Isabel Wilkerson brilliantly explains and examines how the United States has been shaped as a nation by what Wilkerson calls the silent assumptions of caste. With cool and penetrating authority, she draws parallels between: “The tragically accelerated, chilling, and officially vanquished caste system of Nazi Germany. The lingering, millennia-long caste system of India. And the shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the United States.”
She describes how each system relies on labeling some groups as inferior to validate the inhuman treatment necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom.
After reporting on extensive research and citing readily recognizable incidents of daily life, Wilkerson identifies eight “pillars” necessary for castes to endure: inherited rank, divine will based on a sacred text or the laws of nature, control of marriage and mates, taboos related to purity and pollution, the ranking of occupations, stigmas related to race or religion, and the use of terror and cruelty to restrain the inferior group.
In the 1930s, William Boyd Allison Davis, a trailblazing African American anthropologist whom Wilkerson calls her spiritual father, risked his life in a social experiment to study the interplay of caste and class in Natchez, Mississippi. Davis reported his findings in the book “Deep South” (1941) which confirms the conclusions of other social theorists of the time who agreed the structures that keep Blacks in danger and poverty are so deep-rooted that they form a caste system.
“Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred; it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.” Davis’ work, along with Wilkerson’s research for her first book “The Warmth of Other Suns,” strengthened her “desire to reach out across the oceans to better understand how all of this began.”
Her approach is both astonishing and persuasive. She documents how the Nazis studied the racial system in the U.S. to plan the genocide of the Jews.
“The Nazis were impressed by the American custom of lynching insubordinate castes of African Americans, having become aware of the ritual torture and mutilation that typically accompanied them.” Hitler especially marveled at the American “knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death.”
Wilkerson shows how caste requires a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against. She reports data showing the extensive health care costs of caste and other effects of ranking on culture and politics. Using historical anecdotes, she illustrates the brutality requisite to maintain this kind of dehumanization. She gives countless examples of the ways violence and terror function under slavery and Jim Crow, as well as today to maintain this human hierarchy.
The American caste system comes alive as Wilkerson moves the reader from generalities to specific cases, some in which the reader may have participated. There are personal stories of how the “unseen hierarchy ” repeatedly undermines her self-image as a middle-class professional.
The author’s remarks about American politics and the 2016 election, in particular, are sobering. She reminds those who believe the election of Barack Obama indicated a post-racial era that the majority of Whites did not vote for him. She poses the question:
“Why did the white working classes in America vote against their economic interests?” Her answer is, “Maintaining the caste system as it had always been was in their interest. And some were willing to accept short term discomfort, forgo health insurance, risk contamination of the water and air, and even die to protect their long-term interest in the hierarchy as they had known it.”
“Caste” is a notably provocative and insightful analysis of U.S. history that depicts the underbelly story of the United States. It is an enlightening read, presenting a major piece of American history that is often omitted from textbooks. “Caste” will be valued and studied now and by many future generations.
About the author: Isabel Wilkerson is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Humanities Medal, and the National Book Critics Award for Nonfiction. Random House is the publisher of this 475-page book which includes an extensive bibliography and a thorough index.