Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson took readers by storm in late 2020, so I was fashionably late reading it at the end of 2023. While something about its ubiquity made me hesitate to read it, it’s intrigued me for years.
What is Caste?
Admittedly, I had thought that the thesis of Caste would be that our current social hierarchy had evolved from the medieval feudal caste system, hence “the origins of our discontents.” Rather, Wilkerson argues merely that we have a caste system and that in the United States, white people are the dominant caste and Black people are the subordinate caste. She distinguishes between racism and casteism early on in the book, but in practice she treats them as interchangeable.
I would have accepted this argument before even reading the book. One would have to be pretty ignorant to think that the United States doesn’t have a racial hierarchy, or as Wilkerson brands it, a caste system.
Inspiring the Nazis
What sets Caste apart from other books about race in America is that Wilkerson shows the often one-to-one parallels between the American caste system—whether it be today’s version, that of Jim Crow, or the time of chattel slavery—and the caste systems of India and Nazi Germany. One chapter even shows how Nazi bureaucrats borrowed largely from America’s Jim Crow laws when crafting their own racist regime. Quoting James Q. Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model, Wilkerson writes,
While the Nazis praised “the American commitment to legislating racial purity,” they could not abide “the unforgiving hardness” under which “‘an American man or woman who has even a drop of Negro blood in their veins’ counted as blacks,” Whitman wrote. “The one-drop rule was too harsh for the Nazis.”Isabel Wilkerson, Caste, p. 88.
These parallels are illuminating—and horrifying. Wilkerson drives home the truth that the United States is not better than “other places,” and we are barely any better than we were “back then.”
PragerU and the white savior complex
While compiling PragerU footage for a project at work, I saw that they pushed a blatant white savior narrative about Indian Dalits who are considered to be so low as to be outside the caste system.
For most of history, Dalits were forced to live outside of villages and deal with messy jobs no one else wanted to do. Change, however, came to India when the British Empire took control along with advancements in transportation, agriculture and government. The British spread the influence of Christianity and Western values throughout India. They discouraged or even outlawed harmful traditions, especially those that affected women when India was given its independence. The government continued to strive for equality and outlawed discrimination against Dalits. Thanks to these changes, some Indian people that used to be outcasts were inspired to overcome their obstacles and pursue better lives for themselves and their families.PragerU: India: Priya Overcomes Adversity
I know next to nothing about Britain’s occupation of India, but I do know that PragerU lies. Wilkerson’s own interactions with Dalits as told in Caste tell us that the Indian caste system is as rigid as ever. More enraging, though, is the idea that “Christianity and Western values” discourage discrimination. The period in question—1858 to 1947—was the same time that the Confederate states were fighting for their rights to own human beings, through the worst of Jim Crow. How can we imply that Western society is morally superior than that of India when we were gleefully lynching over 4,000 Black men and boys during those same years?
Of microaggressions and murder
Wilkerson provides dozens of examples of everything from lynchings to stories from slavery to her own experiences to demonstrate that this is the bad place. One reviewer expressed his confusion with her organization, writing that,
The structure was also a mess, there was no clear organisation of the chapters and it constantly jumped forward and backwards in time between slavery, Jim Crow and modern times. . . . This lead to moments of bizarre juxtaposition such as when a rude woman in a restaurant is compared to slaves having their children taken from them.A White Guy on Goodreads
I think Wilkerson’s back-and-forth style was intentional and kept the book interesting. The stories of lynchings and of the microaggressions that Wilkerson has experienced in airports show that just because Black people’s day-to-day lives look different now, it doesn’t mean that racism does not still affect us. (She also discusses modern-day police brutality and murder, so it’s not really all that different anyways.) It doesn’t have to be one huge thing to affect someone. Daily harassment, being repeatedly disrespected or ignored or followed by strangers takes a toll too.
There were parts of Caste that I felt didn’t belong, like the short chapter on alpha dogs or the one in which Wilkerson tells us how she got her racist plumber to open up to her, and they were able to see each other’s humanity despite their differences.
America is an old house
But Caste had several shorter, lyrical chapters, that I really enjoyed. I haven’t seen a book ground its readers and humanize its subject with chapters like this since Kindred. Sometimes poetic allegory can explain something better than academic pontificating.
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.
. . . 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.Isabel Wilkerson, Caste, pp. 16-17.
If you have been ignoring the cracks and fissures in this old house, then reading Caste is a great first step to fixing them.