Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents – by Isabel Wilkerson – book review

It’s hard to read Isabel Wilkerson’s new book without comparing it to her previous book, THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS, which I think is one of the most important and transformative books I’ve EVER read. This one is just as well-researched and comprehensive — but it lacks the cohesive story lines that made WARMTH so compelling for me. This one has more of episodic feel. Awarded four stars on Goodreads.

Regardless of story, this remains a VERY hard book to read. As a White American, I felt ashamed.

The book draws parallels between three global systems of caste: in India, in Nazi Germany, and in the United States. Most of us only think of India as having a caste system since it’s the only one of the three where the word is freely used by both government and citizens. But you will see that the profound similarities among the three systems simply cannot be ignored, regardless of how we in the US tend to use the word “caste.”

In India, castes are based on ancient and no-longer-relevant “job classifications” — that, nevertheless, STILL influence one’s treatment, opportunities, and, in many cases, well-being — for life. In Germany, the Nazi’s used the Aryan race as a model for the dominant caste and targeted primarily Jews (along with disabled, Roma, and gay) as the villains — with the much more evil outcome of the Holocaust.

In these United States, caste is based on race — with African-Americans relegated to the lowest caste — despite the fact that race is purely a human-made distinction that has no basis in science. Wilkerson argues, successfully I think, that Black Americans in our society are equivalent to “the untouchables” in India. Historically, through the exploitation, abuse, and despicable brutality of slavery. And now, through ongoing marginalization where prejudice (both explicit and implicit) limits where Black Americans can live, what jobs they do, how much wealth they accumulate, and how they are treated in every facet of everyday life.

Image (c) Business Standard
Image from Wikipedia Commons

Wilkerson paints a justifiably bleak portrait. Her narrative begins with the earliest arrival and subjugation of Blacks in this country. She continues through 250 years of slavery where rape, punishment, starvation, and murder were commonly practiced on the very labor force that was, at the same time, building the wealth of individual slaveowners and turning our country into a global, economic powerhouse.

Wilkerson’s narrative then looks at the discriminatory laws of the Jim Crow era where post Civil War, still-angry, former Confederates continued controlling and terrorizing their former slaves with random lynchings, false imprisonment, forced labor, and a sharecropping system that cheated Black farmers. She reviews the discrimination suffered by Black Americans performing military service and the voter suppression efforts we still see today — evidence of the dominant white caste continuing its efforts to hold onto power.

In reading this book you will learn much that isn’t taught in schools. It should be a required text in ALL our schools. Because the American history we have all been taught is a decidedly WHITE-washed version. (Did you know, for example, that Nazis in the early 1930s used United States laws as the model for the Nuremberg laws — the German laws that began LEGALLY targeting Jews?) You’ll understand more about white privilege, poverty, and contemporary urban issues. But I’m afraid, like me, you will have to recognize that racism is not just one strand in the American story. It is THE American story.

Isabel Wilkerson

More about the author, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Isabel Wilkerson.

You may be interested in my review of Wilkerson’s previous book, THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS.