Join BookBrowse today and get access to free books, our twice monthly digital magazine, and more.

BookBrowse Reviews Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Read-Alikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio


The Origins of Our Discontents

by Isabel Wilkerson

Caste by Isabel  Wilkerson X
Caste by Isabel  Wilkerson
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Aug 2020, 496 pages

    Feb 2023, 512 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Grace Graham-Taylor
Buy This Book

About this Book



Isabel Wilkerson provides a new language with which to talk about racial inequality, and offers a pathway towards deconstructing the hidden hierarchies that bind us.

In 2020, the word "racist" remains taboo. Conceptually, racism is so culturally unacceptable, so ugly and indefensible, that even the alt-right take pains to acquit themselves of accusations of it. However, despite the fact that almost nobody will admit to being racist nowadays, inequality and racial prejudice continue to exist. Resistance to the word does not address the problems it is meant to describe; it merely makes them more difficult to articulate.

In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson offers an alternative language for these problems — that of caste. Through this conceptual shift, she is able to advance the conversation about the structural power imbalances that permeate American society and reveal the deeper machinations of racial hierarchy. "The modern-day version of easily deniable racism may be able to cloak the invisible structure that created and maintains…inequality," she writes. "But caste does not allow us to ignore structure. Caste is structure." According to Wilkerson, caste predates the notion of race. It 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." Caste is, she claims, "the basis of every other ism."

A caste system, as defined in Wilkerson's remarkably in-depth and powerful study, is "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." Wilkerson identifies eight "pillars" by which these systems are kept intact, a rigid set of beliefs designed to justify the natural superiority of the dominant caste as well as to distance and dehumanize the subjugated caste. These include divine law, notions of purity, endogamy and occupational hierarchy. She compares the race-based American caste system to two other prominent caste societies: those of India and Nazi Germany. This serves to show that while caste systems may come in different forms, using different arbitrary features to designate power, their structures are much the same. "Each version," she writes, "relied on stigmatizing those deemed inferior to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement."

Wilkerson writes clearly and with a gravity that matches her subject matter. Her masterful and at times poetic use of allegory adds color and emotional resonance to her academic analysis, such as when she relates the story of a strange sickness that swept through Siberia in 2016, which eventually was discovered to have been caused by anthrax buried under permafrost. It had been there since World War II, but now, because a radical heatwave had hit the area, it had been released from the snow. The anthrax, she says, is "like the reactivation of the human pathogens of hatred and tribalism in this evolving century...It lay in wait, sleeping, until extreme circumstances brought it to the surface and back to life."

The book is painstakingly researched, with thousands of testimonials and case studies, both historical and contemporary. Each anecdote conveys an element of the barbarity and perversity of the caste system. Wilkerson relays these incidents with calm authority, equal parts blunt and tender, laying bare the exceptional cruelty that the delusion of caste can engender. The horror of descriptions of the Jim Crow South, in which the bodies of African Americans were dismembered after lynchings and distributed as souvenirs, is juxtaposed with more banal forms of subjugation in Wilkerson's own experience, such as the subtle prejudices she encounters while flying first class. Using the caste model, she is able to show the pervasive and harmful impact of this structure on how we all live, dominant and subdominant castes alike. The caste system rumbles beneath the surface, erupting occasionally when pressure is applied.

Although Wilkerson's book is steeped in suffering, her concluding message is one of hope. In the last chapters, she offers a glimmer of light, a future that could be brighter than the historical cruelties she portrays. To get there would require a kind of "radical empathy," the kind that is able to recognize "the pain of another as they perceive it." By educating ourselves and committing to a vigilant awareness of history, we can, she suggests, begin to deconstruct hierarchies. This remedial work, of which her book is a part, will lead us to a place of harmony. "In a world without caste," she writes, "instead of a false swagger over our own tribe or family or ascribed community, we would look upon all of humanity with wonderment."

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in October 2020, and has been updated for the March 2023 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  The Johnson–Jeffries Riots


Read-Alikes Full readalike results are for members only

If you liked Caste, try these:

  • African Europeans jacket

    African Europeans

    by Olivette Otele

    Published 2023

    About this book

    A dazzling history of Africans in Europe, revealing their unacknowledged role in shaping the continent.

  • How to Be an Antiracist jacket

    How to Be an Antiracist

    by Ibram X. Kendi

    Published 2023

    About this book

    More by this author

    From the National Book Award–winning author of Stamped from the Beginning comes a bracingly original approach to understanding and uprooting racism and inequality in our society - and in ourselves.

We have 5 read-alikes for Caste, but non-members are limited to two results. To see the complete list of this book's read-alikes, you need to be a member.
Search read-alikes
How we choose read-alikes

Support BookBrowse

Join our inner reading circle, go ad-free and get way more!

Find out more

Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: The Light Eaters
    The Light Eaters
    by Zoë Schlanger
    The human race is completely dependent on plants. Many people, however, give little thought to ...
  • Book Jacket: Joy Is the Justice We Give Ourselves
    Joy Is the Justice We Give Ourselves
    by J Drew Lanham
    As a recipient of the MacArthur "Genius" Grant, and a Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Master ...
  • Book Jacket: Glorious Exploits
    Glorious Exploits
    by Ferdia Lennon
    Lampo and Gelon are two unemployed potters in their thirties whose lives are spent between their ...
  • Book Jacket: Song of the Six Realms
    Song of the Six Realms
    by Judy I. Lin
    Xue'er has no place in the kingdom of Qi or any of the Six Realms. Her name means "Solitary Snow" ...

BookBrowse Book Club

Book Jacket
Romantic Comedy
by Curtis Sittenfeld
A comedy writer's stance on love shifts when a pop star challenges her assumptions in this witty and touching novel.

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Daughters of Shandong
    by Eve J. Chung

    Eve J. Chung's debut novel recounts a family's flight to Taiwan during China's Communist revolution.

  • Book Jacket

    This Strange Eventful History
    by Claire Messud

    An immersive, masterful story of a family born on the wrong side of history.

Win This Book
Win Only the Brave

Only the Brave by Danielle Steel

A powerful, sweeping historical novel about a courageous woman in World War II Germany.



Solve this clue:

F T a T

and be entered to win..

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.