For thousands of years, India has maintained a caste system, and even though it has been abolished legally, still it lives on, deeply ingrained in the psyche of the nation. The Brahmin caste, it is believed, had sprung directly from the gods, and so it was irrefutable that they were to be honored. The lower castes had surnames that described their occupations and their place in society, and the very lowest caste, the Dalit, were “untouchable.” Nothing they could ever do would change their fate or that of their children.
Isabel Wilkerson believes that all of humanity will organize itself into some sort of caste system in order to maintain structure in society. She has met Dalit Indian immigrants in the United States who cannot look other Indian Americans in the eye if they would have occupied a higher caste in India. She also traveled to Germany, where the mid-twentieth century produced a caste system based on religion and other factors that allowed those in power to blame everything on a scapegoat, a necessary feature of every caste system.
In the United States, caste is largely based on race. For a century and a half before the Declaration of Independence, the economy of at least the southern portion of the country was dependent on slavery. Wilkerson does not hold back on the descriptions of the cruelty of slaveholders and the ruthless ways that the white people in power kept hold of the reins of hierarchy. Furthermore, she shows— through scholarly research, news stories, and personal accounts— that it is easier to change laws than to change human hearts.
Wilkerson is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her previous book, The Warmth of Other Suns. This new work, subtitled The Origins of Our Discontent, is certainly the most scholarly and well-researched of the many anti-racist titles I’ve read in the past year. The author goes beyond the current headlines to delve into the human condition and discover the causes of such evil. Her research and presentation are thorough, yet readable, and her conclusions are convincing. Even in the smallest human groups—your office, your church, and your homeowner’s association, for example—we see people sorting into hierarchies. Some are helpful, while others are toxic. Those at the top will ruthlessly use their power to keep themselves on top. Those in the middle have a vested interest in maintaining the lowest caste, congratulating themselves that at least they are better than those beneath them on the ladder, while those on the very bottom, like crabs in a bucket, keep pulling each other back down so that they won’t be alone in despair.
Other titles that I have reviewed may have been more practical about steps that readers can take to heal past hurts, but this book will help many people to understand the concept of “systemic” racism. Wilkerson does have a pointedly partisan take on current politics, and some readers may be offended. However, it is important that we explore the origins of our unrest in a serious and unflinching manner. It’s not about the laws we pass or even the century or country we live in. Caste is a compulsion we all have as one of the darker sides of our human nature.
Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.