Review by Sean T.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson is an amazing thought experiment in which our cultures “caste system” is examined in terms that don’t accuse, nor excuse. It does look it right in the eye however.
The challenge here for an author, any author, is to examine these issues with clarity. The additional challenge is to demonstrate, as she does through anecdotal evidence, how the caste system in our culture came to exist, when it was imitated with disastrous results, and how we fail to address the very real need to alter the terms of perception in order to eliminate assumptions about inferiority. However, her comparisons of India’s caste system, Germany and the Jews under Nazi rule, and the United States treatment of African Americans show the systematic dehumanization within these cultures. They also demonstrate the very long road we have to travel.
From the first pages I was caught in the idea that we have a system ingrained in ourselves of measuring people by the color of our skin. That we rankle when asked to consider people by the value of their ability to contribute, not on the basis of genetics. Who will be given opportunity and respect, and who will not. When and how a culture turns to brutality to enforce its caste system depends largely on dehumanization and a culture of ignorance. Such a setting has been decades in the making here in America.
Wilkerson avoids the use of the term racism, and though there is an argument to be made for conflating the terms of race and caste she deftly demonstrates through stories of the Jim Crow South how separate facilities, drinking fountains, and even lynching were part of the culture of the post-civil war south, and how that affects our culture to this day. She also discusses how the Nazis sought to imitate America in its systematic racism, but even they thought America went too far. How do we rank the value of a human being based on race? How do we determine they are inferior without relegating both them and ourselves to a slippery slope of presumed superiority?
There’s lots of talk these days about the meaning of The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, yet most people either haven’t actually read those documents, or have interpreted them within their very narrow privilege. That privilege is the difficulty presented when attempting to dismantle a caste system. It can and has been done, unfortunately with much bloodshed on both sides as in Nazi Germany. It’s also been emboldened and further entrenched in a society with disastrous results as in India.
There’s an urgency to Wilkerson’s book. In a time when those who would further entrench caste in our culture are in charge of interpreting the aforementioned documents demonstrate a very real intent to see that caste continues. And to insure that we take giant steps backward when we’d barely begun to progress.
Wilkerson’s book serves to point out, but not salve the wounds we inflict on one another, and on ourselves as a culture. To challenge us to look within the structure that exists, and the ways in which we foster its existence. It strives to give us hope that change can come. But it reminds us that we have work to do.