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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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Part 4, Chapters 16-18Chapter Summaries & Analyses

Part 4: “The Tentacles of Caste”

Part 4, Chapter 16 Summary: “Last Place Anxiety: Packed in a Flooded Basement”

Returning to her metaphor of caste as a dwelling, Wilkerson explains how competition within castes is a tool elites use to maintain the system:

When those in the basement begin rising to the floors above them, surveillance begins […] Thus caste can pit the basement-dwellers against themselves in a flooding basement, creating an illusion, a panic even, that their only competition is one another (238).

One example of this is “a toxic tool of caste known as colorism” (238), which rewards those who more closely resemble dominant caste individuals—White Europeans in the US. Wilkerson finds this particularly tragic and disturbing because of the historical roots of the tool: “the rape and sexual abuse of enslaved African women at the hands of their masters and of other men in the dominant caste over the centuries” (238).

While the caste system rewards those who serve elites—sometimes literally, as in the extra food allocated to concentration camp guards—these people are not honored by their fellows and instead may be “resented.” At the same time, they may also resent those who try to transcend their station or improve their working conditions, as some African Americans did when they informed Whites of slave rebellions.

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