Caste (Oprah's Book Club): The Origins of Our Discontents

by Isabel Wilkerson

Hardcover, 2020




Random House (2020), Edition: First Edition, 496 pages

Media reviews

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.
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“Caste,” the book, upsets the already rickety national myth that anyone in the United States can be anything — albeit, without entirely abandoning that hope.... It’s the creeping horror of potentially losing ground. “Make America Great Again” is, if nothing else, a plea to maintain caste. Political scientists in Wilkerson’s book refer to that panic as “dominant group status threat,” a funhouse reflection in which those on the bottom rungs are seen as moving up a little too easily for the comfort of those at the top.
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.... “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.
A memorable, provocative book that exposes an American history in which few can take pride.

User reviews

LibraryThing member DavidWineberg
Americans don’t think in these terms, but Isabel Wilkerson points out in no uncertain terms that the country is running a caste system, remarkably and sadly just like India’s. In India, there are four varnas and numerous, maybe thousands of subdivisions between them. Each one is a caste with strict rules of life, conduct, liberty and employment. In the US, there is the dominant caste and the subordinate caste. In between, there are various subcastes for various colors and tribes, but at the very bottom there are blacks. It’s so obvious, obstructive and intrusive that even blacks from other countries go out of their way to distinguish themselves from African Americans.

The main difference is that in India, you can only tell the castes apart by people’s postures and attitudes, because everyone is from the same genetic family. In America, it’s entirely by skin color, making it very easy to tell the castes apart. This has made America’s caste system stubbornly resistant to laws, directives or social movements. In her gripping and staggeringly affecting book Caste, Wilkerson looks at the system from every angle, finding it a terrific waste of time, human potential, and life. Its attributes are entirely negative, just as in India. It’s all for nothing and all about nothing. But it costs plenty. Those human costs are the real meat of the book.

Americans have been well aware of running a caste system, for centuries now. In 1832 a Virginia slaveholder said “poor whites have little but their complexion to console them for being in a higher caste.” Civil War era Senator Charles Sumner said caste was a “violation of equality.” The word keeps popping up, but it seems no one has seen fit to work with it.

Wilkerson finds that white skin is salvation for a lot of poor whites, who know with certainty that they are not the bottom of the heap – as long as there are blacks around. So it’s important to both keep them down and keep them poor. The situation is so devoid of truth or reality that 55% of Americans think all poor people are black. And that’s reason enough to keep the castes separate, and to be against aiding the poor.

One of the very many impressive things in Caste is the day-to-day horror of living while black. There is having to be careful over every step you take and every word you utter, lest a dominant caste member take offense – just like in India. America had a an example just last week (as I write this in May 2020) as a woman in Central Park called the police when a black birdwatcher asked her to leash her dog as signs indicated was required. She claimed her very life was being threatened by an African American. This can lead to beatings or death. False charges never stopped a lynching.
Treatment by store clerks, by doctors and by the police is different for blacks. And not better. Daily indignities and humiliations are horrors in themselves, and it’s not just a stop-and-frisk policy that sees the same men harassed several times a day, every day they dare to venture outside. It is also disproportionate jailings, sentencing and monitoring. Blacks are followed around stores, suspected of being potential shoplifters because they are black. They receive an outsized portion of traffic tickets and fines. And police kill them with little if any thought. For decades, they were denied government-backed mortgages, got worse rates on loans, and went to worse state funded schools. This is a caste system at work.

As in India, where even the shadow caused by the presence of a Dalit (Untouchable) is thought to pollute the higher castes, so in America, the thought of shaking hands or allowing a black child in a municipal swimming pool was a horror beyond imagining. When laws were enforced to allow blacks in public pools, American towns filled them with concrete rather than allow it.

There were separate everythings for the castes, from water fountains to hotels, restaurants, toilets, churches and train cars. A black with a first class ticket could not sit among whites, dine at the buffet, or mingle. Wilkerson cites a black building owner who had to enter his own building by a rear door in order to collect the rent. I use the past tense, but it clearly continues throughout the country in different mutations today. For example, the former Confederate states still maintain the death penalty, and use it mostly on blacks. Black voters are harassed for state-issued ID when voting, and the slightest mismatch, such as a missing apostrophe, is sufficient to deny them their vote. That’s when the state doesn’t totally shut down their polling stations, which are fewer than for whites and placed inconveniently far away to keep the poor from getting there at all.

