Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson

Nine stars

I have decided to embark on a mission to read a number of books on subjects that will be of great importance to the upcoming 2020 US Presidential Election. Many of these will focus on actors intricately involved in the process, in hopes that I can understand them better and, perhaps, educate others with the power to cast a ballot. I am, as always, open to serious recommendations from anyone who has a book I might like to include in the process.

This is Book #16 in my 2020 US Election Preparation Challenge.

In the aforementioned reading challenge, I have come across a number of hot button topics that are sure to play a role in the election process currently underway in the United States. When I embarked on this path, a few people recommended this book by Isabel Wilkerson as being a key read that may help me understand something that resonates at the core of the American psyche and serves as a highly divisive issue. The racial and caste divide in the United States is neither new nor isolated to this country, as Wilkerson states throughout this tome. However, it is something that has become as accepted and forgotten so as to fade into the background, while re-emerging when times are especially tough. Exploring the heart of the caste system in the United States provides a raw truth, albeit a painful one, that cannot be ignored and that is more than just a #BlackLivesMatter discussion. This book both enthralled and disturbed me deeply, to the point that I want to recommended it to everyone and no one at the same time. I hope I can do it justice with the review below.

The issue of a caste system in the United States is perhaps best hidden behind race, an incorrect label. While race refers more to the physical appearance (read: skin colour) of a person, the inherent issue in America is the relegation of certain people to a status or ‘place’ in the country’s hierarchy. It cannot be solved simply by wanting people to be ‘colour blind’ and is not solved by changing political leadership. It is, for the lack of a better word, baked into the mindset of the people, spurned by the political and leadership arms of the country, and propagated by norms of society. Isabel Wilkerson tries to understand and peel back the layers of this caste thinking, but never justifies it or points blame at a single person.

The idea of caste is not new and its origins are not found in a recent text. The tome’s overall study of caste looks to three societies where it was (or is) used with a great deal of success. The caste system of India, America, and Nazi Germany all showed how relegating certain groups to an expected set of tasks, while refusing them the ability to live as others did. This becomes apparent throughout the book in the numerous examples Wilkerson offers, some of which I will touch on below.

If the idea of caste is not new, from where did it originate? Wilkerson explores how certain religious texts in India laid out the key castes and offered people there an understanding of what was expected of each. Those born into a caste were not able to simply will themselves out of it, but rather had to understand their place and live in it. The American example was also spurned from a religious text, namely the story of Noah (of the Ark fame) and how one of his sons was banished for offending his father. This son was seen to be the representative of the African race and, through European imperialists, their punishment began in the form of being taken as slaves. Wilkerson explores how as far back as the first slaves brought to the New World in the early 17th century, those from Africa were always treated as the least worthy and most downtrodden. This continued and became a part of the American psyche, much as the Indian understanding of caste continues today.

Wilkerson explores the Nazi caste system as not being text based, but rather a mirroring of a certain country. She posits that Nazi leaders used the means by which Americans subjugated the African American population and turned it towards the Jews, as well as other groups they sought to objectify. This parallel is both fascinating and disgusting, as it goes to show that the mistreatment of a portion of the population was a trigger for one of the worst societies of the 20th century to thrive. While Americans and their allies fought against this treatment, it continues today with nuanced parallels.

With these foundational understandings, Wilkerson explores how caste has been used to perpetuate subjugation across these three societies, with a focus on America over the others. The idea of scapegoating, blatant delegating of societal scraps, and socio-economic suppression became norms, leaving little room for equality to flourish. While America tries to rid itself of the stigma of caste-thinking, Wilkerson shows that marches and legislative initiatives can only add lipstick to a pig that stands in the middle of the discussion. The standards are deeply ingrained and it will take more than words or superficial actions to change them. This is perhaps the scariest revelation I found in the book, even as an outsider.

While there is a need to heal, the strongest push back against trying to do so is a lack of understanding that this is not a race issue, this is not solely a need to recognise the importance of all people who are a part of the melting pot America prides itself in being. There are so many issues that go to the core of the American psyche and have been accepted for centuries. It is made worse when political and social leaders fan the flames and permit an ongoing subjugation through support of supremacy and violence and then try to justify it as being ‘what the people want and believe’. How can the nation get healthier when its top leaders purposely open wounds and pour salt into them, turning around and saying that this is how it ‘is’ and the mindset of America cannot be turned?

I have spent a long time thinking about this and, with the help of Wilkerson’s tome, feel that this is not something that can be solved with a single election, or even a dozen. This is not a Trump program that was not there beforehand, nor will it end when he leaves office. I do not point the finger at any single politician, nor do I feel there is a saviour out there who can solve it all. However, it is an issue that cannot continue. That said, this is not only going on in America. Canada has its own issues and there are inherent caste systems here too. Australia, England, France, and many other countries where there is a prominent heterogeneous population will have it as part of their psyche and I am sure people there will see it in their daily lives. It sickens me to acknowledge it, but I cannot pretend that it is not the case.

Those who approach Isabel Wilkerson’s book should be warned that it is not simply an exploration of a sociological issue across three countries, but a study of how abhorrent people are towards others. That being said, it is a necessary pulling back of the curtain so that we can stop what is going on, rather than continuing the horrible treatment of others. No one is free from blame, as Wilkerson repeats, so this is not a stone throwing experiment. Wilkerson may explore this from an academic perspective, but her writing is very digestible and the examples are concrete. The topics discussed resonate with many and serve to open the eyes of the reader with each page turn. Organised effectively into well-documented chapters, Wilkerson pleads with the reader to see just how deeply things have become a part of the everyday, which makes them even more troubling. While she does use examples from a post-2016 America, there are also many from as far back as 1610, making this an issue that transcends any one party or leader, though it is apparent that she wishes to show how it is being exacerbated and validated as ‘what the people want’ even today. I loved and hated this book at the same time, just as I have come to adore and vilify myself. What the hell is going on and how do we fix it?

Kudos, Madam Wilkerson, for making me look at myself in the mirror and not simply walk away. Your book disturbed me more than anything I have read in a long time, but I needed it. I just hope others will not be deterred and open their minds to what you have to say!

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: