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Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

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The Pulitzer Prize–winning, bestselling author of The Warmth of Other Suns examines the unspoken caste system that has shaped America and shows how our lives today are still defined by a hierarchy of human divisions.

“As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not.”

In this brilliant book, Isabel Wilkerson gives us a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America as she explores, through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings.

Beyond race, class, or other factors, there is a powerful caste system that influences people’s lives and behavior and the nation’s fate. Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, stigma, and more. Using riveting stories about people—including Martin Luther King, Jr., baseball’s Satchel Paige, a single father and his toddler son, Wilkerson herself, and many others—she shows the ways that the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day. She documents how the Nazis studied the racial systems in America to plan their out-cast of the Jews; she discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires that there be a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she writes about the surprising health costs of caste, in depression and life expectancy, and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics. Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity.

496 pages, Hardcover

First published August 4, 2020

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Profile Image for Trevor.
1,283 reviews21.5k followers
September 6, 2020
It is September 2020, we are a couple of months away from seeing just how insane the US actually is. I’m nearly certain that the world’s only superpower is about to re-elect Donald Trump, and I’m not in the least bit certain that the world will survive another 4 years of his lunacy. In my lifetime, each Republican president has been worse than the last and with each I’ve assumed we’d reached rock bottom – but Trump has proven there is no bottom. Nixon, Reagan, Bush I., Bush II – and still nothing prepared me for the last four years. You might say that his latest gaff (today he called soldiers who died in WW1 suckers and losers) will sink him – except, we were told that when he said he liked to grab women by the pussy, and then again when he mocked a disabled reporter, then there where all those times when he essentially said he would like to have sex with his daughter, and all of this was before the US elected him the first time. Like I said, there is no bottom. All you can actually say is that when he thought he could shoot someone in the street and not lose a single vote, he grossly underestimated his power. He’s currently killed 188,000 Americans and is going strong.

At one point in this book the author tackles what might seem the inevitable question of US politics – how is it that the Republicans are able to convince so many people to vote against their own best interests? It is very hard for me to explain how those of us not in the US look upon US politics. I guess it is summed up by a cartoon I saw from the start of the Trump reign. It was drawn while Trump was doing everything in his power to remove people’s health insurance, because, you know, Obama. The drawing had what I took to be a dirt-poor white man in a MAGA hat saying something like, “I can’t believe I have to suffer through another day of free healthcare.” It would be hard for me to think of a better example of something that seems so utterly bewildering. That someone would hope that if they or their fellow citizens get sick and do not have health cover, that their government will do nothing at all to help them – and that this would somehow be a good thing. The fundamental inhumanity of it is breathtaking. I’ve mentioned this to Americans on this site before and they say that I wouldn’t understand because I live under socialism… and while, admittedly, it is probably true that even our current crazy right wing government is still to the left of Biden, that is because there is near infinite space to the left of Biden and a wall to the right of him called Trump – Australia is hardly a ‘socialist’ country. All the same, we pay taxes and, bizarrely, I know, we sometimes expect something back from those taxes – something more than rescuing obscenely wealthy businesspeople every decade or so after they’ve crashed the economy. Perhaps if you say freedom three times and salute the flag it will eventually all feel better.

The author of this says that the real reason people vote against their own interests is that they actually don’t vote against their own interests at all. Belonging to the highest caste, even if someone is dirt-poor, is a distinction most white people cannot do without, and so they will vote to retain that distinction, even if it means that they and their families will have to do without healthcare, decent education, social security, clean air, and god only knows what else. As long as they are confirmed in their belief that they are superior to someone else, particularly someone with black skin, they will vote to remain poor, dumb and sick. God bless America.

I once saw an interview where Bush the Second was asked what made America so great and his reply was basically him saying the word freedom twenty times across maybe 25 words in total. Look, I’ve got nothing against freedom, of course, it just isn’t clear to me how having no security of employment, no health care, or education can be confused with being free – you know, ‘I’m free from healthcare’ sounds like a sad joke. Again, the author’s point here is that a concern for ‘freedom’ per se isn’t really what is going on either. Her thesis is that notions of race are only part of the problem faced by the people in the US – and that what is really going on is a kind of colour-coded caste system. I am not entirely sure if saying the US has a caste system does all that much more than saying it is a racist nation already did. I worry that it might make it too easy for people to say ‘Obama’ as if this was some kind of Trump card that proves that, after all, any Black American can aspire to the highest office in the land… You know, Obama had a white mother and so he was ‘Black’ only according to the tainting nature of US blood laws that the author spends so much time in this explaining helped inspire Nazi Germany. The stuff in this discussing the difference between how the US remembers the Confederacy and how Germany remembers Nazi generals is instructive.

Saying that Obama proves the end of racism in the US sounds too much like the sections of the women’s movement that Nancy Fraser criticises in her Feminism for the 99% - ‘feminists’ who are far too concerned with ‘glass ceilings’ getting in the way of us having more female CEOs, as if this was the most obvious solution to female oppression. It isn’t in the least bit obvious that having more female CEOs will do anything to address any of the issues that the majority of women face. Similarly, as we see virtually nightly on our television screens, the horrors faced by Black Americans were not in the least resolved by having a Black American president.

This book does something particularly striking. Throughout it jumps between descriptions of the various tortures, dehumanisations, murders and micro-aggressions that have been inflicted upon Black bodies across the history of the US. But often, when she starts her descriptions, it isn’t at all clear when these atrocities have committed – so that after a while you start to realise that whether the scene being described occurred in 1780 or 1840 or 1950 or 2015 hardly matters. The catalogue of crimes committed have been and remain various chameleon morphings of the same systemic and systematic brutality, enacted to serve the same end – that is, to ensure that all Black people know their ‘place’. These acts of barbarism are committed with such regularity, and are performed (and I mean literally ‘performed’ because they are certainly meant as spectacles that will be viewed by audiences) almost nightly on our television screens. They have nothing to do with law and order, but everything to do with reinforcing the privileged of some alongside the active disenfranchisement of others. I wanted stronger antonym for privilege, but given what is described in this book on what is done so as to stop non-white populations in the US from voting, disenfranchisement will do, even if it does not in itself cover the full extent of the dehumanisation that occurs in the making of the non-privileged.

This book is particularly hard to read. It has done nothing to allay my fears that Trump is about to be re-elected. If anything it has made it feel like a near certainty.

The worst of this horror movie is the two-fold enslavement of the American people, both black and white – where the Black must live their lives second-guessing arbitrary power (‘don’t shoot’, ‘just tell me what you would like me to do, officer, I’m sorry I appear to be frightening you while you hold your gun in my face’) – and where the white people get second-rate everything , but can delight in the knowledge that at least they are not Black. And all while Bezos, Gates and their assorted friends literally laugh all the way to the bank.

If you live in the US, maybe you could consider reading this book sometime before November and then vote (imagine a democracy where voting is optional…). In fact, as Trump himself says, you could vote a couple of times to be sure. Yeah, that would be great.
Profile Image for Roxane.
Author 116 books156k followers
January 12, 2021
The superlatives people use to describe Caste are all accurate. This is an astonishing book with a bold premise—that race in America is a caste system like those in India and Nazi Germany. Well-written, well argued and provocative. Wilkerson made me think and taught me so much. You think you know the history of racism and then a book like this reveals that it’s so much worse than you could have also imagined. Also she quotes me in the book! I dropped it when I saw that. So unexpected. A lil ego boost. But really that’s just a small vanity. The book is amazing for what it accomplished and how.
Profile Image for Liz.
1,964 reviews2,414 followers
July 26, 2020
The Warmth of Other Suns was one of the most important books I’ve read. So, I was really looking forward to Caste. When I previously thought of castes, I thought only of India. Wilkerson posits that the Third Reich was also a caste system. And, of course, the US. In fact, the Nazis used American race laws to design their own system. Unlike the Indian caste system, which had hundreds if not hundreds of separate castes, we basically have two. White and Black, as the poorest white is still above a Black person.
Wilkerson uses the first section to set out her premise. By Part Two, she gets down to the history, spelling out how it came to be and evolved through time. From 1619 until 1865, the slaves were the obvious lowest caste. But even after Emancipation, the country found ways to keep the Blacks in the lowest segment of society. The surprise is how current this book is. She not only covers the Obama presidency, but also the Trump election and his first three years. Even the corona virus is covered.
One of the most important points she makes is that racism is not just the personal hatred by one person, but a systematic abuse, often so deeply ingrained in society as to be oblivious to those in the upper caste. And that the upper caste will do everything to keep their privilege intact.
Wilkerson uses a blend of historical research, individual examples and even personal history to flesh out her theory. Some of the stories are gruesome in the extreme. It’s a hard truth to realize that there’s scant difference between a Nazi labor camp and a southern plantation, both using multiple means to dehumanize the targeted segment . And she rightly points out that brutality actually worsened after the Civil War, as the whites no longer had a monetary investment in the black population. By 1933, there was a black person lynched every four days in the south.
Wilkerson is not shy about talking about current US affairs, post 2016. She makes an important point about the narcissism of a group. “A group whipped into narcissistic fervor is eager to have a leader with whom it can identify...The right kind of leader can inspire a symbiotic connection that supplants logic. The susceptible group sees itself in the narcissistic leader, becomes one with the leader, sees his fortunes and his fate as their own.”
This isn’t an easy book, but it’s extremely important, especially in light of current times. It’s one of my best of 2020. Towards the end of the book, Taylor Branch is quoted as asking, “So the real question would be, if people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?”
My thanks to netgalley and Random House for an advance copy of this book.
Profile Image for Yun.
509 reviews19.1k followers
December 19, 2021
Those in the dominant caste who found themselves lagging behind those seen as inherently inferior potentially faced an epic existential crisis. To stand on the same rung as those perceived to be of a lower caste is seen as lowering one's status. In the zero-sum stakes of a caste system upheld by perceived scarcity, if a lower-caste person goes up a rung, an upper-caste person comes down. The elevation of others amounts to a demotion of oneself, thus equality feels like a demotion.
Coming across the passage above was a eureka moment, a lightning strike going off in my head. It immediately made me think of the now-famous quote that showed up around the time of Trump: "Equal rights for others does not mean less rights for you. It's not pie." I had long puzzled over the necessity of stating this obvious fact, and why it was that a significant portion of the American population did not seem to agree with it. And the paragraph above, along with this entire book, has finally given me the answer, a comprehensive explanation for all that has confused me for so long.

Going into Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, I had never thought about racism as a form of a caste system. Yet, the book makes an articulate and thoughtful argument for why one is really a manifestation of the other. It refers to India's famous caste system to explain America's racial structure, but it also spends a good amount of time comparing them to Nazi Germany. Through it all, it provided answers to so many discrepancies that racism alone could never quite fully account for.

