops” who are precisely Wilkerson’s subject. The mother of Vice President–elect Kamala Harris, for example, was a Brahmin woman who, after coming to America, married a Black man from Jamaica, breaking all rules about endogamy as a pillar of caste. Caste and race have been lived, renegotiated, and remixed side-by-side in the Caribbean, where Donald Harris is from and where Cox was from, for nearly two centuries.
In my own family, who all left Calcutta for the Caribbean four to five generations ago—with half a million indentured others who replaced enslaved Africans on sugar plantations, in what historians have described as “a new system of slavery”— there is contradiction, recombination, and self-invention. If the emigration passes given to my ancestors by the British are to be believed, I’m descended from cowherders and servants, members of the laboring castes one rung above Dalits, now classified in India as “other backward castes”; several Kshatriya “warriors”; and a sole Brahmin, a woman. If endogamy is how caste gets reproduced, their exit from India and new lives in the West Indies signaled a functional annihilation of caste. In their journeys, they were crowded for three months in the cargo holds of ships that brought them to plantations. There they lived in communal barracks, where they couldn’t maintain rules about purity and pollution. Crossing the seas was, by itself, supposed to make a person outcaste according to Hindu orthodoxy.
To complicate matters even further, many Indians shipped as “coolies” to the Caribbean followed a heterodox branch of Hinduism influenced by a sixteenth-century saint who believed that ethical behavior rather than bloodlines determined caste, that it wasn’t inherited but earned. Most Caribbean Indians don’t even know what castes their ancestors belonged to—but the sway of that saint may explain why so many of those who claim to know have anointed themselves Brahmins. Our sense of self is so uncertain, our history so particular, that when Equality Labs, an American Dalit advocacy group, produced a report in 2018 documenting the persistence of caste discrimination among South Asian immigrants in the United States, it threw out survey data from descendants of indenture.
At the same time, the report found that a disturbing percentage of Dalits in the United States have experienced verbal or physical violence and ostracism by fellow immigrants from India in schools, workplaces, and places of worship. In a high-profile case currently in the U.S. court system, a Dalit engineer has sued Cisco Systems for employment discrimination by his boss, an upper-caste Indian immigrant. The vast majority of the Indian immigrants in the United States (about 90 percent, according to a recent report) are upper caste, but that has not always been the case. Equality Labs asserts that many of the earliest immigrants from India were Dalits, because they were not troubled by the Hindu tenet that crossing the seas robs one of caste.
South Asian immigrants in the United States have long occupied a fertile territory where caste and race crash into each other, the collision sparking multiple possible trajectories of identity. There is a rich history of them throwing in their lot with Black communities while also trying to distance themselves from them. Wilkerson tells the well-known story of a World War I veteran who, at a time when only whites and Blacks could be naturalized as U.S. citizens, was rebuffed in his argument before the Supreme Court that Indians, as descendants of Aryans, were white. Missing from her analysis, however, are the untold stories of South Asian migrants, as far back as a century ago, who agitated for change alongside and married Black people.
In her final anonymous set piece, Wilkerson describes meeting a Brahmin in India who arrives at an awakening about the injustice of caste and decides to shed the sacred thread bestowed on Brahmin boys during their rite of passage into adolescence. The image reminded me of a detail I found in the few existing memoirs by indentured Indians and in British colonial archives: Brahmin men bound for colonies where they would become plantation workers let their threads slip into the river, relinquishing their caste identities. I can’t know if theirs was a moment of awakening. It may have been much more a moment of reckoning with the system of imperial capitalism they were about to enter as bonded laborers. I offer this personal history to suggest how caste might be dismantled. In our case, it took a system—a system as total as the plantation, a penal, exploitative, racialized system of indenture erected and administered by British colonialism.
How we escape our chains, whether of caste or race, depends on how we understand their origins and their relationship to each other. For Cox and others who saw racism as a systemic problem created by capitalism, that system needed exploding. Cornel West, who fuses an analysis of class and empire with his Christian faith in free will and the human spirit, calls for dismantling three systems: the police, Wall Street, the Pentagon. By contrast, those who saw race as a form of caste have emphasized the need to change attitudes and beliefs that have been so subconsciously planted as to make us almost automatons of prejudice. As Wilkerson so movingly conveys, the irony of systemic oppression is that it robs both the subordinate and the dominant of their individualities, implicated in structures larger than themselves.
