Thursday, February 11, 2021

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
by Isabel Wilkerson
Read by Robin Miles
Published August 2020 by Random House Publishing Group

Publisher's Summary:
“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.

My Thoughts: 
I took three pages of notes while reading this book, notes I will keep to refer back to over time. That says a lot about how much I learned from this book and how important I think it is, especially now as I'm working to become a better person. 

I first came across the idea of a caste system in the U.S. in Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow and was eager to learn more about. Like, what's the difference between a system that keeps certain people down based on caste and one that does it based on race? 

According to Wilkerson, "Any action or institution that mocks, harms, assumes or attaches inferiority or stereotype on the basis of the social construct of race can be considered racism. Any action or structure that seeks to limit, hold back or put someone in a defined ranking, seeks to keep someone in their place by elevating or denigrating that person on the basis of their perceived category can be seen as casteism." 

Wilkerson contends that race is an American social construct, developed apart from logic or science, a concept developed to keep the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain the upper caste's ranking, advantage, and privilege, designed to elevate some above others or to keep others beneath the upper caste. Two things distinguish caste, according to Wilkerson: the policing of roles expected of people based on what they look like, first, and second the monitoring of boundaries, the disregard of the boundaries of the subordinate caste or the passionate construction of boundaries by the dominant caste to keep the hierarchy in place. 

Wilkerson has clearly done her research but Caste doesn't feel like a work of research. Wilkerson blends the larger historical picture with intimate, and often personal, anecdotes. She compares the caste system in the U.S. with that in India and in Nazi Germany. Did you know that the Nazis looked to the U.S. handling of how to determine if someone was black when they were looking for ways to deal with their Jews? According to Wilkerson, there are eight pillars of caste, among them Purity vs. Pollution, Occupational Hierarchy, and Terror as Enforcement. That last one plays a big role in the book and one of Wilkerson's examples struck home. In September 1919, Will Brown, a black man arrested on suspicion of attacking a white woman, was brutally murdered outside of the courthouse in Omaha. I knew the story but Wilkerson included details I'd never heard. Finding that kind of story about your city in a book such as Caste is quite the gut punch. It's not the only time I had a visceral reaction while reading this book. 

I can't recommend this book highly enough for anyone who wants to gain a deeper understanding of how we've come to the point where some Americans will storm the U.S. Capital in an effort to retain their position in the hierarchy. Robin Miles does a marvelous job reading Caste but I can't help but wish I had read it in print, in a book I own. I have a feeling I'm going to be coming back to this book again and again. 

Source: audiobook checked out from my local library


  1. Great review, thanks for sharing your thoughts

  2. I think this would make a good book club pick.

  3. I'm reading The Warmth of Other Suns and will read this one right after! I knew it would be good so I'm glad you think so too.

  4. Great review, Lisa. I recently finished The Warmth of Other Suns and thought it was excellent. I'm trying to decide whether The New Jim Crow or Caste will be the next book I read on this subject. Do you think reading The New Jim Crow first helped you get more out of Caste?