This book is unflinching in its analysis and chilling in its comparisons. To see racism in America as being equal to, or even at times worse than, the Nazi Germany's treatment of Jews, is horrifying and eye-opening. For example, in one of the passages around the formation of the Nuremberg Laws, the book talks about how the Germans learned from the Americans. They actually studied U.S. segregation laws and were impressed with their ability to keep black citizens powerless, all within a legal framework.

The book doesn't just talk about history, but also what is happening today. In particular, it addresses the backlash that formed following Obama's election to the highest office in the land, the seemingly confounding actions that Trump supporters took in voting against their own self-interest, and the fanatical fever of white and Confederate pride that have overtaken so many citizens and towns.

One of the unintended side effects of this book is that it helped me understand my Chinese heritage and culture. There were so many verbal and nonverbal cues I had picked up throughout my childhood, which had shaped me into the quiet and passive person I'd been in my early adult years. That, combined with the personality differences I have seen among my Chinese peers, all seem to tie into Chinese's implicit caste system of favoring sons over daughters. Even though there is nothing about China in this book, everything that is said about the psychological effects of a caste system can still apply (though to a much lesser degree).

I almost didn't finish this book, though. For all of its insightful breakthroughs, I almost stopped reading because I found the beginning chapters to be dull, indulgent, and flowery. It spent so long telling me what the book will be about instead of just getting on with it. It was full of metaphors for what racism is, like it's an old house, or a virus, or a play. And each metaphor is stretched to its limits, filled with pages and pages of comparisons. It wasn't until the middle of chapter 4 that the content finally starts to become cogent. If you are considering this book, do try to power through the initial muddling pages to get to the rest of this powerful and worthwhile book.

We cannot hope to bridge the divide that has so fractured this country if one side cannot understand the other. So for me, this book is of the upmost importance. It has done more for my understanding of US race relations than any other book I have read. Looking at race through the lens of a caste system is the only explanation I've come across that is both logical and comprehensive.
Profile Image for Stetson.
195 reviews144 followers
August 21, 2020
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, makes the case that America is a caste system analogous to that of India's but organized on the basis of race. She strongly implies that the 2016 Presidential Election was somehow evidence for this claim and then outlines what she posits are the features of the American caste system (8 pillars of caste):

Wilkerson's 8 Pillars of Caste:
1) Divine Will and The Laws of Nature
2) Heritability
3) Endogamy and the control of marriage and mating
4) Purity vs pollution
5) Occupational hierarchy
6) Dehumanization and Stigma
7) Terror as enforcement, cruelty as a means of control
8) Inherent superiority vs inherent inferiority

Wilkerson's thesis is ostensibly ridiculous as a description of contemporary America, which is actually organized as a hierarchy of competence where competence is roughly determined by free market forces (any serious discussion of political economy is strikingly absent from Caste), a meritocracy in other words. Wilkerson's claims are also reckless, especially given the media attention given to her work (i.e. Oprah's recommendation). This is not a work that is seeking to achieve the racial reconciliation and harmony of a post-racial America where all races and creeds can cash the promissory note of the American founding and the American dream. It wallows in the racial sins and misery of America's past (slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow) and labels those evils as America's essence rather than the chronic disease that America has always aspired to eliminate.

I would be more inclined to take her arguments seriously if she didn't assiduously avoid all the aspects of American life that plainly contradict her or at least mitigate against such a stark perspective. For instance, Wilkerson completely ignores Asian American minorities in her book. She fails to address why in a caste system organized by race with "whiteness" as the dominant identity that Asian Americans are the most educated, wealthiest ethnic group. Of course black/African Americans historically suffered much deeper, more severe iniquities than Asian Americans, but her thesis is predicated on the claim that society is systemically organized to ensure dominant status for white Americans. It's just sloppy to have such a glaring omission, a white elephant of sorts that lurks behind every line. Moreover, Wilkerson's seeming aversion to sociological and economic data is evidenced as she opts for the telling of emotive anecdotes of racial iniquities. Wilkerson is a moving writer; however, the lack of rigor, specificity, data, and analysis belie her true intentions, which are those of an activist rather than a scholar (activists don't have time for pesky facts or to dissect a delicate, hot-button topic in a balanced, dispassionate fashion).

There were some aspects of Wilkerson's discussions of race that I thought were accurate. For instance, she does point out that there is no biological (i.e. genetic) definition of race, making it decidedly a social invention. I think this is an important insight, but Wilkerson does not follow this understanding through to its conclusion. Given the harm caused by the arbitrary use of skin color as a historical system of oppression and disenfranchisement, we should aim for a future where skin color is no longer a meaningful measure (a color-blind egalitarian society where one's merit entirely determines one's place in the social hierarchy). Despite Wilkerson's vagueness on how this supposed American racial caste system can be remedied, it is clear that this is not the vision she has for America's future or even believes that such a future is possible.

I could belabor my critique, but I think a recommendation to readers interested in this topic would be better. Political Tribes by Amy Chua, although not as directly engaged on the issue of race, is still far superior in its discussion of similar issues, a balanced, reasonable analysis of the tribalism in contemporary American society.
Profile Image for Thomas.
1,427 reviews8,339 followers
August 18, 2020
Liked this book for its blunt discussion of racism and caste discrimination, though at times its analysis felt rather simple or superficial. In terms of positives, I appreciate Caste for its international perspective. A lot of books on race write about race within the context one country, whereas Isabel Wilkerson compares and contrasts the United States, India, and Nazi Germany. Wilkerson does a great job too of showing how many anti-Black racist events within the United States occurred not too long ago. In part because of the myth of a post-racial society, we often believe that things like slavery and segregation occurred way back when, when in reality those racist events happened relatively recently and still manifest today through mass incarceration and voter suppression. I appreciated Wilkerson’s more provocative or deeper insights, such as how a lot of people in lower castes will try to assimilate and desire proximity to upper castes (yikes), as well as how these issues of caste extend into arenas ranging from disenfranchisement in academia to nastiness in interpersonal interactions.

Sometimes I wanted more from this book’s structure and its recommendations about challenging the caste system. The book’s thesis and argument style feels a bit simplistic in that early on Wilkerson establishes the idea of castes. Then, she describes several racist events, and at the end of each description she comments about how the event exemplifies the presence and maintenance of castes. I desired more innovative, less repetitive writing that delved deeper into the systemic, international mechanisms that perpetuate castes. Goodreads reviewer Chetana raises issue with the simplicity of Wilkerson’s international analysis in her review, which I agree with. The solutions and action steps toward the end of the book felt pretty surface-level too. While radical empathy and recognizing each other’s humanity is great, I’m additionally interested in specific, systemic, actionable ways we can dismantle white supremacy and caste discrimination.

I do think it’s important that the racist events Wilkerson describes in this book are acknowledged, though I’m not sure those more familiar with racism will learn much from reading Caste, aside from some of the introductory international analysis. I’d be curious for writers to include more about how Asian and Latinx individuals fit into the American caste system as well as how intersectionality plays into it. In terms of books about racism and anti-racism, I’d still recommend Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Longe, and So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
3,924 reviews35.4k followers
August 6, 2020
FAVORITE NON FICTION AUDIOBOOK since Michele Obama’s “Becoming”.

Ten years ago, I read “The Warmth of Other Suns”....The epic story of America’s Great Migration ....
One of the most highly imagined - engrossing - heartfelt books I’ve ever read. There were three main unforgettable characters— their complexities - individual stories - and motivations for what they did - had to do - was soooo well written and experienced from Isabel Wilkerson...I’ve never forgotten the power and impact her book left on me.

Ten years later...brings me to:
“Caste...The Origins of Our Discontents”....( an Oprah Book Club pick... more deserving than all other ‘club-picks’, combined)....is an exceptional- needed - extraordinary - masterful - BEST NON FICTION BOOK ....perfect timing book - in the pandemic year of 2020 - that brings a whole new meaning to the term: “INSTANT CLASSIC”.

*Audiobook*....read by Robin Miles [14hours and 26 minutes] ....
Robin is the perfect reader for this book.

Two full days of compelling binge listening. This book only left my side for one phone call, ( Tzipora), and couple of quick messages.
The last time I listened to an audiobook with this much gusto, was when I listened to Michelle Obama read from her book ‘Becoming’.

This book changes us...
It has changed me. I’ll never think of caste, American Caste, dominate caste, subordinate caste, mis-casting of caste, sickness of caste, hate, suffering, violence, rejection of caste, cruelty of caste, disparity, fears, resentments, intolerance, mocking, beliefs, assumptions, lies upon lies, stereotyping, slavery, abuse, discrimination, oppression, class, blacks, white, race, hierarchy, and collective madness the same again. There is no returning to where I started from before this book.

I learned so much more about American history....about AMERICAN CASTE HISTORY... realizing how much I never understood before.

It would take me 5 to 10 years to write a deserving review to match a third of this highly accomplished book.
And now that I’ve finished it - it might be a better use of my time to read professionals reviews, watch YouTube’s, podcasts, interviews, and read other readers reviews, than spend the next many years trying to write one book review myself. I do intend to stay engaged with the conversations - ( be mindful as one Goodreads buddy said), and apply action where it seems appropriate).

Oprah must have some discussion group going, yes? I’d pay to join a quality book discussion with Isabel Wilkerson speaking.
The only other time I engaged with one of Oprah’s online book clubs, was when she and Eckhart Tolle...lead a ten week -weekly hour- online gathering discussion- chapter by chapter ( people from around the world).

Point is, I’m at at age, stage, and readiness of wanting to stay engaged learning, growing, re-evaluating, reassessing, being mindful, and taking action when it comes to social injustice- intolerance- racial justice - and civil liberties.
Reading this book....was fitting with my own commitment to the cause.
While digesting so much information from this book - I’m aware that I’ve still no idea just how ‘much’ this book is a useful gift ....it’s opened a new pathway inside my brain...for more...new... greater effective learning.

Isabel Wilkerson connects caste histories - giving us a connective experience of the caste system in India, Nazi Germany, and in America.
For example, Isabel, explains how radical inequality in America has its parallel in caste in inequality in India even though by definition race and caste are not the same thing. She draws different parallels from different systems of oppression.

