Review: Caste

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.:

  1. Divine Will and the Laws of Nature
  2. Heritability
  3. Endogamy and the Control of Marriage and Mating
  4. Purity versus Pollution
  5. Occupational Hierarchy: The Jatis and the Mudsill
  6. Dehumanization and Stigma
  7. Terror as Enforcement, Cruelty as a Means of Control
  8. 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.

The Month in Reviews: April 2016

The Warmth of Other Sons

My reading this month ranged from rain to a runaway girl by the name of Rifqa (how is that for alliteration!). I reviewed Isabel Wilkerson’s account of the unheralded immigration of Blacks from the south to the north and west in the twentieth century, and a pair of novels by management guru Peter Drucker. There was the usual collection of more “theological” works, including one on the theology of Jonathan Edwards, future directions in biblical interpretation, a biblical theology of that unusual book in scripture, Daniel. I began the month with several shorter but thoughtful books on the paradoxical relationship of strength and weakness, different ways of fasting over forty days, and a book on the psychological motivations of religious striving. Finally, I revisited one of my old favorites by C. S. Lewis. So here are my review summaries with links in the title to the publisher’s website, and at the end to my full review.

strong and weakStrong and Weak, Andy Crouch. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. Explores two qualities that we often think opposed to one another and argues that strength and weakness are paradoxically related and that human beings flourish to the extent that they can appropriately exercise strength (authority) and weakness (vulnerability) together. Review.

40 Days of Decrease40 Days of Decrease, Alicia Britt Chole. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2016. A collection of 40 readings, reflections, and different kinds of fasts that encourage us to “thin our lives to thicken our communion with God.” Review.

16 Strivings for God16 Strivings for God, Steven Reiss. Macon: Mercer University Press, 2015. A new psychology of religious experience that argues that religions enjoy such a wide embrace because they offer repeated opportunities to satisfy sixteen basic motivations or “strivings” common to all human beings. Review.

future of biblical interpretationThe Future of Biblical Interpretation, Stanley E. Porter and Matthew R. Malcolm, eds. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. A festschrift for Anthony Thiselton exploring from different perspectives the tension between plurality of interpretations of the Bible, and responsible hermeneutics. Review.

The Warmth of Other SonsThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson. New York: Vintage, 2011. The story of the great migration of blacks from the South to the North and West between 1915 and 1970, told through the lives of three of those migrants and their families. Review.

With the Clouds of HeavenWith the Clouds of Heaven (New Studies in Biblical Theology), James M. Hamilton, Jr. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. A study of the biblical theology of Daniel, including its structure, key themes, how the book influences both early Jewish literature and the New Testament, and how it connects to key themes throughout scripture. Review.

DruckerThe Last of All Possible Worlds and The Temptation to Do GoodPeter F. Drucker. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2016 (forthcoming, expected publication date June 14, 2016). The two novels of management guru Peter Drucker, the first of which is an interlocking tale of the lives of bankers and aristocracy in pre-World War I Europe as they face an impending meeting, the second a tale of an act of kindness by a Catholic college president that goes horribly wrong. Review.

screwtape lettersThe Screwtape LettersC. S. Lewis.  New York: Macmillan, 1962 (Link is to current edition). The classic collection of letters between a senior demon and junior tempter charged with undermining the new found faith of his “patient.” Review.

Jonathan Edwards Among the TheologiansJonathan Edwards among the Theologians, Oliver D. Crisp. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2015. By comparing Edwards writing on various theological themes, Crisp underscores Edwards work as an original thinker and constructive theologian, building on a Reformed base, but even pressing the limits of orthodoxy in some of his work. Review.

RainRain: A Natural and Cultural History, Cynthia Barnett. New York: Broadway Books, 2015. An exploration of this elemental reality on which our lives depend, how we have tried to control it, produce it, predict it, protect ourselves from it and how it has shaped our lives and how we are shaping future rainfall. Review.

Hiding in the LightHiding in the Light, Rifqa Bary. Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2015. A memoir of Bary’s turning from Islam to Christianity during her teens, her flight from her family when she feared for her life, and her subsequent struggles to prevent the courts from forcibly returning her to her family. Review.

Best of the Month: I’ll give the nod to The Warmth of Other Suns for this eloquent chronicle of the largely untold story of the migration of Blacks from south to north and west in response to Jim Crow racism and how it changed both the migrants and their destination cities. It helped me understand in new light the dynamics of race that became a growing issue in my and many northern cities during the years I was growing up.

Quote of the Month: I can’t resist some C.S. Lewis here from The Screwtape Letters:

“He is a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a facade. Or onlylike foam on the seashore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at his right hand are ‘pleasures for evermore.’ Ugh! I don’t think He has the least inkling of that high and austere mystery to which we rise in the Miserific vision. He’s vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least–sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working. Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side” (pp. 101-102).

