Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

After I had reviewed The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents was recommended to me. It is another brilliant and very readable analysis of the social and racial issues facing the United States. Those same issues are facing other countries, too, but the circumstances Wilkerson describes are unique to the U.S. because of its history of slavery.

From the very beginning, I was fascinated by Wilkerson’s framing of the problems, and the more I read, the more I found to be enlightening. Each time I read something that was unusually informative, exquisitely phrased, or perfectly concise, I attached a sticky note tab. My library book is now adorned with lots and lots of pink sticky tabs.

The first, and most significant, of her perceptions is the way in which American society is stratified similarly to the ongoing caste system in India and the historical Third Reich in Germany. Throughout the book, Wilkerson draws parallels between the three countries. I was surprised to learn that “by the time that Hitler rose to power, ‘the United States was not just a country with racism . . . it was the leading racist jurisdiction—so much so that even Nazi Germany looked to America for inspiration’.” (p.81)

Each new immigrant to the United States entered into an existing hierarchy which arose from slavery. “Europeans became something they had never been or needed to be before. They went from being Czech or Hungarian or Polish to white, a political designation that only has meaning when set against something not white.” (p49)

Image via Goodreads.com

When I read that, I was reminded of a conversation I once had with my former roommate in California. She is of mixed Filipino and white American origin and is acutely aware of racial distinctions. I had mentioned that I found it odd to be asked my race and having to choose “white” because, I said, a colour is not a race. Also, it made me uncomfortable because I had not had to consider my racial identity before moving to North America. She asked me how I would define my race and, at a loss for anything else to say, I said “Anglo-Saxon.” She laughed.

In identifying the American caste system, Wilkerson draws upon historical events, popular culture, and personal experiences. Together, these descriptions bring the reader to a clear understanding of the frustrations and rage of those who were once at the top of the social hierarchy now finding themselves at a reduced advantage. “It turns out that the greatest threat to a caste system is not lower-caste failure, which, in a caste system, is expected and perhaps even counted upon, but lower-caste success, which is not.” (p.224)

This book has helped me to understand the ways in which the caste system and the economic system reinforce each other. In addition, Wilkerson has illustrated for me the ways in which “evil can be activated in more people than we would like to believe when the right conditions congeal.” (p.267)

Having just watched Canada’s capital city, Ottawa, being occupied by angry white people, I wonder now to what extent their rage has less to do with vaccine mandates and more to do with social hierarchy.

9 Comments

  1. Glad you liked the book. Anne. I found it really enlightening. Now I’m most of the way through The Warmth of Other Suns. Thanks for recommending it.

    1. Thank you, Barb, for recommending Caste. I have spent a long time thinking about it and I continue to reflect on its ramifications. I hope my review is not too reductive. Wilkerson’s ideas are very far-reaching.

  2. As a child of (or actually, maybe one, directly, since we moved up to NYC from DC) The Great Migration, I found Warmth to both resonate greatly with me, and also to offer me comfort: it felt like I was understood, for the first time, in many ways. I’m almost afraid, now, to read Caste, because I’m not sure I want to re-experience certain feelings that I’m sure she must bring up.

    Our society can definitely Do Better…
    S. Destinie Jones

    1. I would not have read Caste if I had not first read The Warmth of Other Suns, and I am glad that I read both in that order. Caste takes a more global perspective and I felt it helped me put some puzzle pieces in place. I hope it does the same for you.

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