Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson examines the unspoken system of caste in America in her new book, CASTE: THE ORIGINS OF OUR DISCONTENTS.
Wilkerson began writing Caste out of a desire to better understand the system of assigning meaning to the unchangeable physical characteristics that direct politics and policies and personal interactions. As I read, I wondered how, why, and when this hierarchy that determines opportunities or disadvantages was established in a land that declares itself to be the land of the free and home of the brave?
One of the most startling revelations in Caste is that the Nazi’s wrote their Nuremburg Laws using the Jim Crow South as their model. Wilkerson quotes Yale legal historian James Q. Whitman: “In debating how to institutionalize racism in the Third Reich, they began by asking how the Americans did it.” Hitler praised the United States’ near genocide of Native Americans and the Nazi’s were impressed by the American custom of lynching its subordinate caste of African Americans and the American “knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death.”
In order to never forget the atrocities of the Holocaust and the murder of six million Jews, Berlin set stumbling stones in their streets with the names of Jewish citizens so that as you walk and trip upon them you will remember not the Nazi’s, but their victims. In stark contrast, in many American states, there are still monuments to Confederate soldiers and their removal has led to protests and a great deal of controversy.
Though Wilkerson started her research by looking at the Jim Crow South, she soon realized that the caste system in America manifested itself North and South, that the hierarchy of power was not determined by geography, but that it followed people wherever they went, much like the caste system in India.
Ultimately, Wilkerson says that though someone is born in the dominate caste, they have a choice not to dominate – to see beyond how people look and value them for who they are. Caste, as defined by Wilkerson, is the “granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.”
Caste is a remarkable work with stunning revelations. The notes and bibliography take up nearly 80 pages at the back of the book. In the author’s acknowledgments she explains that Caste is a book that she did not seek to write but had to write in the era in which we find ourselves. In a world without caste, Wilkerson writes, instead of a false swagger over our own tribe or family or ascribed community, we would look upon all humanity with wonderment. I recommend Caste by Isabel Wilkerson for everyone, absolutely everyone. This book should be required reading for all Americans.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews.