In the final pages of Caste, Wilkerson says she wants her book to help change minds and increase empathy, encouraging ‘the work to educate one’s self and to listen with a humble heart, to understand another’s experience from their perspective’. Yet she tells stories of migration without revealing any empathy for the history of foreign black migrants or for the contemporary migrants from other parts of the Americas who have been confined in camps and cages in the US or deported in violation of international law. Instead of thinking in exclusionary national units, our work and our institutions should acknowledge these interconnected histories and forge links between black, indigenous and Latinx communities. It is time for a reckoning, but hoping to change minds isn’t enough when we are faced with a larger system of racial capitalism that perpetuates inequality and injustice.
Wilkerson ignores the fact that Nazis drew on centuries of European anti-Semitism which dated back to the dawn of Christianity and led to many European Jews fleeing to America. She also simplifies the very complex Indian caste system. There can be no question Hinduism’s treatment of the so-called lower castes, now known as the Dalits, is its original sin which has caused untold misery to millions of Indians over many centuries. Wilkerson is right that caste puts people in containers but while caste imprisons individuals, caste containers can move.
The approach she takes is both persuasive and unsettling. In Caste, she demonstrates, for example, how architects of the Third Reich, “in debating how to institutionalise racism [in Germany], began by asking how the Americans did it” and found, in the US, the “classic example” of a “racist jurisdiction”, leaving us to consider how far this legacy persists, whether in modern America today or elsewhere.
In the everyday acts of subtle racism – at the airport, in a restaurant, at an academic conference – Wilkerson finds that this “unseen hierarchy” repeatedly undermines her self-image as a middle-class professional, and even a member of the cultural elite. It suggests that beneath the veneer of meritocratic idealism lie deeper layers of the American psyche where white supremacy still reigns.
Wilkerson’s book is impressive in many ways, its characterisation of the everyday experience of racism almost perfectly judged. But it is let down by its organising analogies and arguments, and should be read with care.
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.
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.
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.