But she does offer one faintly hopeful note: caste systems can sometimes crumble. “To imagine an end to caste in America, we need only look at the history of Germany. It is living proof that if a caste system — the twelve-year reign of the Nazis — can be created, it can be dismantled,” she points out. Of course, this is an extreme analogy, and such “dismantling” only occurred because there was a full-scale repudiation of the past, amid the brutal shock of war. But if repudiation of past assumptions is the first step towards healing, Wilkerson’s book offers a powerful frame for this.
I had these thoughts while reading Isabel Wilkerson’s new book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” It’s an extraordinary document, one that strikes me as an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far. It made the back of my neck prickle from its first pages, and that feeling never went away.
I told more than one person, as I moved through my days this past week, that I was reading one of the most powerful nonfiction books I’d ever encountered.
Wilkerson’s book is about how brutal misperceptions about race have disfigured the American experiment. This is a topic that major historians and novelists have examined from many angles, with care, anger, deep feeling and sometimes simmering wit.
The full pageantry of American cruelty is on display in Caste, an expansive interrogation of racism, institutionalised inequality and injustice. It was while working on her sweeping, Pulitzer prize-winning first book, The Warmth of Other Suns, a history of African Americans’ great migration out of the South, that Wilkerson realised she was studying a deeply ingrained caste system that had been in place longer than the nation itself had existed, dating back to colonial Virginia. In Caste, Wilkerson sets out to understand American hierarchy, which she compares with two of the best known caste systems in the world: that of India, the very birthplace of caste, and of Nazi Germany, where caste as a modern experiment in barbarism was ultimately vanquished... This is an American reckoning and so it should be. Wilkerson has a deft narrative touch and she activates the history in her pages, bringing all its horror and possibility to light, illuminating both the bygone and the present.