She breaks down eight pillars of caste: ( explores each of these with us to better understand)
....Foundations of caste origins of discontents
....Divine Will and Laws of Nature
....Endogamy and the Control of Marriage and Mating
....Purity Versus Pollution
....Occupational Hierarchy: The Jatis and the Mudsill
....Dehumanization and Stigma
....Terror as Enforcement, Cruelty as a Means of Control
....Inherent Superiority Versus Inherent Inferiority

Race and Caste are examined - how they are similar and how they are different. Both divide society in many ways to the unfair advantage of certain groups over others. I particularly liked when Isabel included real people, situations, and their ‘oh-my-fricken-god’ stories that gave me a more direct experience of the intensity of discrimination.
My mind connects best with real stories include...and there are plenty.

There were several personal stories that will stay with me ...
....one was about a woman named *Miss*,
....another true ‘sharing-story’ about when Isabel was in a position where she was accused of impersonating herself. I’m still chuckling over that one.
In need for a new mailbox? Haha!
There’s an old saying I learned years ago....
If you have a flat tire, and you’re angry about it.... you can kick it, and kick it, and kick it again....but the tire will still be flat.

I mentioned it might take years for me to write a proper review.
I could write much more about this book and I’m sure it would be a beneficial process for myself....
However, at this point, best to share the real truth to others: READ IT!!!
It really should be required reading - in our schools - families - for humanity.

I hope I was able to contribute a small part, of adding my voice to the endorsement FOR WHY READ - ( audiobook was great for me)...this book. Reading will have many advantages too. I’d need to consider purchasing- and reading this book for a next read.

The start was awesome - a creative fun way to get a regular reader interested - ( and again its must be said that the voice narrator, Robin Miles was fantastic); I was immediately hooked.
I was never bored but there were a few parts that were harder for me to understand than others.
The journey is a process.
I don’t think I’m expected to understand everything from one read, but I got a hell of a lot out of it.

Isabel Wilkerson is a genius.
She’s a phenomenal teacher ( besides incredible author).
I’m thankful for the added spoonfuls of sugar, to the much needed medicine: seriously’ helpful in digesting this much learning in 2 days.

Is it even necessary to say?
5 strong stars - and more.

Profile Image for Michael Spikes.
39 reviews30 followers
August 15, 2020
To start, I have to say that I think this book deserves a 4-star rating as a detailed narrative of the actions of certain individuals who were interested in maintaining a caste style hierarchy of others based on skin color. However, I found it a bit short-sighted and was personally disappointed in this work.

That said, as an individual reader, I think I was just expecting something different than what this book actually is, and that led me to the 2-star rating.

I eagerly awaited the publication of this book, hoping that it would be a deeply researched tome that would provide illumination for race relations in the United States. Seeing the title of "Caste" had me believe that this discussion would go beyond the binary frames that usually are associated with discourses on racism by using the lens of caste hierarchy. As the book went on, however, I found the intricate retelling of past atrocities against individual African Americans--which most of the book is dedicated to--akin to a rehashing of past work. Instead of establishing a new frame using caste, I found that on many occasions, the phrases of "dominant caste" and "subordinate caste" were just replacements for the words "white people" and "black people", and I didn't get the sense that the investigation was meant to go beyond that. Discussions of India's and the Nazi's caste systems were scant, and never really were raised to the same level of comparison as those of America's Jim Crow and Antebellum south.

To be clear, this isn't to say that these stories aren't significant to be reminded of, especially during our current moment. But it provides readers with more of an explanation of WHAT happened to certain individuals at a very particular time, rather than providing a fuller picture of the WHY these things happen, and the deeper implications of those actions both on the victims and the aggressors. That's where this book didn't reach the expectations that I had for it -- which admittedly, may have been misplaced.

Profile Image for Carol.
315 reviews848 followers
December 18, 2020
I'm of two minds on Caste. On the one hand, it is a must-read book for anyone with the slightest interest in understanding the Black experience in the US. Its reach is so broad that having read it is table stakes for any cross-racial conversation on point. If you're white and serious about expanding your meaningful relationships with Black individuals, you particularly need to read it, along with The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Between the World and Me and a couple of other Systemic Racism 101 titles. Otherwise, let's be honest, your unwillingness to invest your reading time in understanding systemic racism suggests you're expecting those Black friends to educate you, and I suspect they are weary of taking on that thankless task.

Then again, what you take from reading Caste depends on the level of knowledge and lived experience you bring to it. I found it to be repetitive both within its own pages and in terms of what I know from reading other books, articles and columns covering this same subject matter. Nonetheless, I read and discussed Caste over a 7-week series of meetings with a Zoom book club of predominately well-intentioned, not particularly politically-engaged, white readers; I observed that those readers who knew the least going-in found Caste to be the most impactful, a major eye-opener, as it were. In contrast, the two of us who have been engaged intensely on this topic for decades found it to be fine but it didn't bring new insights or learnings. (The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness it is not.)

I have the utmost respect for Wilkerson and her writing is engaging and avoids the research-dump trap. A self-aware reader will know whether Caste should be 1st or 150th on her TBR.
Profile Image for David Wineberg.
Author 2 books683 followers
June 1, 2020
Americans don’t think in these terms, but Isabel Wilkerson points out in no uncertain terms that the country is running a caste system, remarkably and sadly just like India’s. In India, there are four varnas and numerous, maybe thousands of subdivisions between them. Each one is a caste with strict rules of life, conduct, liberty and employment. In the US, there is the dominant caste and the subordinate caste. In between, there are various subcastes for various colors and tribes, but at the very bottom there are blacks. It’s so obvious, obstructive and intrusive that even blacks from other countries go out of their way to distinguish themselves from African Americans.

The main difference is that in India, you can only tell the castes apart by people’s postures and attitudes, because everyone is from the same genetic family. In America, it’s entirely by skin color, making it very easy to tell the castes apart. This has made America’s caste system stubbornly resistant to laws, directives or social movements. In her gripping and staggeringly affecting book Caste, Wilkerson looks at the system from every angle, finding it a terrific waste of time, human potential, and life. Its attributes are entirely negative, just as in India. It’s all for nothing and all about nothing. But it costs plenty. Those human costs are the real meat of the book.

Americans have been well aware of running a caste system, for centuries now. In 1832 a Virginia slaveholder said “poor whites have little but their complexion to console them for being in a higher caste.” Civil War era Senator Charles Sumner said caste was a “violation of equality.” The word keeps popping up, but it seems no one has seen fit to work with it.

Wilkerson finds that white skin is salvation for a lot of poor whites, who know with certainty that they are not the bottom of the heap – as long as there are blacks around. So it’s important to both keep them down and keep them poor. The situation is so devoid of truth or reality that 55% of Americans think all poor people are black. And that’s reason enough to keep the castes separate, and to be against aiding the poor.

One of the very many impressive things in Caste is the day-to-day horror of living while black. There is having to be careful over every step you take and every word you utter, lest a dominant caste member take offense – just like in India. America had a an example just last week (as I write this in May 2020) as a woman in Central Park called the police when a black birdwatcher asked her to leash her dog as signs indicated was required. She claimed her very life was being threatened by an African American. This can lead to beatings or death. False charges never stopped a lynching.
Treatment by store clerks, by doctors and by the police is different for blacks. And not better. Daily indignities and humiliations are horrors in themselves, and it’s not just a stop-and-frisk policy that sees the same men harassed several times a day, every day they dare to venture outside. It is also disproportionate jailings, sentencing and monitoring. Blacks are followed around stores, suspected of being potential shoplifters because they are black. They receive an outsized portion of traffic tickets and fines. And police kill them with little if any thought. For decades, they were denied government-backed mortgages, got worse rates on loans, and went to worse state funded schools. This is a caste system at work.

As in India, where even the shadow caused by the presence of a Dalit (Untouchable) is thought to pollute the higher castes, so in America, the thought of shaking hands or allowing a black child in a municipal swimming pool was a horror beyond imagining. When laws were enforced to allow blacks in public pools, American towns filled them with concrete rather than allow it.

There were separate everythings for the castes, from water fountains to hotels, restaurants, toilets, churches and train cars. A black with a first class ticket could not sit among whites, dine at the buffet, or mingle. Wilkerson cites a black building owner who had to enter his own building by a rear door in order to collect the rent. I use the past tense, but it clearly continues throughout the country in different mutations today. For example, the former Confederate states still maintain the death penalty, and use it mostly on blacks. Black voters are harassed for state-issued ID when voting, and the slightest mismatch, such as a missing apostrophe, is sufficient to deny them their vote. That’s when the state doesn’t totally shut down their polling stations, which are fewer than for whites and placed inconveniently far away to keep the poor from getting there at all.

Americans used to travel by the thousands to witness a lynching, buy picture postcards of the event, and even grab a body part as a souvenir afterwards. Slaves, chattel that they were, could not even rely on family. A wife or child could be sold off for a nice profit. But even after the Civil War, a child could die in front of its father at the hands of whites - with no recourse. Punishment for a crime was and still can be several times more severe for a black person. Wilkerson cites the stat that in Virginia, 71 offenses rated the death penalty for slaves, but only one of just simple imprisonment for whites. And of course the crime paranoia is totally unjustified. Wilkerson found that 10% of crimes involve a white victim and a black suspect. It’s usually the other way around.

To reinforce the points that make caste different from mere racism, Wilkerson went to Germany. She found that the Nazis created their race purity policies directly and consciously from America, the model for the world. They implemented the same sort of separations, forbidding Jews from holding certain jobs, forbidding whites from marrying or even associating with them, and in order to get a job, forcing all to prove not a drop of Jewish blood in their line, going back at least three generations. Some of the existing policies they found in America were so bizarre and offensive even the Nazis couldn’t justify implementing them. America’s caste system was proudly the worst of the worst. Nazi officials, right up to Hitler, read and prized books by American bigots. It was the umbrella the Nazis could flourish under.

They enslaved Jews, broke up their families, took all their possessions, erased their names and starved them while working them to death as free labor for major German firms. They eliminated their humanity and turned them into a necessary evil. The common hatred of Jews was the glue that kept the whole country together and on the same page. It has been said that if there were no Jews, Hitler would have had to invent them. Without Jews as scapegoats, Hitler would have floundered. So in the USA: blacks are tolerated with both hostility and fear. They provide the bottom rung and convenient scapegoats.

Caste is a wonderfully constructed book. Wilkerson has filled it with stories and examples she sets up before going into her analysis of the aspect the chapter covers. The stories often open readers’ eyes to what would be ordinary situations for anyone else. But they slide into cruelty very quickly. She has plenty of her own tales, as well as famous and lesser known outrages and insults going back 200 years. It has the effect of putting the reader right in the shoes of an African American, showing how debilitatingly stressful and limiting the caste system is for them. This makes the book no treat to read, but also impossible to put down, as readers will find themselves horrified at the impossibly difficult life the dominant caste imposes on the subordinate caste.

