Every so often we come across a writer who takes a subject we thought we knew and completely shifts the perspective in a way that challenges us to think afresh. To see something common through a different lens. That upsets a long-held narrative. Their works tend to sit with the reader for months, years, or a lifetime, shaping our worldview in ways we don’t really understand at the time of the reading.
Caste: The Origins of our Discontent (2020) by Isabel Wilkerson is the latest work by just such a writer. Author of the landmark The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson’s earlier book about the Great Migration of blacks out of the American South was not simply a story from America’s Jim Crow era. No, she reminded us that this exodus deserved to be seen as part of refugee stories of displaced and marginalized people stretching back over thousands of years. In Caste Wilkerson writes persuasively, clearly, and honestly about the American failure of character. Instead of focusing on the misunderstood and often misused word racism, she writes of our unwillingness to see that the hierarchy built only on skin color — the “infrastructure of our divisions” which has been in place since our founding as a nation — is just another manifestation of caste, as seen in India and Nazi Germany.
Antebellum abolitionist and U.S. Senator Charles Sumner fought segregation in the Boston public schools before the Civil War. One of the first to recognize the role of caste in our nation, he said: “Caste makes distinctions where God has made none.”
A caste system is an artificial construction, writes Wilkerson. …
…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 forebearers designed it.
Caste systems use “rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places.”
While we often see the visible expectation of centrality in upper-caste citizens, that racial hierarchy, though seldom hidden, is too infrequently acknowledged. To understand today’s upheavals in our civic life, we need to realize that most turning points in our past, including the Civil War and the civil rights movement, were about attempts to either defend or overturn the caste system.
Wilkerson’s very human and compassionate writing doesn’t make Caste any easier to digest. This is a hard book to read for someone from the dominant group, especially if the reader is willing to be honest and open. On page-after-page as she walks us through the eight pillars of caste, one can see the totally arbitrary advantages given to those of us who were born “white” in America.
“Divine Will” — the first of those pillars — often calls upon Noah’s infamous curse of Ham and his children to make the case that God ordained racial hierarchies. “Purity versus Pollution” examines, among other things, the banning of African Americans from white beaches, lakes, and pools until well into the 20th century. After the Supreme Court ended the practice, white Americans closed and filled more than a thousand public pools rather than swim in the same water as blacks.
“Endogamy,” which means restricting marriage to people within the same caste, was legal in the U.S. until the famous Loving vs. Virginia Supreme Court case in 1967. “For much of American history,” Wilkerson notes, “dominant-caste men controlled who had access to whom for romantic liaisons and reproduction.” Just like the use of terror for enforcement, cruelty as a means of control, and dehumanization as a tool to separate castes, the control of marriage and reproductive rights is still a political issue today.
Much more than the economic issue often identified as the source of our discontent, the fear of displacement brings on a malaise that “is spiritual, psychological, emotional.” As Wilkerson drives home again and again, the caste system makes a captive of everyone within it. It is “a system that thrives on dissension and inequality, envy and false rivalries, that build up in a world of perceived scarcity.”
Wilkerson sees the resurgence of caste and Donald Trump’s rise — when he let Americans fearing for their standing say the quiet parts out loud — as being about 2042. That’s the year the census projects that people of color will outnumber whites in this country.
And we have a political party that now represents white grievance. Willing to give up public services, public education, health care, political stability, “in order 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” — they have also proven that they are willing to give up on democracy.
Near the book’s end, Wilkerson drives home the unbelievable cost of our caste system, as compared to our counterparts in the developed world. Caste is something that hurts and costs each of us. America “can be a harsh landscape, a less benevolent society than other wealthy nations.”
The United States, for all its wealth, lags in major indicators of quality of life among the leading countries of the world.
- Life expectancy in the U.S. is the lowest among the eleven highest-income countries.
- American women are more likely to die during pregnancy.
- Americans own nearly half the guns in the world owned by civilians, and the number of our public mass shootings far surpasses other countries.
- If the U.S. prison population were a city, it would be the fifth largest in America, as we have the highest incarceration rate in the world.
- Infant mortality in the United States is highest among the richest nations.
- American students score near the bottom in industrialized nations in mathematics and reading.
- America quickly had the largest coronavirus outbreak in the world and the number of deaths from the virus also led the world.
Caste is a book I cannot recommend highly enough. Wilkerson is a thoughtful writer with a hopeful message we should all hear: “A world without caste would set everyone free.”
More to come…
Photo by Library of Congress on Unsplash