Americans used to travel by the thousands to witness a lynching, buy picture postcards of the event, and even grab a body part as a souvenir afterwards. Slaves, chattel that they were, could not even rely on family. A wife or child could be sold off for a nice profit. But even after the Civil War, a child could die in front of its father at the hands of whites - with no recourse. Punishment for a crime was and still can be several times more severe for a black person. Wilkerson cites the stat that in Virginia, 71 offenses rated the death penalty for slaves, but only one of just simple imprisonment for whites. And of course the crime paranoia is totally unjustified. Wilkerson found that 10% of crimes involve a white victim and a black suspect. It’s usually the other way around.

To reinforce the points that make caste different from mere racism, Wilkerson went to Germany. She found that the Nazis created their race purity policies directly and consciously from America, the model for the world. They implemented the same sort of separations, forbidding Jews from holding certain jobs, forbidding whites from marrying or even associating with them, and in order to get a job, forcing all to prove not a drop of Jewish blood in their line, going back at least three generations. Some of the existing policies they found in America were so bizarre and offensive even the Nazis couldn’t justify implementing them. America’s caste system was proudly the worst of the worst. Nazi officials, right up to Hitler, read and prized books by American bigots. It was the umbrella the Nazis could flourish under.

They enslaved Jews, broke up their families, took all their possessions, erased their names and starved them while working them to death as free labor for major German firms. They eliminated their humanity and turned them into a necessary evil. The common hatred of Jews was the glue that kept the whole country together and on the same page. It has been said that if there were no Jews, Hitler would have had to invent them. Without Jews as scapegoats, Hitler would have floundered. So in the USA: blacks are tolerated with both hostility and fear. They provide the bottom rung and convenient scapegoats.

Caste is a wonderfully constructed book. Wilkerson has filled it with stories and examples she sets up before going into her analysis of the aspect the chapter covers. The stories often open readers’ eyes to what would be ordinary situations for anyone else. But they slide into cruelty very quickly. She has plenty of her own tales, as well as famous and lesser known outrages and insults going back 200 years. It has the effect of putting the reader right in the shoes of an African American, showing how debilitatingly stressful and limiting the caste system is for them. This makes the book no treat to read, but also impossible to put down, as readers will find themselves horrified at the impossibly difficult life the dominant caste imposes on the subordinate caste.

It is necessary, but insufficient merely to feel revulsion. Wilkerson calls on everyone go far beyond not being racist, teaching children not to discriminate, and to protest abuses of power. She wants everyone to be pro-subordinate castes in an effort to dissolve them entirely.

Her point is the whole country suffers from the caste system. If there were real equality, healthcare would be equal, as would job opportunities and incarceration. The country would benefit and be much farther ahead with the skills and talents of African Americans. And not just in sports and entertainment, where they are (now) allowed. Poverty would be substantially lessened for all.

Instead, the country is a rough patchwork of different standards, different treatment, different restrictions, and suppressed lives. She says: ”It is not about luxury cars and watches, country clubs and private banks, but knowing without thinking that you are one up from another based on rules not set down in paper but reinforced in most every commercial, television show or billboard, from boardrooms to newsrooms to gated subdivisions to who gets killed first in the first half hour of a movie. This is the blindsiding banality of caste.”

Wilkerson found that in 1944 there was an essay contest for kids in Columbus Ohio. The topic was what to do with Hitler after the war. A 16 year old black girl won with just one sentence: “Put him in black skin and make him live the rest of his life in America.”

David Wineberg
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LibraryThing member jnwelch
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson is a terrific book. I loved her The Warmth of Other Suns, but it had some repetitiveness issues. This one doesn't. It's well-written, well-researched, and well thought out. It's also timely, as we struggle to make progress against our frustrating systemic racism.

She comes to it with a "new" perspective, i.e., that our racism is a caste system akin to what has happened in India with the Untouchables, and what was done to the Jews in Nazi Germany.

"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 hierarchy. . . . 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."

