I'm kind of embarrassed to admit that I hadn't heard of Isabel Wilkerson's book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, until I read a fairly recent TIME cover story by Wilkerson that provided an overview of Caste.
Somehow I'd missed the publication of the book in 2020. Making up for lost time, I immediately ordered a copy from Amazon. It took me a while to finish Caste.
For even though Wilkerson is a terrific writer with a smooth style that makes reading her a pleasure, her subject matter isn't cheery. So I'd read a short chapter on most days, rather than rushing through her book.
What blew me away in her TIME essay was the brilliant notion that caste, not prejudice, is a better way to understand the 400 year history of discrimination against African Americans in this country.
Wilkerson makes her case for caste by not only describing how this means of maintaining power by a dominant class has been used in the United States, but also how caste has enforced hierarchies in India (no big surprise) and Nazi Germany.
This book opened my eyes to how caste explains a lot about social power dynamics that go beyond racial discrimination. For example, in a concluding chapter she speaks about a subject dear to my aging heart, how old people are treated in our country.
The challenge for our era is not merely the social construct of black and white but seeing through the many layers of a caste system that has more power than we as humans should permit it to have. Even the most privileged of humans in the Western world will join a tragically disfavored caste if they live long enough.
They will belong to the last caste of the human cycle, that of old age, people who are among the most demeaned of all citizens in the Western world, where youth is worshipped to forestall thoughts of death. A caste system spares no one.
I'm not capable of doing justice to the book by attempting to summarize it. Others have done that hugely better than I could. Reading Caste, of course, is the #1 way to understand what Wilkerson has to say.
Here's a couple of lesser ways I found by some Googling: a NPR story, 'Caste' Argues Its Most Violent Manifestation is in Treatment of Black Americans, and a 6-minute PBS NewsHour episode on You Tube.
The book contains a lot that is disturbing. But we Americans need to be disturbed by how our homegrown caste system has caused so much pain and suffering and lost opportunity. One of Wilkerson's favorite metaphors, which I've heard her use on several interviews, is of an old house.
Old houses have many problems. She speaks from experience, being the owner of one. The roof may leak. The basement may have standing water. The electrical system may be outmoded. The porch may be rotting.
If a building inspector takes a look at the house and lists what's wrong with it, this doesn't mean that the current owner was responsible for the problems. But the problems are still problems. They don't go away just because someone says "I didn't cause them."
Likewise, those who want us to ignore the problems of caste and racial discrimination in this country -- I'm thinking Ron DeSantis and many other Republicans -- are like a homeowner who turns a blind eye to what's wrong with their house. We don't need to blame ourselves for the past. However, we have to take responsibility for fixing what's wrong with the United States that flows from our history.
Wilkerson ends up on a positive note. Here's how her book ends.
In a world without caste, instead of a false swagger over our own tribe or family or ascribed community, we would look upon all of humanity with wonderment: the lithe beauty of an Ethiopian runner, the bravery of a Swedish girl determined to save the planet, the physics-defying aerobatics of an African-American Olympian, the brilliance of a composer of Puerto Rican descent who can rap the history of the founding of America at 144 words a minute -- all of these should fill us with astonishment at what the species is capable of and gratitude to be alive for this.
In a world without caste, being male or female, light or dark, immigrant or native-born, would have no bearing on what anyone was perceived as being capable of. In a world without caste, we would all be invested in the well-being of others in our species if only for our own survival, and recognize that we are in need of one another more than we have been led to believe.
We would join forces with indigenous people around the world raising the alarm as fires rage and glaciers melt. We would see that, when others suffer, the collective human body is set back from the progression of our species.
A world without caste would set everyone free.