By Isabel Wilkerson
My rating: 5 stars
Goodreads Rating: 4.55
Genre: Nonfiction / Racial Issues
Date Published: August 4th, 2020
Format Read: Audiobook
Goodreads Summary: 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.
“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.
Let me start off by saying that this was one of the most well researched and complete books I have ever read. Wilkerson started this book by making a claim, and did all of the hard work to support her thesis in a way that was utterly and completely convincing.
Caste, as the title indicates, claims that the United States of America is a caste system; not only that, it is one of the purest and most extreme forms of caste in the world. Before I started the book, I felt entirely neutrally on whether the US was a caste system. I knew there were real racial justice problems and that America and the people within it were overtly racist, but I was unsure if I would use the word “caste” to describe it. Upon finishing the book, it seems appalling to me that I would consider it anything but.
Wilkerson draws many comparisons between the US, India, and Nazi Germany in order to make her point. In each comparison she draws, it becomes obvious that not only is the US similar to these places, but it actually has a harsher system than even the Nazis were willing to put in place. There are laws to support our Caste, as well as deep socialization into the racist norms of society. America has placed Black people at the bottom of the caste system, and white people at the top, with everyone else falling somewhere in between.
It is important to note that this book primarily serves as a history of the source of racial inequality in the United States. That is its intention, and although it does have some present day examples towards the latter half of the book, that is the intent of the book. It goes in depth about previous crimes committed against Black people in the US and Jewish people in WWII, and thus for people of those groups (especially the former), it could be an extremely trigger book to read. For me as a white person reading this, although I do not feel that it detailed atrocities I didn’t already know about, it did provide light for how racism has become systemic.
I think this book makes a powerful case for systemic racism in the US that would be difficult to ignore even for the most stubborn of individuals. The research will allow me to better support my claims when arguing with people in real life, and because of that I think the book is a must read for any white person. Even if you feel like you already have a firm grasp on the concept of systemic racism, as I did prior to reading, the research in this book makes me feel more secure and confident in my arguments and gave me additional research to use in the future.