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Caste (Oprah's Book Club): The Origins of Our Discontents Hardcover – August 4, 2020
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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.
NAMED THE #1 NONFICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR BY TIME, ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY People • The Washington Post • Publishers Weekly AND ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book Review • O: The Oprah Magazine • NPR • Bloomberg • Christian Science Monitor • New York Post • The New York Public Library • Fortune • Smithsonian Magazine • Marie Claire • Town & Country • Slate • Library Journal • Kirkus Reviews • LibraryReads • PopMatters
Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize • National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist • Dayton Literary Peace Prize Finalist • PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction Finalist • PEN/Jean Stein Book Award Longlist
“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.
Beautifully written, original, and revealing, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is an eye-opening story of people and history, and a reexamination of what lies under the surface of ordinary lives and of American life today.
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“This book has the reverberating and patriotic slap of the best American prose writing. . . . Wilkerson has written a closely argued book that largely avoids the word ‘racism,’ yet stares it down with more humanity and rigor than nearly all but a few books in our literature. . . . It’s a book that changes the weather inside a reader.”—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“A surprising and arresting wide-angle reframing . . . Her epilogue feels like a prayer for a country in pain, offering new directions through prophetic language.”—Bilal Qureshi, The Washington Post
“A transformative new framework through which to understand identity and injustice in America.”—Justin Worland, Time
“Magisterial . . . Her reporting is nimble and her sentences exquisite. But the real power of Caste lies tucked within the stories she strings together like pearls. . . . Caste roams wide and deep, lives and deaths vividly captured, haloed with piercing cultural critique. . . . Caste is a luminous read, bearing its own torch of righteous wrath in a diamond-hard prose that will be admired and studied by future generations of journalists.”—Hamilton Cain, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Brave, clear and shatteringly honest in both approach and delivery . . . Extrapolating Wilkerson’s ideas to contemporary America becomes an unsettling exercise that proves how right she is and how profoundly embedded into society the caste system is. . . . Her quest for answers frames everything and acts as the perfect delivery method for every explanation.”—Gabino Iglesias, San Francisco Chronicle
“Caste draws heavily on the powerful mingling of narrative, research, and visionary, sweeping insight that made Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns the definitive contemporary study of African Americans’ twentieth-century Great Migration from the Jim Crow South to northern, midwestern, and western cities. It deepens the resonance of that book (a seemingly impossible feat) by digging more explicitly into the pervasive racial hierarchy that transcends region and time.”—Steve Nathans-Kelly, New York Journal of Books
“Caste will spur readers to think and to feel in equal measure.”—Kwame Anthony Appiah, The New York Times Book Review
“Wilkerson’s book is a powerful, illuminating and heartfelt account of how hierarchy reproduces itself, as well as a call to action for the difficult work of undoing it.”—Kenneth W. Mack, The Washington Post
“Should be required reading for generations to come . . . A significant work of social science, journalism, and history, Caste removes the tenuous language of racial animus and replaces it with a sturdier lexicon based on power relationships.”—Joshunda Sanders, The Boston Globe
“[Caste] should be at the top of every American’s reading list.”—Jennifer Day, Chicago Tribune
“An expansive interrogation of racism, institutionalised inequality and injustice . . . This is an American reckoning and so it should be. . . . It is a painfully resonant book and could not have come at a more urgent time.”—Fatima Bhutto, The Guardian
“Full of uncovered stories and persuasive writing . . . Opening up a new bank of language in a time of emboldened white supremacism may provide her readers with a new way of thinking and talking about social injustice. . . . A useful reminder to India’s many upper-caste cosmopolitans . . . that dreams of resistance are just one part of the shared inheritance of the world’s oldest democracy, and the world’s largest.”—Supriya Nair, Mumbai Mirror
“It is bracing to be reminded with such precision that our country was built through genocide and slavery. But Ms. Wilkerson has also provided a renewed way of understanding America’s longest, fiercest trouble in all its complexity. Her book leaves me both grateful and hopeful. I gulped it down.”—Tracy Kidder, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Mountains Beyond Mountains
“Like Martin Luther King, Jr. before her, Isabel Wilkerson has traveled the world to study the caste system and has returned to show us more clearly than ever before how caste is permanently embedded in the foundation and unseen structural beams of this old house called America. Isabel Wilkerson tells this story in prose that is so beautiful, the only reason to pause your reading is to catch your breath. You cannot understand America today without this book.”—Lawrence O’Donnell
“This enthralling exposé deserves a wide and impassioned readership.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Similar to her previous book, the latest by Wilkerson is destined to become a classic, and is urgent, essential reading for all.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“This is a brilliant book, well timed in the face of a pandemic and police brutality that cleave along the lines of a caste system.”—Booklist (starred review)
- Publisher : Random House; Reprint edition (August 4, 2020)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 496 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0593230256
- ISBN-13 : 978-0593230251
- Item Weight : 1.75 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.4 x 1.25 x 9.52 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #169 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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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.