Although Wilkerson uses the vocabulary of a systemic problem, the solutions she suggests are not systemic. In her final section, Wilkerson instead offers stories of individual awakenings to empathy as the way to try to transcend caste, to struggle against its intransigence. She recounts the story of a contractor wearing a MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN cap who entered her basement to check on a leak. At first, he was chilly and monosyllabic, but softened when she spoke to him of her mother’s recent passing. He had lost his mother, too. This moment of seeing themselves in each other, as grieving children, gives her hope. The example of Einstein, who joined anti-lynching campaigns when he immigrated to America in the 1930s, does too. “Each time a person reaches across caste and makes a connection, it helps break the back of caste,” Wilkerson writes.
For any who still entertain the notion of the United States as special, an ideal more than a nation state, and a place of equal opportunity, this book illuminates who we truly are by connecting us to a concept that many Americans view as foreign, feudal, backward. African Americans have not needed such a trope to understand the peril in which Black life exists. In Caste , Wilkerson disabuses the “innocent” with many searing examples. One that starkly captures the pain in “the heart of the American” involves a Black, 16-year-old Ohio girl who won her school district’s essay contest in 1944. Asked what to do with Hitler after the war, she replied succinctly: “Put him in a black skin and let him live the rest of his life in America.”
Gaiutra Bahadur is the author of Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media at Rutgers University in Newark.
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Reviews of Caste by Isabel Wilkerson
Summary | Excerpt | Reading Guide | Reviews | Beyond the book | Readalikes | Genres & Themes | Author Bio
The Origins of Our Discontents
by Isabel Wilkerson
- History, Current Affairs and Religion
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The Pulitzer Prize–winning, bestselling author of The Warmth of Other Suns examines the unspoken caste system that has shaped America and shows how our lives today are still defined by a hierarchy of human divisions.
"As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not." In this brilliant book, Isabel Wilkerson gives us a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America as she explores, through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings. Beyond race, class, or other factors, there is a powerful caste system that influences people's lives and behavior and the nation's fate. Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, stigma, and more. Using riveting stories about people—including Martin Luther King, Jr., baseball's Satchel Paige, a single father and his toddler son, Wilkerson herself, and many others—she shows the ways that the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day. She documents how the Nazis studied the racial systems in America to plan their out-cast of the Jews; she discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires that there be a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she writes about the surprising health costs of caste, in depression and life expectancy, and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics. Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity. Beautifully written, original, and revealing, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is an eye-opening story of people and history, and a reexamination of what lies under the surface of ordinary lives and of American life today.
Chapter 2 An Old House and an Infrared Light
The inspector trained his infrared lens onto a misshapen bow in the ceiling, an invisible beam of light searching the layers of lath to test what the eye could not see. This house had been built generations ago, and I had noticed the slightest welt in a corner of plaster in a spare bedroom and had chalked it up to idiosyncrasy. Over time, the welt in the ceiling became a wave that widened and bulged despite the new roof. It had been building beyond perception for years. An old house is its own kind of devotional, a dowager aunt with a story to be coaxed out of her, a mystery, a series of interlocking puzzles awaiting solution. Why is this soffit tucked into the southeast corner of an eave? What is behind this discolored patch of brick? With an old house, the work is never done, and you don't expect it to be. America is an old house. We can never declare the work over. Wind, flood, drought, and human upheavals batter a structure that is ...
Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
- At the beginning of Caste , author Isabel Wilkerson compares American racial hierarchy to a dormant Siberian virus. What are the strengths of this metaphor? How does this comparison help combat the pervasive myth that racism has been eradicated in America?
- Wilkerson begins the book with an image of one lone dissenter amidst a crowd of Germans giving the Nazi salute. What would it mean—and what would it take—to be this man today?
- What are some of the elements required for a caste system to succeed?
- Wilkerson uses many different metaphors to explain and help us visualize the concept of the American caste system: the bones inside a body, the beams inside a house, even the computer program in the 1999 film The Matrix. Which of ...
