Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of our Discontents was selected as the inaugural read by my employer’s diversity reading group. I’m so glad that it was – not only because it’s excellent and the sort of book I never get around to reading (long and on a difficult subject), but also because it was exactly what I needed to be reading during a week which saw a group of white supremacist terrorists lay siege to the United States Capitol in an attempt to overthrow the 2020 presidential election.
Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and the author of The Warmth of Other Sons (another book that desperately needs to be bumped to the top of my TBR), sets out to explore how caste – “a system of rigid social stratification characterized by hereditary status, endogamy, and social barriers sanctioned by custom, law, or religion” as defined by Miriam-Webster – has shaped America throughout its history and to this day. She brings a powerful set of tools to the topic – a combination of historical research, stories about real people, both famous and obscure, whose lives have been impacted by America’s not-so-hidden caste system, startling comparisons between the case systems of Nazi Germany, India, and the United States, and accounts of her own personal experiences with racism – as she meticulously lays out the argument that the weakness at the heart of America is the hierarchical division between Black and Not-Black.
The experience of reading Caste was eye-opening, and it’s not just because my public school education left me woefully ignorant about things like life under Jim Crow. No, it was how obvious it all seemed once Wilkerson started to get into the heart of her argument. I knew that America has a race problem. I knew that anti-Blackness is alive and well, impacting the lives of Black people in ways I can’t even begin to imagine. I knew that white supremacy was on the rise and had never really gone away.
But when Wilkerson reframes it as a matter of caste, as the structure upon which America is built, so many things fall into place. It’s why our approach to addiction is so deeply, profoundly messed up. It’s why poor white people tend to support politicians whose are economically harmful for them. It’s why we can’t have universal, affordable health care. It’s why we have “patriots” waving rallying under the Confederate flag. It’s why we hate poor people. It’s why thousands of people claiming to love America stormed the Capitol in an effort to overthrow a fair election.
It’s why we are the way we are. We choose whiteness.