Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

Review by Brian Tanguay

For many white people in America, the work of confronting our history of racism is hard and uncomfortable, a topic to avoid or view as something long past, settled by Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. We like to think we’ve come a long way, but the Confederate flag remains a potent political and cultural symbol in America, a source of pride and belonging for millions rather than a symbol of treason. Contrast that with the effort made by Germany in the years after World War II to make amends. Nazis were hunted down and brought to trial; displaying the swastika became a crime punishable by imprisonment; victims received restitution; and the state built numerous public monuments and museums to preserve the history of how the country slipped into madness.  

Examining how and why the past continues to inform our present may be the only way this country will ever bridge its stubborn racial divide, but that doesn’t mean this hard work will be done and, to be fair, the lack of interest in facing history isn’t unique to the United States. Turkey steadfastly denies the Armenian genocide of the early twentieth century, while Japan obscures the atrocities its military forces inflicted on the Chinese in the late 1930’s. President Trump recently issued an Executive Order directing agencies of the federal government to halt racial sensitivity training, and in a speech on Constitution Day, Trump urged the nation’s educators to celebrate America’s glory and greatness while ignoring texts that challenge our comfortable myths.  

In her latest book, Caste, Isabel Wilkerson explores an idea that isn’t new, but also one that isn’t well understood: the idea that slavery, rigid Jim Crow segregation, and ongoing racial strife in America are products of a caste system. Ask most Americans to identify a caste system and they might mention the untouchables of India. We’re not taught, and certainly not encouraged, to study the underlying structure of racism in this country through the lens of caste. But in America, as Wilkerson argues, the idea that the  lowest white person counts for more than the highest black person is part of our DNA.  

Wilkerson, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for her first book, The Warmth of Other Suns, compares, contrasts and charts the connections and overlaps of the Indian caste system, American slavery and Jim Crow, and the twelve year reign of the Nazis in Germany. A similarity of all three was the establishment of an artificial hierarchy, the elevation of one group of people and the subordination of others based on physical characteristics such as skin tone, bloodline, or the accident of one’s birth. Unlike the chains of class, which can be broken through diligent labor, education or talent, escaping the bonds of caste is much more difficult. Caste is fixed, immutable, a lifelong sentence. Members and institutions of the dominant caste isolate and dehumanize the subordinate caste. Negroes were treated like livestock, thought to be ignorant and incapable of feeling pain, suited only for brute labor; Jews were clannish, cunning and greedy; Dalits in India were unclean and untouchable, fit only for the lowest occupations. To maintain a caste hierarchy the dominant caste stokes suspicion, fear and hatred of the subordinate caste. Pogroms, lynchings, and other acts of terror keep the subordinate caste in its place on the lowest rungs of the hierarchy. 

Slavery existed in America long before the formation of the United States, and continued for ninety years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. As Wilkerson points out, slavery was — from 1619 to 1865 — more than an institution, it was also an American innovation, different from the slavery of ancient Greece or Rome. It was “created by and for the benefit of the elites of the dominant cast and enforced by poorer members of the dominant caste who tied their lot to the caste system rather than to their consciences.” American slavery was enshrined in law, sanctioned and enforced by state power. The colonists created an extreme form of slavery that hadn’t existed before anywhere in the world. Enslaved Africans were treated as machines of profit for their owners. They had no legal rights. They could be worked to death, mortgaged, gifted, sold, wagered, bequeathed, and used as collateral. The physical abuse inflicted on enslaved people would be considered war crimes under the Geneva Conventions. Yet, when the Civil War ended, it was the vanquished Confederates who demanded restitution for their loss of “property,” and created a mythology that cast them in a patriotic and benevolent light. American public schools and streets still bear the names of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, and the removal of Confederate statues still sparks controversy, even violence.  

On the surface, the election of Barack Obama in 2008 appeared to be a giant step forward for America. But for many white Americans, the fact that a half-black man with a foreign-sounding name stood at the head of the government was a clear threat to their dominant status. The Tea Party rose in Obama’s wake, established to “take our country back.” The birther movement, egged on by Donald J. Trump, called Obama’s citizenship and loyalty into question. The Republican Party, aided by the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, began purging people of color from voting rolls and erecting barriers such as voter ID laws designed to suppress minority participation. The backlash against Barack Obama was swift, fierce and personal. By no means a radical, Obama was nonetheless treated like one. Millions of Americans simply refused to accept an African-American president, and thus when Donald J. Trump came along in 2016 with his message of grievance and victimhood, he found a receptive audience. “The caste system,” Wilkerson writes, “had handcuffed the president as it had handcuffed the African-Americans facedown on the pavement in the videos that had become part of the landscape.”

What is to be done? Legislative mandates only go so far and can be undone. Well-intentioned laws don’t change hearts and minds. Wilkerson argues for radical empathy, the difficult, personal work of self-education and listening. She writes, “Radical empathy is not about you and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will. It is the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it.” But as the mass protests against police brutality of the past several months make obvious, radical empathy is an aspirational goal, one that seems out of reach. The origins of our discontents are still with us, and the road ahead remains stony.