Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Isabel Wilkerson | 2020
Posted in: American History Member-Recommended Readings
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America is a post-racial society. There was racism in the past but most white people no longer hate African Americans and American institutions are not designed to oppress people of color. 

America is a systemically racist society built on the unpaid labor of African Americans. Although laws have been changed, old attitudes constantly morph to obtain the same results in new contexts. So, we have gone from slavery to Jim Crow to segregation to mass incarceration and voter suppression.

How can both these perspectives be true? Isabel Wilkerson has an interesting explanation. In her view, a caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings, influences people’s lives and behavior more than race, class, or any other factors.

In the book, the author examines the caste systems in America, India, and Nazi Germany, to compare and contrast the systems and describe the impact of the caste systems on the lives of citizens at each level of the hierarchy. 

Wilkerson identifies eight pillars of caste systems:

  1. Divine will and the laws of nature – The hierarchy is ordained by God
  2. Heritability – Rank in inherited at birth
  3. Endogamy and the control of marriage and mating – Miscegenation is discouraged
  4. Purity versus pollution – Dominate caste must protect itself from pollution
  5. Occupational Hierarchy – Occupations are assigned to caste by law and by culture
  6. Dehumanization and Stigma – Locks marginalized groups outside the norms of humanity so every action against them seems reasonable
  7. Terror and enforcement, cruelty as a means of control – Psychological and physical violence and terror are used preemptively to stymie resistance
  8. Inherent superiority versus inherent inferiority 

While the author’s analysis of caste systems is interesting and compelling, the most interesting part of the book is how caste systems alter the belief structure and the behaviors of the people who live under these systems. Wilkerson goes into detail describing the negative impact that caste systems have on us all. How the system colors our thoughts and actions on the unconscious level. How the system causes groups to deny the humanity of their fellow citizens.

While I have not resolved where I stand on Wilkerson’s presentation, I highly recommend this book. Primarily because it has done what all good books should do; it has given me a lot to think about.