What insights this perspective brings! And it avoids the personal defense of "I work just fine with black people", and "I don't see color" (hah!) and "One of my best friends is black". We've got a systemic racism problem that is comfortable and routine for many.

It all begins, of course, with the horrors of slavery.

"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 is careful to acknowledge her forebears in using a caste analysis for American racism. I found it extremely helpful in avoiding the "noise" that creeps into these discussions. The comparison with the Indian caste system is surprisingly apt and interesting. It turns out that many Untouchables were carefully watching developments with the U.S. civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Wilkerson is welcomed and appreciated in India as a sister in arms. The comparison with Nazi Germany is well done, despite many differences, including, of course, genocide. It turns out the Nazis were impressed by how white Americans oppressed blacks, and sought to adapt those tactics against the Jews.

One aspect I enjoyed most was Wilkerson's personal anecdotes, which she fits in seamlessly. An example is her eating at a restaurant with a white friend, who is amazed and angry at the shunning and bad service and bad food they get. She's been to the restaurant many times before, but never with a black friend, the only black person in the restaurant. Her white friend makes a scene, and says, it's obvious what's happening here, and demands to see the manager - who is a black woman. Attempts are made to appease her, but the white friend leaves in high dudgeon. Wilkerson is pleased that her friend's eyes have been opened to what Wilkerson and others go through all the time, but she also thinks her friend would exhaust herself if she reacted like that to all the slights that blacks here experience routinely.

What to do? Wilkerson, surprisingly, thinks a lowest caste may be necessary for the health of the whole, but argues that we need to allow mobility from the lowest to the dominant caste based on merit, not birth and color.

"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."

Plenty of food for thought! The New York Times calls this "an instant classic", and NPR says it's "a profound achievement of scholarship and research that stands also as a triumph of both visceral storytelling and cogent analysis." Agreed.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Recently I stopped in my local independent black-owned bookshop, looking for a specific book. The shop owner apologetically told me the book I wanted was currently inaccessible due to some renovations, and to make up for it she pressed a copy of Caste into my hands. “What a nice gesture,” I thought. And then I started reading.

In Caste, Isabel Wilkerson sets forth a compelling thesis about the origins of racism in America. She describes the caste system ingrained in our society, its similarity to other such systems in India and Nazi Germany, and how these systems work to keep people “in their place.” Wilkerson also shows the effects of caste and the tentacles that reach into all aspects of our culture. The book is well researched and Wilkerson’s personal experience as a member of the subordinate caste takes the book’s thesis beyond the academic.

This book completely upended my world view and will change the lens through which I view racism and racist policy. And now I understand that the bookshop owner’s action wasn’t just a nice thing to do. It was activism. And for this reader, it worked.
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LibraryThing member Narshkite
I went to a very progressive elementary school in the late 60's to the mid 70's - really progressive. For our 4th grade musicale we sang Ohio and For What Its Worth. (Our music teacher, Mr. Karstofsky, was the best!) I used to think about that when I was the parent of a grade school age kid. My kid went to a private crazy hippie school until 5th grade and I cannot imagine, even there, that parents would have been cool with their 9 year olds singing "what if you knew her and found her dead on the ground" or "what a field day for the heat, a thousand people in the street" and we did it in a PUBLIC school. We would have had news vans there in seconds now. I really don't remember it being an issue. I bring this up for two reasons.

The first reason is that the same year in social studies we studied caste. Our textbook was totally focused on the caste system in India, but our teacher told us that just as the Indians are born into a caste and cannot escape it, so too are black Americans, and that we (white Americans) should be grateful for all of our choices, and that we should always remember that black people don't have those same options. That discussion did apparently rile a few parents (who were totally cool with us singing Ohio as far as I know) and our principal came into class and told us we were going to skip the rest of the chapter and would not have an end of unit test (we had this weird pod learning thing, and we always had an end of unit test.) I had not thought of that in close to 50 years until I started reading this book, and it smacked me in the forehead. My teacher was right, and so is Wilkerson, and nobody is talking about this. I have friends who are better educated than I, who make more money, are better travelled, and altogether better citizens and kinder and more generous people who are held back every day as a result of their melanin, who are contained because of their melanin. Color blind class mobility is a lie. It is not just the people marching in Charlottesville, its the caste system. It doesn't matter if I or you or my neighbor subscribe to this set of beliefs. It is, its the whole damn structure. Now, I read, and I have eyes, so I knew before reading Caste that the problem is the whole damn structure, but even with my excellent 4th grade teacher lighting the way, I did not see it as caste before now. We are trained away I think from acknowledging how fundamentally we need to change everything before there is a meaningful difference.