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Wilkerson writes clearly and with a gravity that matches her subject matter. Her masterful and at times poetic use of allegory adds color and emotional resonance to her academic analysis, such as when she relates the story of a strange sickness that swept through Siberia in 2016, which eventually was discovered to have been caused by anthrax buried under permafrost. It had been there since World War II, but now, because a radical heatwave had hit the area, it had been released from the snow. The anthrax, she says, is "like the reactivation of the human pathogens of hatred and tribalism in this evolving century...It lay in wait, sleeping, until extreme circumstances brought it to the surface and back to life." The book is painstakingly researched, with thousands of testimonials and case studies, both historical and contemporary. Each anecdote conveys an element of the barbarity and perversity of the caste system. Wilkerson relays these incidents with calm authority, equal parts blunt and tender, laying bare the exceptional cruelty that the delusion of caste can engender... continued
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Book review: Caste
In her much-debated bestseller, Isabel Wilkerson argues that racism is an insufficient term for the systemic oppression of black people in America.
– By Joseph Allchin – Thursday , 17th December 2020
Caste: The Lies That Divide Us (Allen Lane) by Isabel Wilkerson
No Democratic president has won the majority of white-American votes since 1963, Isabel Wilkerson notes towards the end of this timely, important work. That year, Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the civil rights act, which, after four centuries, finally conferred citizenship upon African-Americans. Johnson predicted that the Democrats would lose the southern states for a generation. This prophecy was a serious understatement. These racial faultlines continue to define US politics to this day.
In Caste , Wilkerson – a journalist who, in 1993, became the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer – argues that racism is an insufficient term for the systemic oppression of black people in America, describing it instead as a caste system. The book offers a searing description of the nature of caste – a stratified, internalised hierarchy – which is instructive far beyond America’s elections. Wilkerson frames racism as the skin of something deeper; complex structures that determine standing and respect, assumptions of competence and access to resources.
As Wilkerson explains, we assert and confer status subconsciously, by “knowing without thinking that you are one up from another, based on rules not set down on paper”. The perceived rise of lower castes – through increased political agency and demographic change – can prompt fear amongst those in the top caste, something which has recently played out in US politics: “Contrary to wistful predictions of post-racial harmony . . . anti-black attitudes rose, rather than fell . . . in Obama’s first term.”
Caste does not shy away from describing the performative violence that ensures that the bottom rung remains immovable, making this work both vivid and at times tough going. This includes well-known examples, such as Jim Crow-era lynchings. The descriptions of entire towns cheering on vigilante murder chime with caste-based atrocities in India. Other parallels are less well known, such as the obsession with purity that the American caste system shares with India’s – for example, the imagined pollution of swimming pools by African-American bodies.
The book peels back the layers of the social mechanics that maintain America’s rigid hierarchy. This is what the American dream has been built on, and it is far from predetermined by the simplistic western notion of “race”. As Wilkerson shows, almost all rungs of the American caste system are allowed to dream, as long as they partake in the subjugation of those at the bottom: African-Americans, upon whose misery waves of new citizens have gained validation, in a literal economic sense as well as spiritually. As Wilkerson writes: “Who are you if there is no one to be better than?”
A common assertion on the left is that supporters of Donald Trump, particularly working-class voters, are “voting against their interests”, but Wilkerson argues that this analysis misses a fundamental point. “Many voters, in fact, made an assessment of their circumstances and looked beyond immediate short-term benefits . . . to preserve what their actions say they value most – the benefits they had grown accustomed to as members of the historically ruling caste in America.”
Caste provides a lucid description of dynamics that extend far beyond the States. Caste systems, most notably India’s, work through the continual struggle of caste groups in the churn of societal ladder-climbing, as they aspire for status by worship of the highest echelons of the caste, while simultaneously distancing themselves from and subjugating those at the bottom. “Everyone in the caste system is trained to covet proximity to the dominant caste.”
As discussions of race and racism take on great urgency this year with the global Black Lives Matter movement, Caste gives us a timely insight into why, despite changes in the law and seemingly progressive reforms in the United States and elsewhere, our societies are still plagued by ancient tribalisms.
This article is from the New Humanist winter 2020 edition. Subscribe today .