It is necessary, but insufficient merely to feel revulsion. Wilkerson calls on everyone go far beyond not being racist, teaching children not to discriminate, and to protest abuses of power. She wants everyone to be pro-subordinate castes in an effort to dissolve them entirely.

Her point is the whole country suffers from the caste system. If there were real equality, healthcare would be equal, as would job opportunities and incarceration. The country would benefit and be much farther ahead with the skills and talents of African Americans. And not just in sports and entertainment, where they are (now) allowed. Poverty would be substantially lessened for all.

Instead, the country is a rough patchwork of different standards, different treatment, different restrictions, and suppressed lives. She says: ”It is not about luxury cars and watches, country clubs and private banks, but knowing without thinking that you are one up from another based on rules not set down in paper but reinforced in most every commercial, television show or billboard, from boardrooms to newsrooms to gated subdivisions to who gets killed first in the first half hour of a movie. This is the blindsiding banality of caste.”

Wilkerson found that in 1944 there was an essay contest for kids in Columbus Ohio. The topic was what to do with Hitler after the war. A 16 year old black girl won with just one sentence: “Put him in black skin and make him live the rest of his life in America.”

David Wineberg
Profile Image for emma.
1,822 reviews45.7k followers
December 14, 2022
I always feel really weird about reviewing nonfiction. Reviewing fiction is cool, because it's just my opinion versus something somebody made up, but reviewing nonfiction...what am I against facts?

So I will keep this quick.

Famous last words.

A lot of reviews say their issue with this book is its repetitiveness, which is kinda fair, but I do think it's necessary - it's an introduction of a new theory and historical/sociological perspective, so repeating the lesson for the sake of ingraining it makes sense to me.

And it is a very compelling argument. I learned a lot about the connection between Nazi Germany and the American South, which (shockingly) in my experience American education was not very eager to teach us about in detail.

And the anecdotal and historical examples of caste (both in the author's theory and in established thought) were well done too.

I did find the discussion of modern day politics very lacking compared to all of the above. Where everything else was fairly groundbreaking and convincing, the way Trump was discussed as the keystone and the source of pure evil and whatnot felt...like a parroting of a million other arguments. And not necessarily good ones.

Which isn't to say I don't hate Trump. I do. But I also think the goofy way that some people responded
(and still for some reason do) to him - for example, people with psych degrees all bonding together to drop a press release diagnosing him with narcissism, for example, in contrast to what counselors are supposed to do and as highlighted in this book - undermines the believability of other arguments.

Don't get mad at me. I'll expand on it if I have to.

Bottom line: Good stuff! Mostly good. Very good. I'm going to stop talking now.


reading my once-annual nonfiction

update: i should do this more often.

review to come / 4 stars


reading all books by Black authors for Black History Month!

book 1: caste
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,696 reviews14.1k followers
August 29, 2020
Impeccably written, extensively researched, this book couldn't be more timely. Systemic rascism, though that word is not used, rather Wilkerson argues it is in fact a caste system, a system that became embedded with the first colonials. She uses comparisons of the caste system in India and it's treatment of the undesirables, as well as Nazi Germany and its treatment of the Jews.

What makes this so poignant is the stories of individuals, and the effects in people trapped within these systems. Systems of the utmost cruelty that see these people as others, less than. It is in all ways a quest for power, fear of relinquishing any part of said power, and the ability to portray certain groups of people as a threat. It is this fear, this concern that she believes is what led to the election of the current administration.

A social and historical study, this book does offer a solution but again, will there be any permanent changes? It does provide much for thought, at least for those brave enough to read and to aknowledge
the truths within.
Profile Image for Libby.
575 reviews157 followers
November 25, 2020
This may be the most important book I read this year. It’s timely, well researched, and well written. Non-fiction is not my primary reading material, but I found myself engaged and easily turning the pages. Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of another book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration posits that African Americans are on the lowest rung of a caste system in American. In a systematic revelation of facts, Wilkerson shines a searing light on the history of enslavement in the South and compares it to the Third Reich’s treatment of the Jews and India’s caste system. The Jim Crow south continued to perpetuate inequality and worse. It’s a bone-chilling account and a call to personal awakenings of conscience.

Wilkerson writes of silent earthquakes rumbling deep within the earth long before the actual earthquake creates havoc and devastation. She states that “only recently have circumstances forced us, in this current era of human rupture, to search for the unseen stirrings of the human heart, to discover the origins of our discontents.” That is what she probes within these pages.

The eight pillars of caste as outlined by Wilkerson begin with ‘Divine Will and the Laws of Nature.’ Just as some Christians point to the ‘curse of Ham’ as justification for slavery, so does the ancient Hindu text of India provide for the caste system. It pains me to remember the sermons in my own church when I was growing up...that "integration is an act of communism," a reflection of the ignorance and unjustified fears of the time. I was eight years old when my school became integrated. The other children were just like me, only a different color.

Wilkerson points to the 2016 election as a consequence of a backlash against the presidency of the first African American, Barak Obama. Many people vote against their own self-interests when they perceive that their dominance is threatened. One would think that climate change, science, and coronavirus would be at the forefront of everyone’s agenda, seeing as how all those things have to do with the survival of humanity, but that is not the case. The protection of wealth, superiority, and entitlement seem to be just as valid these days.

Wilkerson compares how Germany faced the aftermath of what happened there with how American continues to subjugate blacks and other minorities. She imagines what life would be like if all people were celebrated, if everyone was allowed to reach his/her full potential. Noam Chomsky, celebrated linguist, scholar, and political activist recognizes the Black Lives Matters movement as a reason for hope and “the biggest social movement in American history with support beyond anything that’s ever been registered in the past.” (1)

I don’t believe I have ever read anything so thorough or revelatory about what it means to be black in America.

(1) https://daily.jstor.org/noam-chomsky-...
Profile Image for mark monday.
1,634 reviews5,008 followers
July 27, 2022
The book is full of moments that annoyed or bothered me. The book was written by a highly regarded and well-paid mainstream author; a journalist with a decidedly bougie perspective. The book focuses excessively on the past; when the focus shifts to the present, the book can be... petty. The book has mixed messages, contradictions; it does not even try to be objective. The book often lacks empathy, kindness.

The book is full of facts and anecdotes that should bother everyone. The book dreams of a country that rewards its people with the regard and pay that they deserve; a place where everyone has the chance of being just as bougie as they want to be. The book seeks to unbury the past so that the present can be better understood, a present full of petty slights and horrific injustices. The book has many messages that do not fit neatly together; its perspective is often a subjective one, a human perspective. The book ends with resonant examples of kindness and posits that

"If each of us could truly see and connect with the humanity in front of us, search for that key that opens the door to whatever we may have in common... it could begin to affect how we see the world and others in it..."

Sometimes a journey is not what you want or expect it to be, it goes a different direction and you get agitated, you become appalled at parts of the journey, the foolishness. But it still ends up being a memorable and important experience. I love a good journey for both its problems and its merits, for all the things I learned, for the people who I met or came to know better during that journey, including myself. And for the feeling that there are more journeys to come.

This book was a journey, for real!


Part 1: Toxins in the Permafrost

Ah the relief at realizing I am reading a writer. A person who actually understands and enacts the power of prose. He said pretentiously. But after the often drab and basic writing styles of my other forays into modern identity politics (DiAngelo, Kendi, Reilly), it is such a pleasure to see on display actual talent at writing sentences that are nimble, ambiguous, poetic, metaphorical and laden with meaning.

This section starts with Trump and ends with The Matrix. Nice way to keep it real and current, I appreciate that, but I appreciated even more the clear statement of this book's thesis: to better understand (and perhaps replace misuse of the word) "racism" via the lens of caste, as seen in American history with black people, the caste system in India, and the demonization of Jews in Nazi Germany.

Part 2: The Arbitrary Construction of Human Divisions

"No one was white before he/she came to America," James Baldwin once said.

Wilkerson's point that "whiteness" was created in America is interesting and challenging. I don't love how she hand-waves aside the evil of slavery that has plagued the human race since forever, but I do love that she is making clear that "racism" is not really what this book is about. Caste: Origins of Our Discontents will apparently be about how and why artificial hierarchies are established. This is the shadow cast by the American experiment. An experiment that was perhaps the first of its kind in modern history - and one that can be praised, cherished, and remembered - but one that also established a very new way of perpetuating casteism: by enshrining racism. And that cast shadow should always be criticized, rejected, yet remembered.

Wilkerson makes a fleeting point that is profound in its implications: yes, Italians & Irish & other European whites were taken captive, traded, bought & sold, enserfed, enslaved... and yet they could escape, they could blend, they could still hope to join a more free level of people in society, higher in the hierarchy, if only through subterfuge... such an opportunity was never possible for those whose caste was displayed on their very skins. And so, yes, many whites were also treated as subhuman by the glorious American experiment, and yet no, it was never the same kind of suffering as faced by black people, by the Africans enslaved.

"We think we 'see' race when we encounter certain physical differences among people such as skin color, eye shape, and hair textrue," the Smedleys wrote. "What we actually 'see' ... are the learned social meanings, the stereotypes, that have been linked to those physical features by the ideology of race and the historical legacy it has left us."

And yet, observed the historian Nell Irvin Painter, "Americans cling to race as the unschooled cling to superstition."

Wilkerson's closing chapters in this section are a familiar but still powerful indictment. She describes how the Nazis initially studied American laws to enact their own anti-Semitic laws, although they stopped short of mirroring some of the more draconian anti-black laws in place. She also describes how not even the Nazis produced memorabilia from death camps to then excitedly trade among themselves... while Americans did just that with memorabilia from lynchings. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynchin...

Part 3: The Eight Pillars of Caste

1. Divine Will and the Laws of Nature
2. Heritability
3. Endogamy and Control of Marriage & Mating
4. Purity versus Pollution
5. Occupational Hierarchy
6. Dehumanization and Stigma
7. Terror as Enforcement, Cruelty as Means of Control
8. Inherent Superiority versus Inherent Inferiority

This section is basically a series of history lessons regarding the evils of American slavery - and to a lesser extent, the Indian caste system and the Nazi's Jewish Program - complete with many horrific examples. I thought this was useful as just that: a history lesson. Most of what is written here should also be taught in high school so that youth are familiarized with key aspects of American history.

I had issues with the writing on the first pillar, which felt like a real reach in its misreading of the Bible (especially its sole focus on the Old Testament), but hey so many others have misread it too, including those who supported slavery. The section on the second pillar was little better, as its perplexing primary example is an incident involving Forest Whitaker. But the subsequent chapters were strong, mainly due to their stomach-churning recountings of various atrocities. The chapter on Dehumanization and Stigma was particularly effective.

