Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
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Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is a 2020 historical and narrative nonfiction work about the nature of inequality in the United States, India, and Nazi Germany. Wilkerson is a writer and former journalist, best known for her work in the New York Times, for which she received a Pulitzer Prize. She achieved further acclaim with her 2010 work, The Warmth of Other Suns. Wilkerson has also taught journalism at many colleges and universities, including Princeton and Emory.
Caste describes the United States from the arrival of the first enslaved people in 1619 to the current Covid-19 pandemic to explain the nature and consequences of inequality. In the book’s first part, Wilkerson notes that many people were shaken and surprised by the results of the 2016 presidential election, but the outcome was really the result of long-buried issues, and she therefore calls for a deep dive into the structures of American life. She argues that the key to understanding America is its caste system, a commitment to structures that assign some lives more value than others; in the United States it is based on skin color.
In Part 2, Wilkerson describes how race was constructed as a system of inequality in response to economic need. Enslaved Africans became a labor force for the American colonies, and an ideological system sprang up to justify their subjugation. Race is a constructed category, and Wilkerson in some respects finds caste more useful as it rests more on hierarchies rather than emotions, and every individual at upper levels of the hierarchy maintains the system. Wilkerson also notes that what we think of as the most extreme example of prejudice, Nazi Germany, actually rejected some of the racial thinking of the Jim Crow South as too extremist.
In the work’s third part, Wilkerson explains the pillars of every caste system and describes her personal encounters with some of these principles, such as the divine origins of inequality, the inheritability of inferior status, control over sexual partnerships and children, fears of pollution by inferiors, and assumption of status based on employment. Violations of these tenets often have horrific consequences. Wilkerson herself has lost work opportunities because White men assumed a Black woman could not be a journalist.
In the work’s fourth part, Wilkerson notes that since the 1970s, White men have believed themselves to occupy a more precarious position, and they have fallen back on racism to explain their new circumstances and increasingly turned away from the Democratic Party. Black people are threatened with police violence when they appear in settings or spaces where White people do not believe they belong. Wilkerson also discusses individuals whose professional lives were harmed by the caste system.
In Part 5, Wilkerson elaborates on dominant caste behavior, noting how white Americans describe themselves in terms of their European ancestry. The caste system also depends on the subordinate caste extending empathy and forgiveness when its members suffer, such as after the Charleston shootings at Mother Emmanuel AME in 2015. She describes her own experiences being nearly assaulted by White men on airplanes as they defended their caste status at the expense of her own autonomy. These indignities have physical consequences: The stress of racism has been found to alter the cells of African Americans and accelerate their aging.
Wilkerson then turns to the 2008 election. Obama’s election is also a story of caste: His biography did not touch on slavery or segregation, and his achievements marked him as a remarkable individual. However, his presidency produced White backlash, most notably the formation of the Tea Party. The caste system also explains 2016: Many white voters were eager to reassert the primacy of the caste system by supporting Trump. They continued this defensiveness by defending Confederate monuments. In contrast, German commemorative practices do not in memorialize former leaders of the Third Reich. Wilkerson also notes that the caste system has high economic costs, which the Covid-19 pandemic has brought into sharp relief, as racial disparities in mortality rates are stark.
In the work’s final part, Wilkerson contemplates Indians who have left their dominant caste identity behind, and a White friend who became outraged after receiving poor service at a restaurant due to Wilkerson’s race. She uses these stories to posit that a reclamation of humanity beyond caste may be possible. Modern Germany offers hope of a state that has left caste behind, which is crucial in a moment when American democracy seems precarious precisely because too many elites cling to the caste system.