Caste: The Origins of our Discontent, Isabel Wilkerson. New York: Random House, 2020.
Summary: Proposes that American society throughout our history has been structured around a caste hierarchy, showing the character, costs, and hope for a different future.
“Caste” is a social reality in countries like India, right? True, but Isabel Wilkerson argues and shows in this new book that a caste system is embedded in American society. She defines caste as “a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it.”
She traces the development of caste from the subjugation of the first Africans brought to Virginia in 1619, the institution of slavery and the legal structures that sustained it, the institution of Jim Crow, resistance to de-segregation and civil rights that, and the contemporary backlash against minorities and immigrants and voter suppression efforts. Bluntly put, all of these efforts, even in the face of growing populations of people of color, are designed, Wilkerson maintains to maintain the supremacy of whites, even lower class whites, within the caste system.
Perhaps one of the most chilling chapters in this work is where she documents how Nazi Germany studied the American subjugation of blacks under Jim Crow to develop their own models to subjugate and eliminate the Jewish population through “legal” means. She cites the common and public use of lynching to “keep blacks in their place.” She tells stories, including personal narratives, to illustrate her contentions. She compares the prevalence of chronic diseases among African Americans and Africans who have far lower incidences.
One story that I found gripping took place in my hometown of Youngstown. Al Bright, a black child who later founded Youngstown State’s Black Studies program and was a gifted artist, played on a championship winning Little League team, the only black on the team. When his team was treated to a picnic and pool outing, Bright was banned from the pool. Eventually when parents and coaches protested, Bright was allowed to float on a raft, not touching the water, towed around the pool by the manager after all the other white children vacated the pool. Scenes like this were not uncommon in the North in the 1950’s. It was thought Blacks would contaminate the pool.
In the central section of the book, she delineates “Eight Pillars of Caste,” showing how these manifest in the U.S.:
- Divine Will and the Laws of Nature
- Endogamy and the Control of Marriage and Mating
- Purity versus Pollution
- Occupational Hierarchy: The Jatis and the Mudsill
- Dehumanization and Stigma
- Terror as Enforcement, Cruelty as a Means of Control
- Inherent Superiority versus Inherent Inferiority
She concludes the work by discussing the backlash to the Obama election, the election of Donald J. Trump, and how these reflect the continued need to maintain the caste structure. She traces the great costs of this structure and ends on a note of hope for a post-caste America.
I found the argument persuasive. What is striking is how excluded eastern and southern Europe ethnic groups could be included under the white umbrella, joining northern Europeans, but Blacks, who have been here far longer continue to face efforts to subordinate and subjugate them. I would like to embrace Wilkerson’s hope, and think we can never give up such hope and keep fighting for that hope. But watching America in 2020, I find myself troubled that we could descend into widespread civil disorder, even civil war, but across the fault lines of caste rather than geographic lines. I suspect many never thought civil war could happen in 1861. It did, and it can. I think the sun is setting on our opportunities to heal the long-standing divisions of caste. We can’t heal what we don’t acknowledge. Wilkerson offers us a clear diagnosis. We must decide whether we’ll act.