My main issue with this section is that it is, essentially, a moral treatise on the sins of the American past. I think I wanted more that was specifically relevant to current times. But it is hard to fault Wilkerson for that lack, as the book's subtitle is "Origins of Our Discontents" - this book is about the history of slavery in the US. History needs to not be whitewashed and it needs to be learned from; moral lessons become resonant when appalling examples are provided so that these lessons are not mere intellectual exercises. And that said, I am really hopeful that Wilkerson will be connecting these origins, these histories and examples of atrocities, to present-day systemic inequities and racist behavior patterns that continue to oppress black Americans.

Part 4: The Tentacles of Caste

This fourth part is a frequently frustrating but ultimately inspiring mix of missed opportunities, digressions of variable quality and purpose, and fortunately, many highly impactful points made through the profiles of a number of important historical figures.

It starts off quite weakly, with a very questionable forward that seems to be praising a traumatizing elementary school experiment that no child should have to go through. Three subsequent chapters are little better. A review of alpha to omega roles in animals was fascinating and enjoyable for an animal lover like me, but utterly fails as an astute analogy for Wilkerson's thesis on caste. Another chapter seems to gloat in an embarrassing way at the suffering of impoverished whites as well as whites impacted by the opioid crisis - her presumption that all of the despair in this lower rung in a higher caste comes from the depression that blacks are succeeding is almost farcical in its lack of nuance or empathy. But worst of all is her chapter on scapegoating, which I thought really strains the definition of that word in seeking to use it as an example of the caste system at work. What bothered me the most though, was that scapegoating does come into play when looking at how America treats different castes differently when using essentially the same drug: namely, cocaine. In its rock form, crack is a symbol of lower caste degradation; in its powdered form, it is an enviable recreation tool for the upper caste. And the stark difference in punishment for use of either is a perfect illustration of how the judicial system keeps caste in place. I don't understand how the author could have overlooked using this as a primary example of how extremely unfair the caste system is for black drug users versus white. The prison system of the 90s was not full of white Wall Street types arrested for sniffing cocaine.

Fortunately, from those weak chapters, Wilkerson moves from strength to strength. I appreciated her linking of embedded caste behavior patterns of the past with the modern phenomena of widely reported "living while black" incidents. I've been waiting for that linkage! Her examples are of course almost entirely familiar thanks to social media, so I was particularly appreciative of her portrait of her own very diminishing experience. It is important to be regularly reminded of what black people have to deal with throughout their lives, instances of microagression and outright aggression that I - even as a mixed-race person who has experienced racism - haven't had to experience, and will probably never experience.

Her detailing of inequities in the American army during World War II was brief but powerful. Her centering of enslaved African Onesimus as the person who actually introduced innoculation into America is really important - this is the person who modern vaccines can be traced back to, and I should have learned about him growing up. The chapter on colorism and caste maintenance enacted by members of lower castes must have been painful for her to write on a personal level (just as it would be challenging for me to write about Filipino fascist Duterte and why Filipinos love him), and so I particularly appreciated that she really went there. Much as Kendi did in his own book. And the closing chapter on legendary baseball player Satchel Paige was very moving.

Best of all, her fascinating and tense chapter on the caste-researching team led by brilliant black academic Allison Davis and that included his wife, a third black member, and two white teammates. His (and his team's) embedding themselves and disguising their research purposes within 1930s Natchez, Mississippi was an entirely gripping story. Why is this story not more widely known and shared? For example, the Wikipedia entry on Davis only glancingly mentions the result of this team's research (Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class) and doesn't even bother to discuss how it came about. Nor does it do more than mention his subsequent career at the University of Chicago as "the first black tenured professor at a major white American university."

The resonant, depressing closing paragraph:
Under the spell of caste, the [baseball] majors, like society itself, were willing to forgo their own advancement and glory, and resulting profits, if these came at the hands of someone seen as subordinate.
My God, how the human race has cheated itself by its sustained deployment of the caste system.

Part 5: The Consequences of Caste

Similar to the preceding part, this is a mixed bag. The main feeling I'm left with: I wanted more. Not to diminish all of the good in this section, and there's plenty, but I assumed incorrectly that this would be the climax of sorts, the place where all of what came before - all of the explorations of what got us (the U.S.) here, in our centralizing of the caste system with blacks on the bottom rung - would now be illustrated by the undeniable inequities that currently exist in this country. Housing and redlining, mass incarceration and inequal sentencing, disparities in education and healthcare and within the workforce including demonstrable differences in pay rates and titles, police brutality, etc... I thought that these would be the literal examples of consequences.

Instead, Wilkerson mainly discusses microagressions and Uncle Toms.

To the former, I did appreciate the message: namely, that there is an actual physical toll on black bodies from the regular anxiety that comes with experiencing (or even worrying about the potential for experiencing) that misnomer "microagressions" - a term I dislike because why not just call it what it is, racism. Or bias, implicit or explicit. The author is clear that dealing with that bullshit on a daily basis literally shortens lives. And often the life spans shortened are those POC who have moved themselves up the economic/class ladder but who now have to deal with living in a world that often refuses to recognize the validity of their existence. I appreciated that nearly an entire chapter was devoted to Wilkerson's own experiences as a black woman who frequently flies first or business class. That chapter should have been cringey, with its focus on travel accommodations that few can afford, but instead, all of those situations really drove her point home. Well, for me at least. I'm a POC male who semi-frequently flies first or business class, and I've experienced none of the things she's described. Because I'm not black and I'm not a black woman. This section was genuinely enraging, perhaps because it was so real and personal for the author. It made the following chapter, where she outlines how such interactions cause hypertension and other physical issues, thus shortening lives, perfectly understandable and relatable. "Living while black" often means not living as long as living while white.

To the latter, Uncle Toms... oof. The chapter intriguingly entitled "The Stockholm Syndrome and the Survival of the Subordinate Caste" is peculiarly tone-deaf. The focus on the victim's brother, the baliff, and the judge in the Amber Guyger trial (and their comforting of the defendant) is embarrassing - at one point, Wilkerson condescendingly compares the black female judge to a maid. The author's scorn of forgiveness is not a good look; completely overlooked is how forgiveness is a Christian value. It could have been argued that those black individuals who enact that value are far more succesful at practicing Christianity and living the words of Christ than those white individuals who do not. Instead, she devalues forgiveness altogether, as well as the power of empathy to connect disparate people. She also appears to underestimate the healing power of forgiveness. One does not have to forget to forgive; forgiveness does not go hand in hand with capitulation. Forgiveness is a way to not let a slight or a harm rule a person. To not let a person's life become further shortened due to living with rage on a daily basis.

And all that said, I'm not judging Wilkerson's rage. I would prefer to live a different way, but that's me. I'm not black and so I'm not going to judge black rage.

This section opens with an exploration of how narcissism is an inevitable characteristic of both the individual and the society that upholds the caste system. It is a powerful argument and I would have liked to have read more about that idea. But I should have realized that with that opening thesis, Wilkerson was defining this section's parameters: her focus will be on the psychological not the the sociological, the personal instead of the political, the individual injuries experienced and how they impact longevity, rather than on the structures and systems that have harmed and continue to harm the many.

Part 6: Backlash

Easily the best chapter of the book. Wilkerson evaluates the American reaction to Obama, Trump, and the removal of Confederate statues. She reminds us of how Obama was demeaned in ways that no other president has been, she attempts to smack away the notion that Trump won over Clinton due to class rather than race, she contrasts the German memorialization of Nazi victims with the American adulation of Confederate warriors. She links the ease that many Americans have in dismissing universal health care to the ease that Americans feel in ignoring the impact that slavery had, and continues to have, on this country. (That last point was a new one to me and I really appreciated its portrait of an American character that rejects empathy as a laudable characteristic.) Finally, she positions the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on people of color and on the lowest-paid workers as another symptom of how the caste system allows any number of indignities and inequities to be visited upon lower castes.

Part 7: Awakening

Beautiful! A Brahmin giving up his caste. A Jew who saw the flaw at the heart of his new country. A black female author and a white male plumber who recognized the humanity in each other. All quite moving.

What is a meritocracy? A place where everyone can aspire to reach a higher level, a place where every group of people can have their merit recognized, regardless of how they look, what their lineage may be, where they were born. America has long considered itself such a place. When reflecting on our history, the truth is clear: this is only a recent development for many of us. This nation has come a long way, but still has a long way to go.

I thought that Wilkerson's dismissal of "empathy" was pat and flat, tunnel-visioned and laughable. But I did appreciate her promotion of "radical empathy" despite her misunderstanding of the word empathy itself.

The last chapter is both epiphany and plea. A plea to all to recognize the origins of black discontent, to not brush them aside, to understand how they created the tensions of today. An epiphany: change is still possible, change is necessary, change should and can be embraced. I love a hopeful ending.

Notes & Bibliography

Stetson wrote a reasonable, well-argued 1-star review of this book. I liked it. But what sorta chaps my hide is that he critiques the author for lacking specificity and data. My guy, did you not notice the 50+ pages where she lists all of the sources for her many anecdotes, data points, and statistics? I guess someone had their white blinders on, cough.
Profile Image for Julie .
4,001 reviews58.9k followers
August 7, 2021
Caste by Isabel Wilkerson is a 2020 Random House publication.

“Caste makes distinctions where God has made none”

It has taken me a good while to get through this book. There were times when I took long breaks from it- taking some time to reflect on what I had read.

Reading through some top reviews of the book and seeing that it has garnered over twelve thousand reviews, I can’t see how I could add anything more profound to what others have already said.

Instead, I’ll just say that Wilkerson has written another very important book- one that should be read by all.

Here are a few of my highlighted quotes:

Caste is structure. Caste is ranking. Caste is the boundaries that reinforce the fixed assignments based upon what people look like. Caste is a living, breathing entity. It is like a corporation that seeks to sustain itself at all costs. To achieve a truly egalitarian world requires looking deeper than what we think we see. We cannot win against a hologram. Caste is granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindnesses to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing the hierarchy.

In the American caste system, the signal of rank is what we call race, the division of humans on the basis of their appearance. In America, race is the primary tool and the visible decoy, the front man, for caste.

Choose not to look, however, at your own peril. The owner of an old house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away. Whatever is lurking will fester whether you choose to look or not. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction. Whatever you are wishing away will gnaw at you until you gather the courage to face what you would rather not see.

Overall, Wilkerson writes an in-depth study on the American Caste system, compares it with that of other countries, and gives readers plenty to think about and learn from- but it’s her own experiences that allow one to see these truths in action, to experience their affects from a personal perspective.