Wilkerson's 8 Pillars of Caste:
1) Divine Will and The Laws of Nature
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 books. 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 lines. Moreover, Wilkerson's seeming aversion to sociological and economic data is evidence 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 determines their 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 endlessly, 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.
for almost as long as humanity exists, there has been a divide. black vs white, christian vs muslim, muslim vs jewish, tutsi vs hutu, the list goes on.
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Reviewed in India on September 24, 2020
To repeatedly compare the modern US, to Nazi Germany, is not only historical nonsense it is deeply offensive. If the case is being made that black people in the US are treated like Jewish people in Nazi germany, then it must be possible to imagine a Jewish Reichs Chancellor, Jewish people represented throughout the upper echelons of the legal profession and Jewish intellectuals, such as this lady, making a lucrative career of trotting round the world in the 1930’s criticising the German government. That is obscene.
This book’s entire premise is built on quicksand and will only exacerbate the growing racial tension being fomented by critical race theory. Real progress on race relations will be made in boring committee rooms where policy decisions are taken and laws tweaked. Those processes are set back hugely by this kind of grotesque exaggeration, which only increases polarisation.
If you want to understand the philosophy underlying this kind of tripe try Cynical Theory.
Horrendous examples of racist killings throughout its history are detailed and taken for granted by white people and white made law. The selling postcards of the hanging or burning of black people was so common and natural that the sending of them eventually had to be banned. They got around this by sending them in envelopes. It reminds me today of the black jogger who was killed by a father and son filmed by a friend of theirs. Because of the caste system created each individual is crow-barred into a role which each has to adhere to. Many examples are given of this including the class exercise made of the superior blue eyes and the inferior brown eyes kids in a school. This showed how they all fell into their roles and totally transformed the ways they related to each other. Africans who came to the States identified themselves as their tribe eg. Igbo, Akan etc.; however they were all lumped together as blacks. The same with Europeans who emigrated to the US as Italians or French, they were lumped together as whites. The roles becomes the norm and it looks to be the natural order of things.
IW goes into detail in India, and Germany of the 30s and 40s and compares their castes and how it functions to the US one. This shows the similarities and the end results being virtually the same. The wealthy, powerful white elite assume their dominant role in US society, as does the African-American subordinate role at the bottom to ensure their attitudes. The hierarchical structure becomes an enormous obstacle for all to move from. The Jim Crow laws ensured that this was maintained and led to crimes against humanity which were viewed as totally normal and natural. The author says that there are 8 Pillars of Caste and goes into all of them in detail which make up the Foundation of Caste. She talks of wolf packs and how hierarchical that is and that when the lowest wolf dies the pack grieves and are totally lost for a period. They have lost their substructure which was the glue which held them all up. With the 60s civil rights acts and a black president this caused a feeling of, “this equality feels like a demotion” to the lowest layer of white people in the structure.”