Reviewing Soon: One of the classics I’ve never read and am currently enjoying is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, another migration tale of farmers escaping the 1930’s dust bowl for dreams of a better life in California. I’m reading an intriguing book on how our physiology enables us to connect with God and serve others titled What Your Body Knows About God. In this political season there are a couple political books: Randall Balmer’s Faith in the White House on faith and politics from the Kennedy through Bush II presidencies, and Ask the Questions on why religious clarity is important to ask of our political candidates. And along the lines of recent reading, I will be reading Jose’ Orduna’s The Weight of Shadows on immigration and displacement, and Benjamin Watson’s Under Our Skin on addressing our racial divides.

The Month in Reviews is a great way to see all the books reviewed at Bob on Books. Just click on “The Month in Reviews” on the menu to access review summaries going back to February 2014.




Review: The Warmth of Other Suns

The Warmth of Other Sons

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson. New York: Vintage, 2011.

Summary: The story of the great migration of blacks from the South to the North and West between 1915 and 1970, told through the lives of three of those migrants and their families.

One of the most significant migrations in American history never passed through Ellis Island, or across any of our national borders. Yet it was a migration of six million people and had huge social implications for the United States. It was the migration that took place from 1915 until around 1970 during which six million blacks left the Jim Crow South to migrate to the Northern and Western cities in the U.S. Many of these migrations followed the rail lines from where blacks lived in the south to various destination cities along those lines in the north. Often, other family, kin, or friends had preceded them.

Isabel Wilkerson tells the story of this migration through the lives of three persons (although she interviewed hundreds of others). Ida Mae Gladney is a plantation worker from Chickasaw Country, Mississippi, who along with her husband and children leave, ending up in Chicago after a cousin, Joe Lee is beaten up and falsely accused of theft. George Swanson Starling is a young man with aspirations of a college education from Eustis, Florida. Discouraged after a couple of years of school, he marries Inez, and resorts to picking the orange groves, and begins organizing for better wages for the pickers. When he receives word that the owners are preparing to lynch him, he heads north to New York City. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster was the son of a high school principal, who trained as a medical doctor and was a surgeon in World War 2. Coming home to Monroe, Louisiana, he is not granted admitting privileges at local hospitals and determines to head to California, undergoing a harrowing car trip across Texas and an American southwest inhospitable to blacks, setting up a hugely successful medical practice in Los Angeles with Ray Charles being one of his most famous patients.

Wilkerson skillfully weaves historical material about the realities of separate facilities, Jim Crow laws, the ever present danger of lynching for any black who was too “uppity”, and a system that robbed them of wages due them, holding them in economic slavery. She describes their efforts to gain a toehold in the northern and western cities. George Starling works as a railroad porter, returning to the south from which he’d fled and helping other migrants he served on the trains. Ida Mae’s husband works in a soup canning factory, she eventually secures work in a hospital. Foster starts out giving insurance exams and collecting urine samples, making $10 an exam. In telling this story she describes the subtle forms of discrimination they encounter instead of the overt racism of the South. Often they are deployed as cheap labor and strike breakers, which exacerbate tensions with white workers. Most tellingly, they are restricted to certain areas of the cities to which they migrated, prevented by restrictive covenants from moving into white neighborhoods. When they succeed as population pressures force them outward, there are often mass exoduses of whites from those neighborhoods, destabilizing the community. It was a story that played out in every northern city with Chicago’s black south side and white north side, and Cleveland’s black east side, and white west side being just two examples.

She describes how the migration changed both a South facing the loss of a workforce on which it depended and the North and West accommodating a changed situation. And we see the impacts of the cities they settled in on them and their children. While on the whole, the migrants were more likely to be married and stay married, worked harder and were on welfare much less, they, and especially their children were not insusceptible to problems already prevalent in the north with drugs and street crime. Yet many were notable successes (such as Robert Foster) and the first black mayors in many northern cities came from the South.

Perhaps one of the things I most appreciated in this work was that Wilkerson seemed to genuinely respect each of the three individuals she features in this work, despite their imperfections. She enters their lives and allows them to tell their story on their own terms. She is present, even holding George Starling’s hand and squeezing it as he sinks into the coma that ends in his death. But it is a presence that draws out and tells the story of the migration without getting in the way.

I was a child and teen in a northern city during the latter part of the period of this migration. The growing presence of blacks in our city, the pressures this placed on housing and the transitions of neighborhoods were topics of family conversation, not always pleasant. This book helps me understand the dynamic behind those conversations, but also helps me step out of my white sub-culture as I listen to the stories of people longing for freedom and safety from the invidious culture of Jim Crow, people longing for the chance to work hard at a fair wage to pursue a better life for their children. So many of us are also the children of immigrants who wanted the same things. It makes me wonder whether the hearing and telling of these family stories, both unique, and yet not so different may be one of the paths toward the healing of the wounds of race in our nation. Isabel Wilkerson has given us a great chance to begin if we will listen to the stories of Robert, George, and Ida Mae.

Special Note: A group of colleagues and I have been reading this book. Look for a post with our responses in the near future. I will also post a link here when that post is up.