Once more Wilkerson has written an unflinching body of work, one that teaches and admonishes- but also enlightening- allowing us to imagine a world without Caste.

A powerful book- highly recommended.

5 stars
Profile Image for Beata.
714 reviews1,089 followers
November 30, 2020
One of the most important books of this year, tackling the issue of race, caste, class and prejudice, giving insight into how a caste society is built, how it functions and how it shapes an individual.
For me it was eye-opening and mind-blowing at times, a reading experience that greatly appreciated.
A big thank-you to Isabel Wilkerson, Penguin Press UK, and NetGalley for arc in exchange for my honest review.*
Profile Image for thewanderingjew.
1,505 reviews19 followers
October 1, 2020
Caste, Isabel Wilkerson, author, Robin Miles, narrator
Where do I begin? I will begin at the beginning. In the first few pages of the book, “Caste” seems like an even handed explanation of society’s ills. When it began to describe the demands of the supremacists and the behavior of the protesters, I was sure she was describing the bullying democrats. After all, demanding that we have a woman of color as the Vice Presidential nominee is an example of the worst kind of supremacy and blackmail. I thought of the chaos in the streets of Portland, Oregon, Seattle, and Washington, of the wanton murders in Chicago, Illinois. I thought, surely she must be condemning the violence, but no, she was excusing it by justifying it because of what she insists is the existence of a caste system in America.
The book quickly descends into what it was intended to be a piece of propaganda used to trash the Republicans, and those associated with them, as it fawns over the Progressives and their ideas for America, which will likely take them down the path of Venezuela. The book begins and ends in a hate-fest directed toward President Trump, the Republican point of view, and condemns, overtly or subtly, anything and anyone that disagrees with any of the “pillars” she presents, as sure signs of our caste system’s development, and as proof that Republicans and white people in general, especially those who supported Trump, view themselves as the dominant class and are the enemies of those they believe are beneath them in value.
The author cherry picks facts, and even misrepresents others, in order to support her thesis about the caste system she creates in the book. She insists that race is not the problem, but it is the idea that one group is superior to another that causes the problem. She advances the idea that her group is actually deserving of that honor, even as she trashes everyone else. She spoon feeds us her opinions as proven doctrine and condemns those who disagree with her premises as automatically racist or part of the dominant caste with their arrogant views about their own superiority. I found her view of her own superiority, in every example she provided, about her own life and experiences, to be over generalized and exaggerated. Many instances were interpreted by her, as racist, but didn’t really have to be. They could merely have been misunderstandings on the part of all involved. She attributes all offenses, no matter how rare, to the idea of a caste system existing in this country, similar to that of India, which I found absurd. India is a third world country and we are the leaders of the world.
Slavery was and will always be evil; there is no doubt about that. I believe that society has to move on, but apparently, she disagrees. I believe if we don’t, we remain stuck with our hate and our anger and never recover. We fought a war to end slavery. The horrendous concept of owning individuals was defeated, although in the Democrat society of the south, it lingered. So why does the author blame the right and not the left? In addition, the fact that they, and the country were unprepared for how their future would unfold,, does not prove that there is a caste system. It proves that the plan to take the slave population forward was wanting or given little thought. Eradicating the class and the color bias would be, and still is, difficult, but this book, pretending to be a well researched document, but which is based on anecdotes, will defeat any possibility of unity among people of different backgrounds if it is to be believed. This author cherry picks her evidence, regardless of whether or not that evidence accurately represents the state of affairs that exists in the United States. Comparing America to a third world country that justifies the caste system as a religion is dishonest and disingenuous, at best.
The author has decided that if she is mistreated at an airport, by a repairman, at a restaurant, it is always because of this caste system, where the dominant class looks down on the less important class. She gives no credence to the times she is afforded more respect than others because of her accomplishments, or to the fact that she is respected far more often than the few times she is insulted. Who among us, white, black, red, yellow or any color, etc. or religion, has not been insulted at one time or another? Is that a result of a caste system or of the actions of some stupid people? I prefer to think that there are stupid people everywhere, and unless the insult is egregious, ignore it. As a Jew, I have been subjected to many insults and many lost opportunities, so I work harder to accomplish my goals. Not every insult is a crime or the result of white privilege or Brahmin privilege, but for sure, she is demanding that people of color now have that privilege at the expense of others. She is not making the case for equality and the end of what she calls the caste system, she is demanding that we forgive the travesties committed by those of color because it is not their fault, and so we need to afford them privileges. She even goes so far as to assign the responsibility of the earlier deaths of Mexicans, immigrants, and people of color to the white dominant class, which somehow makes them sick, causing them to develop their illnesses and die.
The book’s message is contrived. She believes that the behavior of those who break the law is the fault of the privileged that prey upon them. She almost justifies their lawlessness by insisting that it is the caste system and white supremacy which forces them to commit crimes. Injustice makes them do it. Is there no personal responsibility for one’s behavior after decades of progress, even after the election of what was called the “first black President”, even after a body of government becomes well represented by people of color, a body represented by far more than their percentages in modern society?
The author’s narrative soon begins to seem condescending and so does the tone of the narrator reading the book to her listeners. It is almost pompous in the assumption that she is correct and anyone who disagrees is, therefore, by her definition, a racist who believes in the caste system and their own superiority. Disagree and you are guilty. She does not believe that race divides us, but rather she seems to believe that it is the idea that one group is endowed with the right to reign superior over another. She believes the idea of caste immutable. That would be fine if her message did not infer that the tables should be reversed, which kind of reinforces what she calls the caste system, but for a different group of people.
By searching for facts to prove her theory, she disregards the mountain of facts that disprove it. How can you ignore the election of Barack Obama with a straight face and accuse the country of suffering from this caste issue? She presents her view and counts on the reader to accept it as gospel. After all, even Oprah Winfrey recommends this book and declares it should be a classic used in the classroom. Is Oprah the credible authority on this when she is one of the richest females in the world? This book will not unite us, but will actually further the cause of the current protests and disruptions of society that have become commonplace. It is unforgiving and unrelenting in its accusations of systemic mistreatment. If I do not believe that to be true, I am automatically part of the privileged caste, according to Wilkerson.
In our society, we have a black caucus, a black TV network, safe spaces for people of color, and other examples of special treatment for certain segments of society, so why is that not a symptom of the caste society that perpetuates it? Aren’t the tables being turned when a demand is made to only have a female, person of color as the Vice Presidential candidate of the Democrats? Does that mean the caste system allows for the interchange of positions, for those that feel they are being treated as “less than” to now make demands that treat others as “less than”? Does that mean she does not truly advocate for the elimination of the system, but just means to replace those in charge of the system? Although America has rewarded this author with success and renown, she seems unhappy with the country. Throughout the first half of the book, she cites nothing positive about this country, nothing that indicates any progress toward overcoming this “supposed” caste system. She simply seems hell-bent on proving it exists and will bridge no opposition to her theory. I am judged by her to be a white supremacist by virtue of the fact that I lucked out with the color of my skin.
I had serious doubts about my ability to complete the book. I soldiered on, because although she writes with a superior air of intellect, and seems unaware of any wrongdoing or negative behavior by her brethren, unless she believes it is justified by how they have been treated, I had hoped to eventually see some sign of positive message rather than one that sought to justify or trade one supremacist group’s position for another’s. However, that never happened, in fact, it got worse as she once again trashed Trump at the end and made her true purpose of propaganda, more evident.
This author blames everything on Trump, using the popular talking points. Trump caused the violence we witness. Trump caused the pandemic. The Corona Virus is a disease sent round the world by China, a disease we were unprepared for because of previous administrations which left us unprepared. This author gives no credit to America for elevating Obama to the highest office, but rather says that the minorities elected him. She supports the removal of statues and the rewriting of history to wipe out the parts she doesn’t like. She supports Black Lives Matter although the effort has descended into chaos and bullying complete with violence and ancillary organizations corrupting their message. She doesn’t believe in ID’s for voting, although she cannot travel without one. She is against the electoral college and favors majority rule. According to Wilkerson, immigrants and people of color, the descendants of slaves, do not live as long as whites because white supremacy makes them ill. Using examples of education success, happiness ranking, and other ideas, without taking the size of population or demographics into consideration, she declares we are woefully lacking. If H1N1 had been as bad as the Corona Virus (and it was lucky for Obama that it wasn’t), millions, not thousands would have died. Honesty is not the strongest point of the book.
When she pointed to the fact that Einstein compared the racism in America to the Holocaust in Germany, she lost me completely. I absolutely disagree with that assessment and point to it as proof of her lack of credibility regarding the premise of this book. She alters and manipulates information without proper documentation. She wants a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with the reality of the Caste System. Isn’t that just what the country needs, another investigation? Perhaps it is what she needs to assess her book appropriately and fairly.

Profile Image for Chetana.
112 reviews
August 25, 2020
I have mixed feelings about this book. Isabel Wilkerson is a great writer and her book Warmth of Other Suns was a masterpiece but this book felt like it had been written by an amateur. The thesis on race and caste is compelling but there’s a lot of simplistic theorization and the comparisons she makes between the US, India and Germany are superficial and at points, just plain dubious (e.g. she notes that Dalits in India were conquered by upper-caste Aryans who traveled from the North despite there being so much contentious evidence on this very topic). I can’t see this as a piece of serious scholarship, which is disappointing because her book Warmth of Other Suns was that and more.

That said though, there're few and far pop pieces that reflect on America by engaging with what lies beyond the country's borders, and it’s admirable that Wilkerson looks at other countries to wrestle with the idea of caste in America. I especially liked that the book attempted to focus on Dalit experience in India. There’s a tendency, more so amongst those who live outside India, to view the Indian experience as monolithic (poverty-ridden, colourful, diverse and exotic): Wilkerson fractures this view. In this sense, the book is most valuable as part of an Oprah recommended BLM reading list. It’s definitely not for me but I can see that it might be worth reading for some others.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,421 reviews538 followers
September 13, 2020
A masterful, infuriating, heartbreaking book! Wilkinson argues (and illustrates beautifully with dozens of stories) that we need to go beyond a racial reckoning and examine the structure underneath: “caste is the bones, race the skin.” I believe my understanding of US History has deepened more from Isabel Wilkerson’s two brilliant, penetrating books than all the other texts I have read in the last several decades combined.
Profile Image for Rachel Reads Ravenously.
1,804 reviews2,158 followers
May 17, 2022
5 stars!

“Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.”