The second reason I brought up my long-ago elementary school protest song experience is that I grew up in a suburb of Detroit, which was at the time (and maybe still is) the most segregated city I have ever lived in. (For those who are interested, I lived a good chunk of my adult life in the deep south, and it was not nearly as segregated as Detroit.) That 8 Mile thing, that is real. So as we were enjoying our first rate public education, learning about the oppression of black people, and singing songs and a-carrying signs we were a few miles away from a city comprised almost entirely of black people who were getting a substandard education, and who were blocked out of our little lefty paradise. Until 5th grade we did not have a single black student in our school after which we had one. This is how white savior complex is nurtured, by having kids tuned into the racism of American life but then having white children and black children separated in every way, and in creating a feeling of "other" between the two, encouraging the white kids to feel bad about the black kids down the road, to think about helping black kids, but not letting them think about changing the rules so everyone has the same options, free from the lies of caste distinction. We need to be talking about this in very clear terms, and I thank Wilkerson for framing the conversation for this generation.

I am not going to lie, if I was rating based on "enjoyment" this would get a zero. This is an amazing book, it has the feel of a classic. It is important and brilliantly researched and put together but it is hard to read. Wilkerson lines up the evidence like a prosecutor. building and building and not letting you look away. It is relentlessly uncomfortable, and most of the time painful and sickening. And you need to read it. Seriously, calling all white people, we need to read it and WE need to figure out how to reframe this. We need to stop telling the people from whom we have stolen power that it is up to them to change us to make us actually judge based on the content of character instead of this bag of assumptions we white people bring to every interaction. We need to stop being worried about being called a racist and start worrying about whether we are working to dismantle the structural racism that leads our subconscious to a very differnt word cloud when we look at a black stranger than when we look at a white stranger. And we need stop thinking that this is all about changing hearts and minds. It is not. It is about changing the structure of American society.

If we don't blow ourselves up in the next 25 years we will be a majority minority country, and that will help, but it won't solve the problem which is in the bones of America, Wilkerson compares it to South Africa, and that seems right -- majority minority doesn't change much when the power is so concentrated and the caste structure so firmly established. This is a good start to the discussion. I hope and pray we take it up and that I and the white people around me who want to see the change walk the talk.
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LibraryThing member nyiper
I agree with Oprah.....this book should be required reading for humanity. You just don't know what you don't know and Isabel Wilkerson puts it all out there in such a deeply personal way. I'm glad I was alone while I was reading because I kept gasping aloud or had tears. The Epilogue puts it all out there. And Einstein...little did I know this side of him---even more remarkable as a human being. I can only be grateful that Isabel wrote this book and that I had the opportunity to read it....and contemplate the future.… (more)
LibraryThing member froxgirl
While not as linear as her Pulitzer-award winning The Warmth of Other Suns, this is a critical historical document that should be added to every high school curriculum. Wilkerson, a brilliant writer and researcher, goes beyond condemning racism, to identifying the status of American lives as a caste system, with the status of Black people similar to India's Dalit (Untouchables) and with strong parallels to the treatment of Nazi Germany. The most galvanizing section is when she recounts how Nazi leadership used American law to determine their own "racial purity" standards - BUT EVEN HITLER REJECTED THE "ONE DROP" RULE. It's also got helpful anecdotes from Wilkerson's own life illustrating that what are called "microaggressions" are anything but micro. And for those of you have asked, “Why do they vote against their own interests?” – there’s an answer here. So many fine passages that I could just quote the entire book, but instead, you MUST read it.

Quotes: "Before there was a United States of America, there was enslavement - a living death passed down for twelve generations."

"No one was willing to admit that they lived in an economy whose bottom gear was torture."

"Europeans went from being Czech or Hungarian or Polish to white, a political designation that only has meaning when set against something not white. In Ireland or Italy, whatever social or racial identities these people might have possessed, being white wasn't one of them. No one was white before he/she came to America."

