Thursday, April 22, 2021

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

Taylor Branch, in his formidable three volume biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., poses a question that another Pulitzer Prize winner, Isabel Wilkerson, (The Warmth of Other Suns), asks her readers to ponder in her wonderful, accessible new book “Caste, the Origins of our Discontents.”

“If people were given the choice between democracy or whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?”

Let that sit with you for a while. You might be shocked at your own answer. And that’s what I most appreciated about Wilkerson’s new book. She forces the reader into the shoes, no, the hearts and souls of the perceived lower castes, comparing the systems that created the Dalits, the so-called untouchables in India, the non-Aryan (Jewish) citizens in Nazi Germany and throughout Europe, and the African Americans brought to the United States in chains.

Did you know that the infamous Nuremburg Laws instituted by Hitler (  in Germany in 1935 as a means to separate the races, were modeled on or influenced by the Jim Crow laws already in use here in “the world’s greatest democracy?”

I worried, when I started reading this book for the Diane Rehm book club on public radio, that it would be too academic. I should have known better from the experience of reading her first book. Wilkerson is, first and foremost, a journalist, not an historian, and this is all to the good as Dwight Garner, the New York Time book reviewer who was on Diane’s panel opined. Because she interweaves her own experiences into the story it is that much more shocking and personal.

The ugly truth, as stated by Harvard Law Professor Kenneth Mack, is that for societies to function it seems that someone must be on the bottom of the economic and political hierarchy. The original sin of slavery was embedded in our capitalistic creed so that, even when it was outlawed, the damage was done. Sure, with education and good luck, many African Americans rise to prominence and stature in the United States but when they are driving their cars or walking their dogs in their own neighborhoods, they are still perceived by those in authority as lower caste. Witness Henry Louis Gates and his arrest for trying to enter his own home.

Harvard scholar Suraj Yengde added his own spin on the caste system when he spoke of Brahmin Indians he knows who, relocating to America, are shocked to discover that they are, simply because of the caste of their skin, demoted from their esteemed level in India, to the bottom rung here in the states. Then he calls out their hypocrisy.

I cannot recommend this book enough for its clear, concise, sometimes graphic, and disturbing picture of the horrors of the various caste systems in use around the world and the devastating psychological, physical, and economic effects they have. This would make a superb high school textbook for students whose lack of imagination, experience, and knowledge keep them ignorant of their own histories. And for your next book discussion? Reserve more than an hour. You will need it.


Linda said...

I agree with you on all points. Learning that the Nazis turned to America for “guidance” on designing and implementing their horrific measures was stunning. She’s such an accessible writer.

Sallyb said...

Hi Linda, Thank you for that. Just when you think that nothing else could shock us, right?