Wow, and I mean WOW. This is a book that really reframes they way you think about the world we live in. I know we don’t think of America as a caste system, but it very much is. In this book the author talks about India, the Third Reich and our own country. What I was floored by in this book was how the Nazi’s looked to the USA and based how they treated the Jews based on how we treat blacks in our country, and that there were things we were doing that the Nazi’s wouldn’t even do. I think this book really points out the true evil of the system we have become so accustomed to.

Wilkerson is a very talented writer and she obviously did some great research when writing this book. I very much want to read her first book, Warmth of Other Suns, now that I’ve read this one. I think this book is very important and I hope many people will read it and maybe change the way we think about our world.

“We are responsible for our own ignorance or, with time and openhearted enlightenment, our own wisdom.”
Profile Image for Traci Thomas.
527 reviews9,511 followers
November 19, 2020
CASTE was easily one of my most anticipated reads of 2020. I am known to have prosthelytized for THE WARMTH OF OTHER SONS, a book that I often say changed my life and the way I see myself in this world. Needless to say CASTE had some pretty big shoes to fill. Overall I enjoyed reading the book, but it didn’t live up to my astronomical expectations. I still think you should read CASTE. I still think it is a very good book.

What I loved was Wilkerson’s restructuring of racism into the framework of a caste system. I didn’t know much about castes at all, so learning about the system of oppression in India provoked a desire to learn more. I appreciated seeing common cause with the Dalit people. I am also constantly impressed by Wilkerson’s sheer depth of research, I do wish she would’ve trusted her readers with more of that information. Let me just say this again, this book is very good.

Where the book missed for me was structure and depth. I felt it was very slow to start, and maybe even had a few stops and starts. It wasn’t until the third section that I even really understood the way the book would proceed. The examples in the book are very surface, mostly antidotal. If you’ve got a cursory understanding of race in America there really isn’t much new information in the book. If you’re new to how Black folks have been oppressed in America you’ll find this book revelatory. I kept asking myself who is the intended audience?

The writing is extraordinary. Wilkerson makes sense of so much history and psychology and sociology without forcing her reader to labor at all. Her use of language as a tool to completely reimagine what we know in America as racism is stunning. Even if the ideas were not new.

Overall this book is exceptional, despite my criticisms. I learned things here and there. It did not however change or challenge me in any way. I might have been asking too much, like literary lightening to strike twice.
Profile Image for Jessaka.
870 reviews106 followers
May 6, 2022
It was the 70s. The young woman sat in my history class listening to the professor talk about slavery. Then she said, “They loved being slaves. That is why they were always singing and dancing. We all laughed, but we should have gasped. Our laugh was how we corrected her. There should have been something said and maybe there was, and I have just forgotten. This book has that correction. They sang and they danced because they were forced to do so, and tears would slide down their faces like rain as they watched their loved ones being sold into slavery. Never to see them again. Their enslavers wanted them to look like they were happy to besold into slavery, and the South perpetuated this myth ever since. And the dance and the singing went on and on throughout history.

This book was just too horrifying for me. I thought of how the Jews were treated in Germany and elsewhere, even the Native Americans. People don’t realize, some won’t believe it, that America had its own Nazi Germany, its own Auschwitz, so to speak. And when historians said that Hitler learned from us, he did, more so than we would like to think. When I finished this chapter, I had to put the book down.

I recall how some people who had read The People’s History of the U.S. believed that it was all lies, and that it only taught Americans to hate their country. This book goes deeper, much deeper. You will question the humanity of mankind.
Profile Image for Matt.
3,673 reviews12.8k followers
October 4, 2020
I have decided to embark on a mission to read a number of books on subjects that will be of great importance to the upcoming 2020 US Presidential Election. Many of these will focus on actors intricately involved in the process, in hopes that I can understand them better and, perhaps, educate others with the power to cast a ballot. I am, as always, open to serious recommendations from anyone who has a book I might like to include in the process.

This is Book #16 in my 2020 US Election Preparation Challenge.

In the aforementioned reading challenge, I have come across a number of hot button topics that are sure to play a role in the election process currently underway in the United States. When I embarked on this path, a few people recommended this book by Isabel Wilkerson as being a key read that may help me understand something that resonates at the core of the American psyche and serves as a highly divisive issue. The racial and caste divide in the United States is neither new nor isolated to this country, as Wilkerson states throughout this tome. However, it is something that has become as accepted and forgotten so as to fade into the background, while re-emerging when times are especially tough. Exploring the heart of the caste system in the United States provides a raw truth, albeit a painful one, that cannot be ignored and that is more than just a #BlackLivesMatter discussion. This book both enthralled and disturbed me deeply, to the point that I want to recommended it to everyone and no one at the same time. I hope I can do it justice with the review below.

The issue of a caste system in the United States is perhaps best hidden behind race, an incorrect label. While race refers more to the physical appearance (read: skin colour) of a person, the inherent issue in America is the relegation of certain people to a status or ‘place’ in the country’s hierarchy. It cannot be solved simply by wanting people to be ‘colour blind’ and is not solved by changing political leadership. It is, for the lack of a better word, baked into the mindset of the people, spurned by the political and leadership arms of the country, and propagated by norms of society. Isabel Wilkerson tries to understand and peel back the layers of this caste thinking, but never justifies it or points blame at a single person.

The idea of caste is not new and its origins are not found in a recent text. The tome’s overall study of caste looks to three societies where it was (or is) used with a great deal of success. The caste system of India, America, and Nazi Germany all showed how relegating certain groups to an expected set of tasks, while refusing them the ability to live as others did. This becomes apparent throughout the book in the numerous examples Wilkerson offers, some of which I will touch on below.

If the idea of caste is not new, from where did it originate? Wilkerson explores how certain religious texts in India laid out the key castes and offered people there an understanding of what was expected of each. Those born into a caste were not able to simply will themselves out of it, but rather had to understand their place and live in it. The American example was also spurned from a religious text, namely the story of Noah (of the Ark fame) and how one of his sons was banished for offending his father. This son was seen to be the representative of the African race and, through European imperialists, their punishment began in the form of being taken as slaves. Wilkerson explores how as far back as the first slaves brought to the New World in the early 17th century, those from Africa were always treated as the least worthy and most downtrodden. This continued and became a part of the American psyche, much as the Indian understanding of caste continues today.

Wilkerson explores the Nazi caste system as not being text based, but rather a mirroring of a certain country. She posits that Nazi leaders used the means by which Americans subjugated the African American population and turned it towards the Jews, as well as other groups they sought to objectify. This parallel is both fascinating and disgusting, as it goes to show that the mistreatment of a portion of the population was a trigger for one of the worst societies of the 20th century to thrive. While Americans and their allies fought against this treatment, it continues today with nuanced parallels.

With these foundational understandings, Wilkerson explores how caste has been used to perpetuate subjugation across these three societies, with a focus on America over the others. The idea of scapegoating, blatant delegating of societal scraps, and socio-economic suppression became norms, leaving little room for equality to flourish. While America tries to rid itself of the stigma of caste-thinking, Wilkerson shows that marches and legislative initiatives can only add lipstick to a pig that stands in the middle of the discussion. The standards are deeply ingrained and it will take more than words or superficial actions to change them. This is perhaps the scariest revelation I found in the book, even as an outsider.

While there is a need to heal, the strongest push back against trying to do so is a lack of understanding that this is not a race issue, this is not solely a need to recognise the importance of all people who are a part of the melting pot America prides itself in being. There are so many issues that go to the core of the American psyche and have been accepted for centuries. It is made worse when political and social leaders fan the flames and permit an ongoing subjugation through support of supremacy and violence and then try to justify it as being ‘what the people want and believe’. How can the nation get healthier when its top leaders purposely open wounds and pour salt into them, turning around and saying that this is how it ‘is’ and the mindset of America cannot be turned?

I have spent a long time thinking about this and, with the help of Wilkerson’s tome, feel that this is not something that can be solved with a single election, or even a dozen. This is not a Trump program that was not there beforehand, nor will it end when he leaves office. I do not point the finger at any single politician, nor do I feel there is a saviour out there who can solve it all. However, it is an issue that cannot continue. That said, this is not only going on in America. Canada has its own issues and there are inherent caste systems here too. Australia, England, France, and many other countries where there is a prominent heterogeneous population will have it as part of their psyche and I am sure people there will see it in their daily lives. It sickens me to acknowledge it, but I cannot pretend that it is not the case.

Those who approach Isabel Wilkerson’s book should be warned that it is not simply an exploration of a sociological issue across three countries, but a study of how abhorrent people are towards others. That being said, it is a necessary pulling back of the curtain so that we can stop what is going on, rather than continuing the horrible treatment of others. No one is free from blame, as Wilkerson repeats, so this is not a stone throwing experiment. Wilkerson may explore this from an academic perspective, but her writing is very digestible and the examples are concrete. The topics discussed resonate with many and serve to open the eyes of the reader with each page turn. Organised effectively into well-documented chapters, Wilkerson pleads with the reader to see just how deeply things have become a part of the everyday, which makes them even more troubling. While she does use examples from a post-2016 America, there are also many from as far back as 1610, making this an issue that transcends any one party or leader, though it is apparent that she wishes to show how it is being exacerbated and validated as ‘what the people want’ even today. I loved and hated this book at the same time, just as I have come to adore and vilify myself. What the hell is going on and how do we fix it?

Kudos, Madam Wilkerson, for making me look at myself in the mirror and not simply walk away. Your book disturbed me more than anything I have read in a long time, but I needed it. I just hope others will not be deterred and open their minds to what you have to say!

Love/hate the review? An ever-growing collection of others appears at:

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/...
Profile Image for Oscreads.
318 reviews157 followers
August 6, 2020
Last night I attended an event that was held by The New York Public Library which hosted a conversation with Isabel Wilkerson to talk about her newest book
“Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent.” Already finished with her book, I attended this event to help me group up my finals thoughts. During the event Wilkerson talks about how she doesn’t see this book as an argument but more as an “invitation to seeing ourselves differently than we have before and the idea that we can have new language to help us see ourselves differently.” This is exactly what Wilkerson is doing with her newest book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent.” Right from the first page, you are invited into this extraordinary book that challenges the reader to think differently and to see the world and most importantly this country through this new lens.

Not knowing what caste was before, I came into this book blindly which can be a sort of a challenge because you are putting your trust in the writer way before you open the book. However, Wilkerson embraces the blind reader by defining this term and making sure that you understand this phenomenon that is embedded in American history to which has left this residue that is affecting American society even today. Wilkerson defines this caste system as, “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.” Wilkerson doesn’t stop there though to make sure you know what this term is and what it has done. She uses these smart metaphors that only help the reader comprehend this term and its entirety. “Caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance.”

