Reading allows us to exit our microcosm and see the world through the eyes of those whose lives differ from our own. Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, is one such opportunity. Isabel makes a persuasive case that the United States is best understood not as a racist system but as a race-based caste system. Seen as such and experiencing the last four years, enough puzzle pieces snap into place for white Americans to see for themselves a “United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for” some.
Ms. Wilkerson explains caste as the bones and race the visible characteristics and behavior. Impoverished black and brown people have two strikes against them, bones and race. Poor whites have one, bones. The highest caste, predominantly whites, is the dominant caste which calls the balls and strikes. “Slavery in this land,” Isabel writes, “was not merely an unfortunate thing that happened to black people. It was an American innovation, and American institution created by and for the benefit of the elites of the dominant caste.”
The caste we are born into comes with rights—many or few. Every day of our life, our status in the hierarchy is subtly reinforced. The Hispanic women who clean my homes are viewed (consciously or subconsciously) as of a lower caste than me. Our relationship affords me more power because of my dominant caste status. Arriving in the United States in the late sixties, I slept in my beat-up Pontiac for a short period of time. Applying Ms. Wilkerson’s caste system theory, my cleaning women were probably above me, homeless vs. service workers. I say “probably” because there is perceived value in the Nordic stock. The most common and quickest ways to climb the caste ladder are through education and marriage.
In white America, the universal knee-jerk characterization of blacks is a learned behavior, reinforced by Hollywood. Wilkerson writes, “A black woman, ample in frame and plain of face, wears a headscarf and servant’s uniform. Her arms are wrapped around a white woman, slender, cherubic, and childlike, her golden hair and porcelain, air-brushed skin pops against the purposely unadorned darkness of the black woman.” Rhett Butler’s line from Gone With the Wind, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” is considered the most memorable movie quotation of all time. Television and movies validate the dominant cultural messages of hierarchy.
“The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality,” Ms. Wilkerson writes. “It is about power—which groups have it and which do not.” Like the bully in the schoolyard who decides who gets to swing and who can only watch. The dominant caste’s assumptions of beauty and competence determine our standing and access to resources. Caste and race coexist and reinforce each other.
The election of President Donal Trump saw the white working-class caste vote against the policies that would improve their lives. Democrats threw up their hands, “What’s wrong with these people?” President Lyndon B. Johnson understood this fact. “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
Seen through the lens of hierarchy, those voters believed that the other party’s election would help those they deemed beneath them and diminish their perceived power. “If the things that I have believed are not true, then might I not be who I thought I was?” Trump’s economically impoverished followers are fighting for their rung on the ladder of caste hierarchy.
Indigenous people who were violently forced off their land, Ms. Wilkerson explains, exist outside the caste system. African Americans joined the caste system at the bottom, enslaved people fighting for the most basic of human rights. On the other hand, the middle castes, Latinos and Asians, depending on immigrants’ influx, continually maneuver the preexisting ranking.
Meeting with a group of white women of the dominant caste to discuss Isabel Wilkerson’s book, we focused on how the book impacted our thinking. We agreed that Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents was a difficult book to bite and chew. It demanded we face our racism and the advantages we enjoy as a part of the dominant culture.
Learning that Nazi Germany studied Jim Crow laws of the South as a guide to becoming a full-fledged racist regime spoke to our lack of awareness. Discovering that the Nazis praised “the American commitment to legislating racial purity” but considered parts as too harsh left us silent. We are of the Carole King Tapestry generation, “Where the birth and the death of unseen generations, are interdependent in vast orchestration.” Isabel’s encounters with racism in first-class air traveling, Homeland Security officers, and restaurants demonstrated how the undertow of bigotry resurfaces in places we couldn’t imagine.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents speaks to Ida B. Well’s, the woman who fought against lynching in the South, words: “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth on them.” Isabel Wilkerson’s book shines a light on the past, the present, and our long-overdue reckoning of racial injustice.