"Africans are not black. They are Igbo and Yoruba, Ewe, Akan, Ndebele. They are humans on the land. They don't become black until they go to America or to the U.K. It is then that they become black."

"Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you."

"In debating how to institutionalize racism in the Third Reich they began by asking how the Americans did it."

"The evil had grown too big for one person to stop, and thus no one person was complicit, and yet everyone was complicit."

"The fixed nature of caste distinguishes it from class. If you can act your way out of it, then it is class, not caste."

"Once labor, housing, and schools finally began to open up to the subordinate caste, many working- and middle-class whites began to perceive themselves to be worse off, unable to see the inequities that persist, often in their favor. Maintaining the caste system as it always has 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."

"Lyndon Johnson was the last Democrat to win the presidency with a majority of the white electorate."

"Trump was ushered into office by whites concerned about their status, that the benefits they have enjoyed because of their race, their group's advantages, and their status atop the racial hierarchy are all in jeopardy.

"America's conservatives have long celebrated America's unique strand of anti-statism as the product of our religiosity, or the tradition of English liberty, or the damning experience of the tea tax. But the factor that stands above all the rest is slavery."

"It turns out that everyone benefits when society meets the needs of the disadvantaged."

"Anyone who truly believes in a meritocracy would not want to be in a caste system in which certain groups of people are excluded or disqualified by long-standing deprivations. A win is not legitimate if whole sections of humanity are not in the game."
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
This was one of the best books that I have ever read. I rate it right up there with "Sapiens" by Yuval Harari as books that give a framework and lens for you to view all things in our world. In Sapiens Harari helps explain how throughout history arbitrary decisions based on myths and non-scientific beliefs came to create the world we live in today. Wilkerson drills down from these concepts in Caste. Her contention is that in our country( she also looks at India and Nazi Germany) we have created dominant and lowest castes based on nothing more than peoples race or some other arbitrary trait that the dominant class uses to stigmatize the lower caste. Wilkerson traces the history of the blacks in America starting with 1619 and the first slaves all the way through present day. In example after example she takes her narrative and makes it real by showing how caste impacts our everyday lives and actions. She gives examples in her own life about how she, an educated black woman who was a New York times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner, had to constantly justify herself as more than a member of the lowest class. This book shows the extensive research that she did and her use of data was excellent. An example that I liked was her potrrayal of blacks as being poor and living in horrible places. The realty is that 22% of blacks live in poverty which means 78% don't yet Blacks in the media etc are portrayed as poor which creates this as the first thing that comes to mined when whites think about blacks. She has many examples of pre conceived attitudes that lead to actions that have nothing to do with a persons skill or worth but reflects their low caste. Wilkerson contends that no matter what class or economic success the lowest cast achieves, the dominant white class will continue to view them as the lowest rung of the caste hierarchy. This book is a must read. Should be required reading in order to graduate high school. Once you read this and really think about what Wilkerson is reporting, hopefully you will have more empathy for blacks in America. I know that this book has helped me to have a different focus on race in America.… (more)
LibraryThing member technodiabla
I agree with Wilkerson's thesis. I think this is an important topic to understand more fully. I found a few chapters to be very insightful and worthwhile. I also learned some new history I was not aware of. These things to me make the book worth a read for every single American. However.....

I also found the book to be poorly organized, disjointed. And good lord did it need to be thoroughly edited. At 388 pages, this book had so much repetitive and meandering content I *almost* found myself desensitized to the atrocities it portrays. I think the best content would have been better served as a couple of long essays. It just didn't read like a persuasive academic thesis written by a Pulitzer Prize winning author.

I did enjoy the ending, which I was dreading. Though brief, her call to action at the individual level in the form of acquiring empathy was just right. So much better than laying out a 7 step government action plan or just continuing to complain without moving on to "so now what do we do?"

So, read it but don't feel obligated to like the writing as much as the message.
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LibraryThing member barlow304
Once again, Isabel Wilkerson has written an insightful and important book. By rethinking the racial conflicts of our republic through the lens of caste, she shows how people can claim not to have a racist bone in their bodies and yet still benefit from the caste system, which requires that somebody occupy the bottom rung of the ladder.