While this is a complicated topic, Wilkerson guides you through American history covering how far this casteism system has been apart of this nation. From 1619 to slavery, from reconstruction to Jim Crow, from the civil rights movement to the election of President Obama and later on the Cheeto. Wilkerson welcomes you to see that all along this country has been dealing with a casteism problem similar to what India and Germany have gone through. She wants us, humanity, to see this country and the world in this new way which if we do can possibly save us.

“Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent” by Isabel Wilkerson is a force of a book that will help those who seek clarity about the race relations in America find some sort of understanding. While I made my way through this book I couldn’t help tell those around me about the stunning points that Wilkerson brought up. There were times where my jaw dropped to the floor and times where my heart wanted to jump out of my chest. I will say that if you are already familiar with this history this book can feel sort of repetitive but I like to think that it must have been necessary for Wilkerson to guide one through this history again through this new lens in order to take on this new language. Overall, this book is one that will be next to me forever. It’s an incredible document and I applaud Wilkerson for gifting us with such a text.

Thank you Penguin Random House for the Netgalley widget #partner
Profile Image for Barbara.
268 reviews206 followers
November 12, 2020
In this important and beautifully written book, Isabelle Wilkerson attributes the racial problems in this country to an invisible caste system. Similar to India's caste system, as well as that used by the Third Reich in Nazi Germany, it is a method of retaining social order by raising one designated group above another; it is the desire to preserve the purity of the blood of the ruling class. Wilkerson's carefully researched treatise leaves no doubt in this reader's mind that a caste system does indeed exist in this country. Whether it is the liberal's deeply embedded cultural racism or the overt actions of white supremacists, it is apparent. "It is like a cancer that goes into remission only to return when the immune system of the body politic is weakened."

Racism in this country is not new, nor did it begin with the Civil War or during the Jim Crow years. Wilkerson informs us that Ben Franklin was concerned with the influx of Germans into Pennsylvania twenty-five years before the Revolution. He believed they would Germanize the Anglicans and not accept their language and culture. Through waves of immigration this same fear has been seen: the Italians, the Japanese, the Muslims have all been feared and at times maligned. Most groups have completely assimilated, dispelling those worries. However, this assimilation and acceptance has not happened with African Americans. The author believes the reason is the history of slavery - once the master always the master. She also makes the point that people have an easier time accepting those who look like them.

Is the situation hopeless? Is it just human nature to want to feel superior to someone or some group, to think your religion, your ethnicity, your gender or sexual orientation is better? Wilkerson remains optimistic, more so than I am. There is work to be done."It is not the despot but the people's inactions that keep the mechanisms of caste going." She quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an anti-Nazi dissent and theologian who was murdered by the Nazis. "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act." We, as a nation, need to eliminate the "them and us", the"good guys vs. the bad guys"- the denial of shared humanity.

Caste is one of the most powerful and relevant books I have ever read. As dire as the current racial situation is, we all can do our part to alleviate it, but first we must admit it does exist.

"A caste system persists in part because we, each and every one of us, allow it to exist - in large and small ways, in our everyday actions, in how we elevate or demean, embrace or exclude, on the basis of the meaning attached to people's physical traits. If enough people buy into the lie of national hierarchy, then it becomes the truth or is assumed to be."
February 27, 2022
3.5 ☆

In my introductory sociology course in university, my professor stated that within 15 seconds, people always took note of two things about any persons who crossed their path - their gender and their race. People do this to determine their actions. This is the sole lesson I remember from that class, as interesting as it was.

In Caste, Wilkerson wrote about what Americans do with that information. From her earlier work on her Pulitzer-prize winning The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, she realized that her research was really about a caste system in the US, and one which was based upon inherited physical characteristics.
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...

In the American caste system, the signal of rank is what we call race, the division of humans.

"As a social or human division," wrote the political scientist Andrew Hacker of the use of physical traits to form human categories, "it surpasses all others - even gender - in intensity and subordination."

In this book, Wilkerson explored how caste systems originated and chose to compare the social hierarchies in India (the oldest continual system), the US, and in Nazi Germany. She included the latter because they had been inspired by the Jim Crow legislation in the southern US states.
The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources—which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence—who is accorded these and who is not.

Given my long-term interest in the social sciences, this idea of a caste in US is far from shocking and hardly novel. I already knew that Nazi Germany had adopted the eugenics practice established by 32 US states which forced the sterilization of the mentally ill. I still learned some new things. It was rather shameful just how much inspiration Nazi Germany received as they copied verbatim laws from the US South that they'd use to target people of Jewish belief and ancestry. What's interesting is how differently these two nations have dealt with their ugly histories. Germany acknowledged theirs while many in the US are still in denial.
The anthropologist Ashley Montagu was among the first to argue that race is a human invention, a social construct, not a biological one, and that in seeking to understand the divisions and disparities in the United States, we have typically fallen into the quicksand and mythology of race. “When we speak of the race problem in America,” he wrote in 1942, “what we really mean is the caste system and the problems which that caste system creates in America.

Wilkerson also stated that while she wanted to consider everyone affected by this hierarchy in the US, her book would concentrate on those occupying the polar opposites - those of European ancestry who are the primary beneficiaries contrasted against those at the bottom, African-Americans. I learned more about the African-American experience since a Dutch ship, laden with "cargo" destined for the slave trade, docked in the US in the 1600s. It was not easy to listen to this history. But I'm of the belief that even the ugly parts of history need to come to light if there's any hope of improvement. And yet -
Empathy is no substitute for the experience itself. ...
Radical empathy is not about you and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will. It is the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it. ...
The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly.

I believe this is an important topic for Americans to explore, so I'm giving Caste a positive rating. However, Wilkerson wrote with a sledge hammer approach, and I found the content to be repetitive. I don't require three different analogies to be convinced of the same point. I had listened to the audiobook version. While the narrator never overtly sounded angry, I certainly felt Wilkerson's frustration and anger. I dispute neither her anger nor her right to feel it. But I believe that her ire meant that she didn't develop some points as well as she could have. In particular, I felt as though she pitted the African-American experience against the others who weren't of European ancestry, and ignored the atrocities committed against the other "races." African-Americans weren't the only ones who experienced lynching and disenfranchisement in the US. Wilkerson herself had pointed out that this was a long-term strategy that had been used by the dominant caste - to encourage fighting amongst all the ranks lower than them. I've been around enough people of various ancestries to hear Latinx and Asian-Americans voice racist attitudes about African-Americans and vice versa. I've also seen "colorism" within most people groups. Everybody needs to acknowledge and to confront their inherent biases, because I've also seen people work together well and to be friends across the color spectrum. There is hope, small as it might be.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,659 followers
August 15, 2020
I loved Warmth of Other Suns and was really really looking forward to this book--I got it and finished it within the first week it came out. Perhaps because my expectations were too high with this one, but I would not put this book anywhere close to the first if we are judging by innovation, style, or novelty. It's a good book and it's beautifully written, but most of the most poignant points were in the NYTimes Magazine article or were summaries of other race and historic research. I was hoping for more of a probing of Indian Caste and Nazi Anti-Semitism as they differ or relate to American racism, but this book was primarily focused on American anti-Black racism. It is told through horrible stories of the ravages of race and yet without much analysis.
Profile Image for Clif Hostetler.
1,064 reviews697 followers
February 9, 2023
A different perspective almost always enhances understanding. Sometimes labeling with a different word can shape-shift a subject into a slightly different perspective revealing additional layers of meaning. I think that’s what Wilkerson has done by using the word “caste” to describe what others have described as structural, institutional, or systemic racism.

The word “racism” alone doesn’t communicate the endemic nature of the problem that is at the core of society’s discontent. The meaning of “racism” is widely understood to be a personal attitude and that makes it difficult to comprehend the hidden sociological barriers that impose control on human relationships.

Caste has traditionally been used in the English language to describe the rigid social stratification characteristic of Hindu society, a practice with ancient origins. Americans have generally regarded caste as a backward non-western custom that has nothing to do with the way we live.

This book examines the characteristics of the Indian caste system, compares them with American racial behavior and history, and then convincingly makes the point that they share many similarities. The book further makes the point that the Nazi anti-Jewish laws were inspired and patterned in many ways on the American Jim Crow laws. Wilkerson isn't saying the three are identical, but that they share many similarities which can be used to help understand the difficulty of making changes.

The book’s skillful interweave of interesting personal vignettes with abstract ideas provides a compelling reading experience. The stories of ordinary people from both the higher castes and of the lowest are shared providing numerous examples of the misplacement of human potential. The history of the laws and practices that have led to the current wealth disparities are reviewed. Most readers will be appalled at the repeated examples of terror and routine discourtesies that prompt a range of emotion varying from indignation to sorrow.

I think this book provides a convincing case for the reality of American caste. But there's an implicit message that the possibility of change is futile. Elements of hope within this book are sparse. Still, if it leaves the reader better informed, it will have done some good.

Here's a link to an excerpt from the book, Caste.

Here's a link to another excerpt from the book:

Another link to yet another excerpt:

Link to another excerpt:

Link to another excerpt:

Here's a link to my review of Wilkerson's first book, "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration".

The text in the following spoiler link is taken from somebody (don't remember who) else's review that I want to place someplace I can remember where to reference it again. It discusses the issue of white people voting against their own best interests.

Here's a link to a Time Magazine article written by Wilkerson, "From Jan. 6 to Tyre Nichols, American Life Is Still Defined by Caste." The article is adapted from this book.
Profile Image for Maxwell.
1,113 reviews8,048 followers
March 23, 2021
[4.5 stars]

This is quite a dense book, in that it covers a lot of topics and has so much information, but it's never impenetrable. Listening to the audiobook made it very accessible and Wilkerson also weaves in a lot of story-telling amongst research, statistics and history to create a finely woven narrative.

I found her comparison between the Indian caste system, Nazi Germany and the American caste system that oppresses people of color to be especially profound. It's something that after hearing it makes SO much sense, and yet I'd never thought about it in that light. I think that's what a good non-fiction book should do: present its contents in a new way that forces you to rethink what you've previously known or accepted to be true.

Wilkerson is an incredibly empathetic researcher. She crosses over into being part of the narrative at times, though I would not classify this as 'memoir' in any capacity. It was refreshing to hear her personal experiences and perspective while still maintaining, at times, a pretty academic tone. I think that will appeal to people who like memoir but are intimated by large non-fiction books, while providing something fresh to those who are used to more academic texts.

I highly recommend this book! I can imagine myself revisiting it in the future, perhaps in physical form rather than audio, to underline and take notes. It feels like something that could be used in a college classroom as a text too -- lots to discuss and analyze! If you're brave enough, perhaps make this a book club pick.
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