“History has shown that nations and groups will conquer, colonize, enslave, and kill to maintain their illusion of primacy”. She then goes on to talk of Erich Fromm and his theory of fascism and the narcissistic self. The white working class may feel, “even though I am poor and uncultured I am somebody important because I belong to the most admirable group in the world….Caste is more than rank, it is a state of mind that holds everyone captive, the dominant imprisoned in an illusion of their own entitlement….the ancient code for the subordinate caste calls upon them to see the world not with their own eyes but as the dominant caste sees it..the message of inferiority comes at you in whispers and billboards, it burrows into your identity”. She gives several examples of people keeping silent when racism is overt and puts forward Don Lemon’s argument that silence is not an option.
The premature aging of cells leads to the early onset of disease due to chronic exposure to such stressors as discrimination, job loss or obesity. African-Americans lead such a stressful life under the dominant caste that they suffer greatly which leads to all sorts of ill-health and the explanation of why they suffer more under such things as Covid 19. In 2012 Obama won 39% of white American votes, in Mississippi only 10% voted for him, in other words, he won despite the bulk of the white electorate. Census projections state that the white majority will end in 2042 which is frightening to many white people. Researchers, “the belief that undeserving groups are getting ahead while your group is left behind”. She compares Germany to US and how they treat their appalling histories totally differently. Germany feels guilt and shame whereas Confederate flags and statues are the norm in the southern states.
She looks at the data of things, such as infant mortality, and maths and reading, and the richest country comes out poorly. IW brings the book up to date with Covid 19 and the total shambles of the USA. She talks about Einstein who came to US and stood up against racism and wished more white people would. “the bottom caste, though it bears much of the burden of the hierarchy, did not create the system, and the bottom caste alone cannot fix it….caste is a disease and none of us is immune..for most of American history, the country was closed off from the talents of the bulk of its people of all colours, genders, and nationalities…a world without caste would set everyone free”
Today as I write this (19 Sept. 2020) Trump is trying to change the school curriculum to make it whiter than white. Also Alicia Keys says in an interview, “I am that person, she says, the one that wasn’t supposed to make it out of Hell’s Kitchen, who was supposed to end up being a prostitute, a young mother at 16, or addicted to drugs. I am the one who was supposed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and get injured or killed”.
Early in the introductory chapter it is made clear that "Us" in the title means Americans only. In a style irritatingly familiar to others, the author clearly assumes that should be the approach to any form of reportage, without actually stating it. So this book describes only the American caste system, something familiar to educated observers from outside the US of A, but which much of American society has a tradition of denying. There is no mention of the peculiarities of caste in Britain, and the caste conflict of Rwanda and Burundi is mentioned en passant, misrepresented as it usually is as an inter-ethnic conflict.
The author makes attempts at comparison of the American caste system, with its obsession with skin colour and ancestry, with the traditions of India, and the doctrines of the short-lived Nazi regime in Germany. She makes multiple claims to having carried out a volume of research into the subject, recounting her multiple eureka moments, yet at the same time describes how previous writers have made the same comparisons generations ago. This was more than a century in the case of comparison with Indian caste conventions, and of course it is well known that the pseudo-science beloved of the Nazi regime has had a widespread following in the USA long before the world heard of Hitler, and long after his fall. This of course is not limited to the USA.
A verbose, overly decorative and repetitive writing style, with frequent literary digressions, is something of a tradition in American reportage, but to the majority of the anglophone world these things are a pretentious distraction, which frequently disguise superficial content.
One wonders what readership this author is writing for. That she is addressing only her fellow Americans is clear enough, but educated Americans, able to look dispassionately at their society, will be familiar with this material - they have seen and heard it before - , and will likely also be offended and alienated by the extravagant and sententious overstatement. Those wedded to their tradition of denial will reject it. It might be of value to some who are less convinced that caste cannot exist in American society and are open to persuasion that it does and needs to be addressed. The book is of no conceivable interest to anyone outside this very specific demographic. Although such a heavily padded tome is unlikely to be an effective tool for this purpose, it is impossible not to wish her some success in this endeavour, and this is the reason for the second star, which comes with more than a suspicion that that may be over-generous.