“With an old house, the work is never done, and you don’t expect it to be,” writes Isabel Wilkerson in her new book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” “America is an old house.” It is a simple analogy that is classic Wilkerson, whose previous book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” chronicled the Great Migration through the masterful weaving of thousands of narratives within the United States. In her new book, which should be required reading for generations to come and is as propulsive a reading experience as her debut, she turns her attention to India, Germany, and what their histories have in common with America’s.
A significant work of social science, journalism, and history, “Caste” removes the tenuous language of racial animus and replaces it with a sturdier lexicon based on power relationships. “Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions,” Wilkerson explains, “an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry.” Using examples from around the world, she goes on to demonstrate how the codification of caste throughout the world has hardened economic and political inequality into seemingly permanent markers of difference.
Wilkerson begins with India to ground the reader in a more expansive view of how we have arrived at our current moment of disrepair — a moment that we continue to revisit over time. In India, the lowest caste are the Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables,” and they have the most in common with Black Americans as the subordinate caste. They are ignored and disrespected and feared. Everything about the Dalit position in the caste structure corresponds with what it means to be Black in America — to be used as a scapegoat for the ignorance, impatience, and cruelty of a dominant caste. It has to be said that part of the allure of caste as a concept over race or racism is that the notion, as conveyed in these pages, will likely be less triggering for white people — the dominant caste the world over.
Wilkerson explores the caste, racial, and social cruelty in Germany under Hitler and its connection to America’s Jim Crow system of segregation. Anyone looking for proof that our caste system is among the most confused, confusing, and cruel in the world — something descendants of the enslaved surely understand at a gut level — will find that evidence here. Nazis carefully took note of the commonplace and sadistic lynching of innocent Black men and women for decades; Hitler approved. But the one-drop rule, which declared that a person with just a drop of Black blood was considered Black, was considered extreme, even for Nazis.
There are several infuriating scenes detailing Wilkerson’s own encounters with the confines of caste. Assumptions we make about where someone fits into our societal hierarchy, she suggests, become a cage that imprisons us all. One memorable incident includes DEA agents who follow Wilkerson through a Detroit airport onto a shuttle bus as she tries to get a rental car. We live in an era with broader awareness of how just existing as a Black person in America — regardless of what you do or do not do — puts you at greater risk of arrest, death, or possibly both. Readers will feel their outrage rise as the agents, suspicious ostensibly because her only piece of luggage is a carry-on bag, only back down when she takes out a reporter’s notebook and begins to write down everything about them as a way of proving that, despite her caste, she is not a criminal.
Expanding her view, Wilkerson accounts for the current violence based on a combination of race and class, including but not limited to the swelling of hate crimes based on race, ethnicity, and culture that began when President Trump took office — the Tree of Life synagogue massacre, the murders of congregants in Mother Emanuel AME church in South Carolina, the first white supremacist charged for terrorism in the state of New York for fatally stabbing a 66-year-old Black man with a sword in Times Square.
It feels inevitable that in a book about deep ruptures in the social, economic, and psychological fabrics that have gone unrepaired for so long would end with direct calls to action. On this, Wilkerson does not disappoint. What we need, she argues, is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to do the work legendary allies (including Albert Einstein) understood decades ago were necessary to heal the contradictions and paradoxes of the American project. We need more than just ordinary empathy, or pity, she writes — guilt, as Audre Lorde once wrote, is pointless. Despite her realism, Wilkerson isn’t without hope. Our house is getting older all the time, but even if most of its problems still need fixing, it’s hard to put “Caste” down believing any of its challenges are beyond repair.
By Isabel Wilkerson
Random House, 496 pp., $32
Joshunda Sanders is an author and educator living in the Bronx.