Ms. Wilkerson uses comparative sociology to illuminate our caste system. She compares our system with the rigid hereditary system of India and with the invented and ugly system of Nazi Germany. Indeed, in one chapter she shows how some of our Jim Crow laws were too extreme even for the Nazis.

This book has explained a great deal of our current discontents but it left me wondering what to do about them. How do we talk about a caste system and how do we dismantle it? These are important questions that I hope our country addresses in the next few years.
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LibraryThing member Dreesie
Made it to 41% (into ch 14).

This book is sloppy. It feels rushed to press and unfinished. It is largely a collection of anecdotes. SO disappointing, I had really high hopes for this one.
LibraryThing member Hccpsk
A lot of people smarter and more qualified will write about Isabel Wilkerson’s new book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, but I was privileged to receive an ARC from Random House Publishing through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review--so I’ll do my best. I took about six months to read Wilkerson’s last book, The Warmth of Other Suns, and I wish that I had the luxury to do that with Caste, too. The ideas and information are big and need time to digest--and often re-read--to fully take in. She uses India and Nazi Germany as the historic basis for arguing that white supremacy in the United States is a caste system. She utilizes a combination of anecdotes, history, research, scholarly texts, and quotations to make her argument, and it is a finely honed and well-written book. Wilkerson’s skill at mixing these various sources makes a very academic work move quickly. I highlighted so many sentences that I want to remember it is kind of ridiculous, but her writing sums up so many ideas and issues so precisely it is impossible not to try. Obviously this went to press before the current unrest, but it feels perfectly relevant and timely. I will definitely be re-reading, and recommend it to everyone.… (more)
LibraryThing member Othemts
The author of the remarkable work on the history of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, returns with a book about systems of caste. Wilkerson focuses on three of the most deeply entrenched caste systems in world history: India's millennia-old system, the subjugation of Jews in Nazi Germany, and the continued inequality of Blacks in the United States that persists even after dismantling slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

Through the lens of caste, which Wilkerson says trumps both class and race, we can understand how inequality persists and what can be done to dismantle it. Wilkerson works through eight pillars of caste and richly illustrates it with examples from history and current events. Wilkerson also frequently draws upon examples from her own experience as a professional Black woman being treated as an inferior. The book is eye-opening and sobering, and it is one that I believe should be on everyone's must-read list.
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LibraryThing member JosephKing6602
Very interesting re-examination of race in our society. Very thought-provoking. This book will (rightfully) prompt you to re-think how black-vs-white issues should be discussed.
LibraryThing member Beamis12
Impeccably written, extensively researched, this book couldn't be more timely. Systemic rascism, though that word is not used, rather Wilkerson argues it is in fact a caste system, a system that became embedded with the first colonials. She uses comparisons of the caste system in India and it's treatment of the undesirables, as well as Nazi Germany and its treatment of the Jews.

What makes this so poignant is the stories of individuals, and the effects in people trapped within these systems. Systems of the utmost cruelty that see these people as others, less than. It is in all ways a quest for power, fear of relinquishing any part of said power, and the ability to portray certain groups of people as a threat. It is this fear, this concern that she believes is what led to the election of the current administration.

A social and historical study, this book does offer a solution but again, will there be any permanent changes? It does provide much for thought, at least for those brave enough to read and to aknowledge
the truths within.
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LibraryThing member brangwinn
America is not so different from India or Nazi Germany. Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns) knows firsthand what it is like to be Black, intelligent and ignored. She continually points to how similar the treatment of Blacks is to the treatment of Dalits in India and the Jews in Nazi Germany. Using individual stories, she points out how the abstract theory of the caste system is used. It is not just the social status she looks at; she also explores the social status. I was surprised to learn that only 22 percent of African Americans live in poverty. The news paints an entirely different picture. She also points out that the net worth of white families is nearly 10 times as big as the average Black family. This book was beautifully written but painful to read.… (more)
LibraryThing member Darcia
If I'm lucky, I come across one book per year that helps me become a better human. Caste is, without question, that book for me this year.

I'd need a few days and a lot of space to sum up my thoughts about Caste. What I felt while reading, those "ah-ha" moments, the connections I hadn't considered, things I knew but hadn't truly grasped... I want to talk about all of it. I want to sit down with you and say, "This is what I learned."

