Isabel Wilkerson, the author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and presents the case that America has a deeply rooted caste system. Wilkerson carefully presents the deep and disturbing history of caste systems in, not only America, but in India and Nazi Germany as well, comparing and contrasting the uses of caste in these countries over the centuries. The fundamental premise of the book is that the caste system in America is foundational and woven into the very fabric of our country. The labor of slaves was core to the country’s economic growth and had it not been for the exploitation and enslavement of millions of Africans over a quarter of a millennium, America would not have had the labor force necessary to become the world’s economic power it is today.
Wilkerson provides real examples of how caste was, and continues to be, used to keep the subordinate castes (not just African Americans) in their place and makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for them to move up in society. She also talks about the history of “race”, explaining that race is not a scientific definition, but a “social construct,” a notion also explained by Ibram X. Kendi in his book How to be an Anti Racist, which I would also recommend.
Looking at the challenges we continue to have in America through the lens of caste is incredibly helpful for us to learn how we might go about solving these deep-seeded issues. Wilkerson’s description of caste helps to explain the root cause of issues we face in America and why, after all this time, we still can’t seem to move past racial divides.
What I found most refreshing are Wilkerson’s conclusions on how America may move beyond caste. Her recommendations are simple and achievable, as long as we, as individuals, are willing to learn and change our behavior towards others.