""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 America life today"--
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
American society was set up before it even existed in name as a caste society by the first European settlers that showed up in what is now Virginia. These early laws were shocking to me. I didn't realize how purposefully and intentionally Black people were put at the bottom from the very beginning. Wilkerson explores American society, laws, and culture from the beginning all the way to the very present day (even discussing COVID-19). She compares America's caste society to two others, India and the Nazi regime.
This is an extremely uncomfortable book to read. It focuses on the negative aspects of American society all the way through. There are many personal accounts of casteism that individuals have faced and that Wikerson has faced herself. I found it moving, upsetting, eye-opening, and Important (yes, with a capital I).
While I highly recommend reading this book, it will not be for everyone - even those who agree with Wilkerson - and I sadly do not think it will change many minds. The book is less of a researched history book and more of an essay or treatise or philosophy. That was my impression anyway. That's not to say there isn't a ton of research that went into this book and it's much more than "just" Wilkerson's opinion, but it's personal and I worry that too many people could dismiss it with an "oh, that's just her opinion, there's no evidence of that".
I'm hoping lots of you read this so we can discuss. For me personally, it was eye-opening and immediately shifted the way I think about what is happening in our country today. It was a monumental book for me, in that way. The book unfortunately, doesn't leave me with many ideas of how to fix all this. In fact, thinking of casteism as ruling more than racism makes me even more scared. It's a more deeply entrenched system and more wrapped up in power than racism alone.
Original publication date: 2020
Author’s nationality: American
Original language: English
Length: 496 pages
Rating: 4 stars
Format/where I acquired the book: kindle library book
Why I read this: new release and interested in the topic
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.