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86 pages 2 hours read

Isabel Wilkerson

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2020

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Important Quotes

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“That summer and into the fall and in the ensuing years to come, amid talk of Muslim bans, nasty women, border walls, and shithole nations, it was common to hear in certain circles the disbelieving cries, ‘This is not America,’ or ‘I don’t recognize my country,’ or ‘This is not who we are.’ Except that this was and is our country and this was and is who we are, whether we have known or recognized it or not.”


(Part 1, Chapter 1, Page 4)

Wilkerson immediately grounds her work in American politics, specifically the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. She makes the deliberate choice to name some of the inflammatory rhetoric of Donald Trump without referring to him by name or title. In this way, she bolsters her point that he is significant not merely as an individual, but as someone who reveals deep, unpleasant truths about America. Denial and despair are not useful to her; understanding is. 

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“Many people may rightly say, ‘I had nothing to do with how this all started. I have nothing to do with the sins of the past. My ancestors never attacked indigenous people, never owned slaves.’ And, yes, not one of us was here when this house was built. But here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joints, but they are ours to deal with now.”


(Part 1, Chapter 2, Pages 15-16)

Wilkerson dispenses early with any notion that distance from the mistakes of the past absolves her readers of personal responsibility. Protestations of innocence may be factually accurate, but she considers them unhelpful. Using the metaphor of America as a building, she stresses ownership and occupancy over intention. To deny responsibility for America’s defining faults is impossible as long as one lives in it. Cultivating moral responsibility in her readers is one of her fundamental aims. 

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“A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it.” 


(Part 1, Chapter 2, Page 17)

Like an architect drawing the floorplan to a house, Wilkerson defines her terms with care, and her word choice is particularly instructive. Caste is “embedded”—it is fixed and foundational. It rests on “presumptions” of inferiority and superiority—not facts or scientific observation.

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