Isabel Wilkerson's Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

ANTI-RACISM MUST-READS!  Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020)

Once every few years a book comes along that fundamentally reframes the conversation around race and racism in the United States. The last book I recall having had such a broad impact was Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), “a stunning account of the rebirth of a caste-like system in the United States, one that has resulted in millions of African Americans locked behind bars and then relegated to a permanent second-class status—denied the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement.”

As person who self-identifies as white, I recall being shaken to my core by Alexander’s jarring use of the term undercaste to describe the social status of the vast number of Black and Latinx community members who had experienced even the most minor contact with our criminal legal system with which I, as a licensed attorney, was complicit.  But Alexander’s painstaking and scathing analysis of the invisible workings of that system and its devastating impact on millions of lives both persuaded and deeply moved me, inspiring my new commitment to anti-racism activism.  

What I did not fully realize until I learned how racism and White Supremacy are literally hard baked into our country’s systems and institutions, however, is that to say our criminal justice system needs to be “reformed” is a complete mischaracterization.  When applying an anti-racism lens, I began to understand that our legal system is not “broken,” it is in fact operating exactly as it was designed to do

While Alexander had framed mass incarceration as the “rebirth” of a caste-like system, Isabel Wilkerson brilliantly argues that our country was founded on a caste system created to justify the brutal enslavement of Africans and genocide of Indigenous peoples.  In Wilkerson’s words, “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.” (pp. 17-18)

Drawing compelling parallels between the operation of caste in the U.S. with the complex caste system embedded in Indian culture, one of her most chilling discoveries was how the caste system created in Nazi Germany to justify the Holocaust was inspired by study of Jim Crow laws in the American south.  Stunningly, we discover that while Hitler admired the American custom of lynching its subordinate caste of African-Americans, even the Nazis considered the “one-drop” rule too extreme in excluding individuals from the favored caste!

In gut-wrenching example after example, Wilkerson illustrates how the concept of caste illuminates our understanding not just of the past but the present. “Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste.  Caste is the bone, race the skin.  Race is what we can see, the physical traits that have been given arbitrary meaning and become shorthand for who a person is.  Caste is the powerful infrastructure that holds each group in its place.” (p. 19) 

For a fascinating introduction to the themes in her book, listen to Wilkerson’s interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. 

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