Caste (Wilkerson)

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
Isabel Wilkerson, 2020
Random House
496 pp.

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.

She tells us 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, Wilkerson 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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Washington, D.C., USA
Education—B.A., Howard University
Awards—Pulitizer Prize (twice); National Book Critics Circle Award; George S. Polk Award; Journalist of the Year Award from The National Association of Black Journalists.
Currently—lives in in Boston, Massachusetts

Isabel Wilkerson is a journalist and the author, in 2010, of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, which won the Pulitizer Prize, as well as the Book Critics Circle Award. In 2020, she published Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, a book that also received wide critical acclaim.

Born in Washington D.C., Wilkerson studied journalism at Howard University, becoming editor-in-chief of the college newspaper The Hilltop. During college, Wilkerson interned at many publications, including the The Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.

In 1994, while Chicago bureau chief of The New York Times, she became the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in journalism, winning the feature writing award for her coverage of the 1993 midwestern floods and her profile of a 10-year-old boy who was responsible for his four siblings. Several of Wilkerson's articles are included in the book Pulitzer Prize Feature Stories: America's Best Writing, 1979 - 2003, edited by David Garlock.

Wilkerson has also won a George S. Polk Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Journalist of the Year award from the National Association of Black Journalists.

She has also held the positions of James M. Cox Professor of Journalism at Emory University, Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University and the Kreeger-Wolf endowed lecturer at Northwestern University. She also served as a board member of the National Arts in Journalism Program at Columbia University.

Wilkerson is now a Professor of Journalism and Director of Narrative Nonfiction in the College of Communications at Boston University.

After fourteen years of research, she has just released a book called The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, which examines the three geographic routes that were commonly used by African Americans leaving the southern states between 1915 and the 1970s, illustrated through the personal stories of people who took those routes.

During her research for the book, Wilkerson interviewed more than 1,000 people who made the migration from the South to Northern and Western cities. The book almost instantly hit number 11 on the NYT Bestseller list for nonfiction and has since been included in lists of best books of 2010 by many reviewers, including, Atlanta Magazine, New Yorker, Washington Post, Economist, and The Daily Beast. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
[A]n extraordinary document…an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far. It made the back of my neck prickle from its first pages, and that feeling never went away…. It's a book that seeks to shatter a paralysis of will. It's a book that changes the weather inside a reader.
Dwight Garner - New York Times

[E]legant and persuasive…. [Wilkerson] combines larger historical descriptions with vignettes from particular lives, recounted with the skill of a veteran reporter…. Its vivid stories about the mistreatment of Black Americans… prompt flashes of indignation and moments of sorrow. The result is a book that is at once beautifully written and painful to read.
Kwame Anthony Appiah - 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.
Washington Post

Magnificent… a trailblazing work on the birth of inequality…. Caste offers a forward-facing vision. Bursting with insight and love, this book may well help save us.
Oprah Magazine

[Caste] should be at the top of every American’s reading list.
Chicago Tribune

(Starred Review) [A] powerful and extraordinarily timely social history…. Incisive autobiographical anecdotes and captivating portraits…reveal the steep price U.S. society pays for limiting the potential of black Americans. This enthralling expose deserves a wide and impassioned readership.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred Review) [Wilkerson] explains how a rigid social order, or caste, is about power.… Incidents of historical and contemporary violence against African Americans resonate throughout this incisive work. [Caste] 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.

(Starred Review) Wilkerson writes that American caste structures were broadly influential for Nazi theorists when they formulated their racial and social classifications…. A memorable, provocative book that exposes an American history in which few can take pride.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. At the beginning of Caste, author Isabel Wilkerson compares American racial hierarchy to a dormant Siberian virus. What are the strengths of this metaphor? How does this comparison help combat the pervasive myth that racism has been eradicated in America?

2. Wilkerson begins the book with an image of one lone dissenter amidst a crowd of Germans giving the Nazi salute. What would it mean—and what would it take—to be this man today?

3. What are some of the elements required for a caste system to succeed?

4. Wilkerson uses many different metaphors to explain and help us visualize the concept of the American caste system: the bones inside a body, the beams inside a house, even the computer program in the 1999 film The Matrix. Which of these metaphors helped the concept click for you? Why was it successful?