I'm a white, middle-class woman. My privilege is not my fault, but it is my responsibility.

If I could ask you a favor, it would be to please read this book. Buy it for a friend. Talk about it.

I'll leave you with these words, from Isabel Wilkerson: "Evil asks little of the dominant caste other than to sit back and do nothing." Don't do nothing.
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LibraryThing member Beth.Clarke
Honestly, one of the best non-fiction books I've read about racism and the caste system. It contains a lot of information, but it doesn't read anything like a text book. Wilkerson includes numerous stories that explain the point she clearly makes. A lynching in Omaha, Alabama's interracial marriage law, the boy from little league team that was excluded from the swimming pool, Nazi Germany, the Indian caste system, and current topics such as the Obama and Trump presidencies, and the coronavirus. Her ability to make these topics relevant and understandable is remarkable.… (more)
LibraryThing member jmoncton
This might be my favorite book of 2020; it's definitely the most impactful and most important book. When we hear the word 'caste' we think of India, or South Africa, or maybe even Nazi Germany. But we don't think of the United States. But Wilkerson gives a compelling and riveting narrative that explains how we do have a caste system in the US that is based on color of our skin. Through historical research and individual stories, I found this book really opened my eyes to the issues of race in the US. No matter how enlightened, left or liberal you are, this book is an essential read. Please, take the time and read it.… (more)
LibraryThing member ecataldi
Wow - this compelling (soon to be award winning) look at the caste system in America, India, and Nazi Germany will give Americans a LOT of food for thought. Impressively researched; there is no way you won't be changed after reading this. When most people think of caste they think of India and the untouchables but Isabel Wilkerson dives deep into it's meaning the pillars that support it and then holds it up to a mirror so that we can see just caste driven American society is. It's.... upsetting, but honestly we're long past due for a reckoning; a coming to terms with our shameful past (and present). This book should be required reading. You can't unlearn what's in here but hopefully you can change your perception, your worldview, and start applying it for the betterment of ALL Americans (not just the white ones). Truly an awe inspiring book.… (more)
LibraryThing member MaowangVater
A sobering look at race relations in the United States and the toxic effect that it has had and is having on the social fabric of the nation. Wilkerson’s narrative style is accessible and all the more unsettling as she briskly narrates uncomfortable parallels between our own culture and the ancient system of India, and horrifying as she recounts how the race laws of Nazi Germany used the American Jim Crow statues as their model. Noting as she does, that even some of members of the Nazi Party drafting them thought many of the American ones too extreme to possibly enforce.

While the style is journalistic, the research and scholarship backing up the narrative is detailed, extensive, and well documented. Racial discrimination has been enculturated into our society to produce social stratification that stands in sharp contrast to the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Racism, or as Wilkerson terms it, caste, is enforced by custom, theology, pseudo-science, law, and policy, and it remains if unacknowledged when politically unfashionable, a powerful part of American life. Those who benefit from it strive to maintain it, while denying its existence. But its effects and consequences are toxic to all, and readily apparent in 2020. Wilkerson implies that now it is time to wake up and begin to work on a cure, even if the task is neither simple nor swiftly accomplished.
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LibraryThing member etxgardener
Pulitzer Prize winning author, Isabel Wilkerson has turned in another blockbuster book about race in America, and this time she is angry because what she is writing about is deeply personal. She writes about race in America as analogous to the caste system in India with African-Americans equivalent to the Untouchables. She writes, "The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power - which groups have it and which do not." She then writes a deeply researched story of how this country has been shaped by caste from its very beginning, with disturbing comparisons to the caste system in India and Nazi Germany.

This book should be required reading for every American. This country will never overcome its original sin until people recognize it for what it is.
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LibraryThing member Stahl-Ricco
"Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin." "Caste is the powerful infrastructure that holds each group in its place."

A great book to read at the end of the nightmare that has been the Trump presidency. And what a horrible nightmare the four years has been.

The African-American in the United States. The Dalits in India. The Jews in Nazi Germany. All similar, all horrible. The comparisons between Nazi Germany and the U.S. were most disturbing to me, and most apropos! The author details the similarities in depth, even explaining how some Nazi's looked to the United States' treatment of African-Americans to decide on ways to treat the Jews in their country. Revolting and horrifying. And completely accurate.