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Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents Hardcover – August 4, 2020
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Chapter 2 An Old House and an Infrared Light The inspector trained his infrared lens onto a misshapen bow in the ceiling, an invisible beam of light searching the layers of lath to test what the eye could not see. This house had been built generations ago, and I had noticed the slightest welt in a corner of plaster in a spare bedroom and had chalked it up to idiosyncrasy. Over time, the welt in the ceiling became a wave that widened and bulged despite the new roof. It had been building beyond perception for years. An old house is its own kind of devotional, a dowager aunt with a story to be coaxed out of her, a mystery, a series of interlocking puzzles awaiting solution. Why is this soffit tucked into the southeast corner of an eave? What is behind this discolored patch of brick? With an old house, the work is never done, and you don’t expect it to be. America is an old house. We can never declare the work over. Wind, flood, drought, and human upheavals batter a structure that is already fighting whatever flaws were left unattended in the original foundation. When you live in an old house, you may not want to go into the basement after a storm to see what the rains have wrought. Choose not to look, however, at your own peril. The owner of an old house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away. Whatever is lurking will fester whether you choose to look or not. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction. Whatever you are wishing away will gnaw at you until you gather the courage to face what you would rather not see. We in the developed world are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside, but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even. Many people may rightly say, “I had nothing to do with how this all started. I have nothing to do with the sins of the past. My ancestors never attacked indigenous people, never owned slaves.” And, yes. Not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now. And any further deterioration is, in fact, on our hands. Unaddressed, the ruptures and diagonal cracks will not fix themselves. The toxins will not go away but, rather, will spread, leach, and mutate, as they already have. When people live in an old house, they come to adjust to the idiosyncrasies and outright dangers skulking in an old structure. They put buckets under a wet ceiling, prop up groaning floors, learn to step over that rotting wood tread in the staircase. The awkward becomes acceptable, and the unacceptable becomes merely inconvenient. Live with it long enough, and the unthinkable becomes normal. Exposed over the generations, we learn to believe that the incomprehensible is the way that life is supposed to be. The inspector was facing the mystery of the misshapen ceiling, and so he first held a sensor to the surface to detect if it was damp. The reading inconclusive, he then pulled out the infrared camera to take a kind of X-ray of whatever was going on, the idea being that you cannot fix a problem until and unless you can see it. He could now see past the plaster, beyond what had been wallpapered or painted over, as we now are called upon to do in the house we all live in, to examine a structure built long ago. Like other old houses, America has an unseen skeleton, a caste system that is as central to its operation as are the studs and joists that we cannot see in the physical buildings we call home. Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions. It is the architecture of human hierarchy, the subconscious code of instructions for maintaining, in our case, a four-hundred-year-old social order. Looking at caste is like holding the country’s X-ray up to the light. A caste system is 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 favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places. Throughout human history, three caste systems have stood out. The tragically accelerated, chilling, and officially vanquished caste system of Nazi Germany. The lingering, millennia-long caste system of India. And the shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the United States. Each version relied on stigmatizing those deemed inferior to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement. A caste system endures because it is often justified as divine will, originating from sacred text or the presumed laws of nature, reinforced throughout the culture and passed down through the generations. As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. 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. As a means of assigning value to entire swaths of humankind, caste guides each of us often beyond the reaches of our awareness. It embeds into our bones an unconscious ranking of human characteristics and sets forth the rules, expectations, and stereotypes that have been used to justify brutalities against entire groups within our species. In the American caste system, the signal of rank is what we call race, the division of humans on the basis of their appearance. In America, race is the primary tool and the visible decoy, the front man, for caste.
- Publisher : Random House; Reprint edition (August 4, 2020)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 496 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0593230256
- ISBN-13 : 978-0593230251
- Item Weight : 1.75 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.4 x 1.25 x 9.57 inches
- #2 in Slavery & Emancipation History
- #4 in Sociology of Social Theory
- #8 in Sociology of Class
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About the author
Isabel Wilkerson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Humanities Medal, is the author the critically acclaimed New York Times bestsellers The Warmth of Other Suns, and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.
Her first book, The Warmth of Other Suns, tells the story of the Great Migration, a watershed in American history. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, the Heartland Prize for Nonfiction, the Anisfield-Wolf Award for Nonfiction, the Lynton History Prize from Harvard and Columbia universities, the Stephen Ambrose Oral History Prize and was shortlisted for both the Pen-Galbraith Literary Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
WARMTH was named to more than 30 Best of the Year lists, including The New York Times' 10 Best Books of the Year, Amazon's 5 Best Books of the Year and Best of the Year lists in The New Yorker, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and The Economist, among others. In 2019, TIME Magazine named Warmth to its list of the10 best books of the decade.
Her second book, CASTE: The Origins of Our Discontents, explores the unrecognized hierarchy in America, its history and its consequences. Caste became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller, was the 2020 summer/fall selection for Oprah’s Book Club and was longlisted for the National Book Award. It was named to more best of the year lists than any other work of nonfiction. TIME named it the No. 1 nonfiction book of 2020. Publishers Marketplace named it the book of the year across all genres. In 2021, it was the most borrowed nonfiction library book in the United States, according to Quartz Magazine.