5. Caste and race are not the same thing. What is the difference between the two? How do casteism and racism support each other?

6. Discuss how class is also different from caste.

7. Who does a caste system benefit? Who does it harm?

8. "Before there was a United States of America," Wilkerson writes, "there was a caste system, born in colonial Virginia." How can Americans reckon with this fact? What does it mean to you to live in a country whose system of discrimination was cemented before the country itself?

9. Did learning about the lens and language of caste change how you look at U.S. history and society? How?

10. Wilkerson discusses three major caste systems throughout the book: India, Nazi Germany, and America. What are some of the differences that stood out to you among these three systems? What are the similarities? How did learning about one help you understand the other? For instance, did the fact that the Nazis actually studied America’s segregation practices and Jim Crow laws help underscore the depth of our own system?

11. Harold Hale, an African-American man, helped his daughter defy the "rules" of their caste in 1970s Texas by naming her Miss. As Wilkerson illustrates throughout the book, the dangers of being seen as defying one’s caste can range from humiliation to death. What do you think of the lengths he felt he needed to go to assure dignity for his daughter? What are the risks he put her in by doing so? Should Miss have had a say in her father’s quietly revolutionary act? Explain.

12. Discuss the differences and similarities between how Miss was treated in the South, where racism and casteism have historically been more overt, and in the North, where they still exist, but can be more subtle. Do you think these various forms of racism and casteism must be fought in different ways?

13. Wilkerson quotes the orator Frederick Douglass, who described the gestures that could incite white rage and violence: "in the tone of an answer; in answering at all; in not answering …" These contradict each other: One could incite rage by answering … or by not answering. Discuss the bind that this contradiction put (and still puts) African-American people in.

14. Wilkerson frequently uses her own experience as an African-American woman to illustrate her points regarding caste—and the confusion when someone "rises above" his or her presumed station. What do readers gain from hearing about Wilkerson’s personal experiences in addition to her deep historical research?

15. "Indians will ask one’s surname, the occupation of one’s father, the village one is from, the section of the village that one is from, to suss out the caste of whoever is standing in front of them," Wilkerson writes. "They will not rest until they have uncovered the person’s rank in the social order." How is this similar to and different from the process of determining caste in America? Have you ever, for instance, asked someone what they did for work or where they lived or went to school, and been surprised? Did you treat them differently upon hearing their answer?

16. Analyze the process of dehumanization and how it can lead to people justifying great acts of cruelty.

17. "Evil asks little of the dominant caste other than to sit back and do nothing," Wilkerson writes. Whether in the dominant caste or not, what are some of the ways that each of us, personally, can stand up to the caste system?

18. Wilkerson gives examples that range from the horrifying (lynching) to the absurd (the Indian woman who walked across an office to ask a Dalit to pour her water from the jug next to her desk) to illustrate caste’s influence on behavior. How do both of these types of examples—and everything in between—help cement her points? Why do we need to see this range to clearly understand caste?

19. Discuss how overt racism subtly transformed into unconscious bias. What are the ways that we can work to compensate for the unconscious biases inherent in a caste system?

20. Wilkerson writes about the "construction of whiteness," describing the way immigrants went from being Czech or Hungarian or Polish to "white"—a political designation that only has meaning when set against something "not white." Irish, Italian … people weren’t "white" until they came to America. What does this "construction of whiteness" tell us about the validity of racial designations and the structure of caste?

21. It is a widely held convention that working-class white Americans may often "act against their own interests" by opposing policies designed to help the working class. Discuss how the logic of caste disproves this concept and redefines that same choice from the perspective of maintaining group dominance.

22. How does the caste system take people who would otherwise be allies and turn them against one another?

23. Wilkerson describes dinner with a white acquaintance who was incensed over the treatment they received from the waitstaff. Why did the acquaintance respond the way that she did, and how did it hurt or help the situation?

24. What do we learn from Albert Einstein’s response to the American caste system upon arrival from Germany?

25. What are some of the steps that society, and each of us, can take toward dismantling the caste system?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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