In 1944, the question “What to do with Hitler after the war?” The winning answer?
“Put him in a black skin and let him live the rest of his life in America.”
The 16 year old African-American girl who wrote that won the essay contest.

This is America.
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LibraryThing member hemlokgang
Here's a paradox for you. There does not seem to be a way to critique this theory of caste in the United States without appearing to be a resistor of reality. Hmmm....overall this book was absolutely fascinating, and the author's theory of the caste system in the USA seems entirely valid. The differentiation of caste and racism makes sense once I thought about it for a while. I squirmed with discomfort at the use of the USA by Nazis as the finest example of how to control the undesirables in their country. The brutal violence done to our lowest caste members was horrifying. My one concern, dare I voice it, was that author's considerable rage, completely legit, may lead reverse bias, but that is definitely a small flaw in the big picture her caste theory. I will definitely view my own behavior and that of others through a new lens moving forward. If you read this book, be prepared to accept body blows of reality!… (more)
LibraryThing member novelcommentary
So I don't often read non-fiction but this award winner kept getting so much praise that I felt it was important to explore. That assumption was more than accurate. Wilkerson's well researched work delves into the caste system, one we associate with India and Nazi Germany, and demonstrates how the treatment of African Americans was similar, if not worse. By applying the caste system to the construction of the Jim Crow laws and citing hundreds of examples, her argument stands up well and makes anyone rethink the history we may have received in school. Wilkerson combines a plethora of historical documents with her own personal experiences, and this makes the work more readable and currently applicable. I particularly found the information about Nazi Germany remarkable : "In their search for prototypes, the Nazis had looked into white-dominated countries such as Australia and South Africa, but “there were no other models for miscegenation law that the Nazis could find in the world,” Whitman wrote. “Their overwhelming interest was in the ‘classic example,’ the United States of America.”
There is a lot to learn here and everyone should take the time to absorb this work. As Wilkerson suggests :
"Radical empathy... means 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. 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."
I highly recommend what Dwight Gardner of the NYT called, "one of the most powerful nonfiction books I’d ever encountered."
I look forward to also reading The Warmth of Other Suns, her earlier Pulitzer Prize winner.
Some lines:
Lynchings were part carnival, part torture chamber, and attracted thousands of onlookers who collectively became accomplices to public sadism. Photographers were tipped off in advance and installed portable printing presses at the lynching sites to sell to lynchers and onlookers like photographers at a prom. They made postcards out of the gelatin prints for people to send to their loved ones. People mailed postcards of the severed, half-burned head of Will James atop a pole in Cairo, Illinois, in 1907. They sent postcards of burned torsos that looked like the petrified victims of Vesuvius, only these horrors had come at the hands of human beings in modern times. Some people framed the lynching photographs with locks of the victim’s hair under glass if they had been able to secure any.

It invited them to impregnate the women themselves if so inclined, the richer it would make them. It converted the black womb into a profit center and drew sharper lines around the subordinate caste, as neither mother nor child could make a claim against an upper-caste man, and no child springing from a black womb could escape condemnation to the lowest rung.

The waters and shorelines of nature were forbidden to the subordinate castes if the dominant caste so desired. Well into the twentieth century, African-Americans were banned from white beaches and lakes and pools, both north and south, lest they pollute them, just as Dalits were forbidden from the waters of the Brahmins, and Jews from Aryan waters in the Third Reich.

Working-class whites, the preeminent social economist Gunnar Myrdal wrote, “need the demarcations of caste more than upper class whites. They are the people likely to stress aggressively that no Negro can ever attain the status of even the lowest white.”

The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly. And the least that a person in the dominant caste can do is not make the pain any worse.

We are responsible for our own ignorance or, with time and openhearted enlightenment, our own wisdom. 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.
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LibraryThing member oldbookswine
A book that will challenge your ideas of race in this country. The author compares India and United States and the role of caste.
Her research is extensive. She includes personal stories and traces the history of African Americans in the US.
Highly recommended for those wanted to make the United States a better and equal place.… (more)


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