Wilkerson won the Pulitzer Prize for her work as Chicago Bureau Chief of The New York Times in 1994, making her the first black woman in the history of American journalism to win a Pulitzer and the first African-American to win for individual reporting. In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded her the National Humanities Medal for "championing the stories of an unsung history."
She has appeared on national programs such as "Fresh Air with Terry Gross," CBS's "60 Minutes," NBC's "Nightly News," "The PBS News Hour," MSNBC's "The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell," “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” NPR's "On Being with Krista Tippett," the BBC and others. She has taught at Princeton, Emory and Boston universities and has lectured at more than 200 other colleges and universities across the U.S. and in Europe and Asia.
Follow @isabelwilkerson on Instagram and Twitter. Follow her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/IsabelWilkersonWriter/
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Monk Revival Film in the Works, Shalhoub, Original Cast Returning
Tony Shalhoub is returning to star in the Peacock movie Mr. Monk's Last Case, reuniting with the cast of the classic crime-solving series.
Tony Shalhoub, star of the beloved detective comedy series Monk , confirms plans for a reunion project set for Peacock.
Shalhoub, in an interview with Dr. Loubna Hassanieh on Unheard Stories , confirmed that a Monk reunion movie is in the works for streaming, over 13 years since the series' original run on the USA Network came to an end. A press release from Peacock would confirm that the feature, titled Mr. Monk's Last Case: A Monk Movie , will premiere on the platform, where all eight seasons of the show already stream. Of course, with its premise focused on a brilliant detective who struggles with severe OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder), there will be new challenges for him. "We're doing a Monk 90-minute movie for streaming, and we're going to start shooting that in May," he stated. "It's Monk post-COVID, so he's in trouble. So we're bringing everybody back, all of the characters for a 90-minute streaming thing."
RELATED: Every Season Of Monk, Ranked According To IMDb
Mr. Monk's Last Case's Cast
The early logline for Mr. Monk's Last Case reveals that the titular detective is returning for "one last, very personal case involving his beloved step-daughter Molly, a journalist preparing for her wedding." The Peacock-premiering feature is confirmed to see the return of cast members such as Ted Levine, Traylor Howard, Jason Gray-Stanford, Melora Hardin and Hector Elizondo. Shalhoub will also resume his duty as an executive producer, with creator Andy Breckman also serving as writer and executive producer. They are joined by executive producer David Hoberman and executive producer/director Randy Zisk.
Debuting in 2002, Monk starred Shalhoub as Adrian Monk, a former police detective racked with numerous phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder. After suffering a mental breakdown following his wife's murder, Monk used his intelligence and deductive talents to solve crimes as a private investigator and consultant for the San Francisco PD. The series, a popular staple on the USA Network, ran for eight seasons and 125 episodes until 2009. Notably, Monk 's final episode held the record for most watched scripted drama episode in cable television history until it was dethroned by The Walking Dead 's Season 2 finale.
RELATED: Everything Coming to Peacock in March 2023
Additionally, Monk generated nineteen novels from writers Lee Goldberg and Hy Conrad, as well as a ten-episode prequel web series Little Monk . Breckman had previously announced a follow-up film in 2012 titled Mr. Monk for Mayor with the hope for more sequels to follow. However, the movie was never produced for budgetary reasons. In 2020, Shalhoub and other cast members appeared in " Mr. Monk Shelters in Place ," a short from Peacock Presents At-Home Variety Show , which showed the characters attempting to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Is Psych 4 Coming to Peacock?
Monk isn't the only procedural on the USA Network to see a revival. Psych , which debuted in 2006 and was occasionally implied to take place in the same continuity, has continued to put out film follow-ups since the show's conclusion in 2014. The most recent, Psych 3: This is Gus , was released on Peacock in November 2021. Star James Roday Rodriguez has stated that a fourth film may be in the works. "The appetite is there on both sides, which is good, so I think it's just a matter of, you know, semantics and scheduling," he explained. "There's nobody that doesn't want it to happen. And there is a script, which is also an important element. So, I think it's just a matter of when not if ."
Mr. Monk's Last Case: A Monk Movie will premiere on Peacock on a date to be determined. All eight seasons of Monk are available to stream on Peacock and Prime Video.
Source: Peacock, YouTube
Caste as a concept can be dizzying, but Wilkerson makes plain the deeply embedded infrastructure of American hierarchy. Caste is why Robert E Lee, the Confederate general who went to war...
Forest Whitaker is physically conspicuous and, most people would say, famous. In "Caste," Isabel Wilkerson narrates how the Oscar-winning actor, "a distinguished, middle-aged, African-American...
Caste is the bones, race the skin." The reader does not have to follow her all the way on this point to find her book a fascinating thought experiment. She persuasively pushes the two notions...
"As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not."
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson Random House To read Isabel Wilkerson is to revel in the pleasure of reading — to relax into the virtuosic performance of thought and...
We tend to think of divisions as being racial rather than caste-based. However, as the author writes, "caste is the infrastructure of our divisions. It is the architecture of human hierarchy, the subconscious code of instructions for maintaining, in our case, a four-hundred-year-old social order."
Caste builds on Wilkerson's landmark first book about Black migration in America. The workplace is one arena where all Americans are well-versed in the hierarchy of caste. Historically,...
Caste is like a detailed medical history. "Caste is a disease." It is a sluggish poison, "an intravenous drip to the mind," shoring up an "immune system" that is also vulnerable to its...
A glowing New York Times review pronounced her new book, " Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents ," "an extraordinary document … an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote...
This book is about big, bad things like race, caste, cruelty and torture presented as a series of modern epics. Wilkerson's book is a guide to race and racial brutality in the US, told...
"Caste," on the other hand, "is fixed and rigid." "Caste, like grammar, becomes an invisible guide not only to how we speak, but to how we process information." The caste system disguises...
As Wilkerson insinuated several times in the book, it is relatively easy to recognize and simply step off the caste ladder. She paints caste as rigid, nearly immutable, but then goes on to her uplifting conclusion.
Wilkerson invites us to see this as the deeper psychological process that defines 400 years of racism - what she calls America's caste system - drawing a comparison with two other such structures...
Isabel Wilkerson explains why race is an arbitrary concept introduced based on racist ideas. We are all far more genetically similar than we think. Skin color has been arbitrarily used to form a caste system in America and parts of Europe. Caste was chosen to be part of Oprah Winfrey's 2020 book club.
Caste by Isabel Wilkerson Is a Trailblazing Work on the Birth of Inequality And it may be the book that helps save us. By Emily Bernard Published: Aug 4, 2020 Save Article Alex Williamson The Warmth of Other Suns, the first book by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Isabel Wilkerson, offered an epic narrative portrait of the Great Migration.
The bestselling book "Caste" brilliantly frames racial hierarchies in the United States but largely ignores the horrors of India's caste structure. By Yashica Dutt, a New York City-based...
by Isabel Wilkerson. Buy on Bookshop. Random House, 496 pp., $32.00. This snippet of history is drawn from a study of Southern etiquette as a tool of white supremacist control, written in 1937 by ...
Isabel Wilkerson's book Caste was an almost instant bestseller, making it onto Oprah and Barack Obama's suggested reading lists. It was generally well-received, however, it did receive some criticism. This Caste book review cover's the book's background, context, and critical reception by the readers.
Dwight Garner, in The New York Times, described Caste as "an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far."  Publishers Weekly called Caste a "powerful and extraordinarily timely social history" in its starred review of the book. 
Abhinav Chandrachud makes this history come alive in his new book These Seats Are Reserved: Caste, Quotas and the Constitution of India. However, the book is much more than just a simple ...
It is about power—which groups have it and which do not." In this brilliant book, Isabel Wilkerson gives us a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America as she explores, through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste ...
Book review: Caste. In her much-debated bestseller, Isabel Wilkerson argues that racism is an insufficient term for the systemic oppression of black people in America. No Democratic president has won the majority of white-American votes since 1963, Isabel Wilkerson notes towards the end of this timely, important work.
Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things. Highlighted by 14,932 Kindle readers
Tony Shalhoub is returning to star in the Peacock movie Mr. Monk's Last Case, reuniting with the cast of the classic crime-solving series. Tony Shalhoub, star of the beloved detective comedy series Monk, confirms plans for a reunion project set for Peacock. Shalhoub, in an interview with Dr. Loubna Hassanieh on Unheard Stories, confirmed that a ...
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