Summary and book reviews of Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

Caste

The Origins of Our Discontents

by Isabel Wilkerson

Caste by Isabel  Wilkerson X
Caste by Isabel  Wilkerson
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  • Published:
    Aug 2020, 496 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Grace Graham-Taylor
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Book Summary

The Pulitzer Prize–winning, bestselling author of The Warmth of Other Suns examines the unspoken caste system that has shaped America and shows how our lives today are still defined by a hierarchy of human divisions.

"As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not."

In this brilliant book, Isabel Wilkerson gives us a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America as she explores, through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings.

Beyond race, class, or other factors, there is a powerful caste system that influences people's lives and behavior and the nation's fate. Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, stigma, and more. Using riveting stories about people—including Martin Luther King, Jr., baseball's Satchel Paige, a single father and his toddler son, Wilkerson herself, and many others—she shows the ways that the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day. She documents how the Nazis studied the racial systems in America to plan their out-cast of the Jews; she discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires that there be a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she writes about the surprising health costs of caste, in depression and life expectancy, and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics. Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity.

Beautifully written, original, and revealing, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is an eye-opening story of people and history, and a reexamination of what lies under the surface of ordinary lives and of American life today.

Chapter 2
An Old House and an Infrared Light

The inspector trained his infrared lens onto a misshapen bow in the ceiling, an invisible beam of light searching the layers of lath to test what the eye could not see. This house had been built generations ago, and I had noticed the slightest welt in a corner of plaster in a spare bedroom and had chalked it up to idiosyncrasy. Over time, the welt in the ceiling became a wave that widened and bulged despite the new roof. It had been building beyond perception for years. An old house is its own kind of devotional, a dowager aunt with a story to be coaxed out of her, a mystery, a series of interlocking puzzles awaiting solution. Why is this soffit tucked into the southeast corner of an eave? What is behind this discolored patch of brick? With an old house, the work is never done, and you don't expect it to be.

America is an old house. We can never declare the work over. Wind, flood, drought, and human upheavals batter a structure that is ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. At the beginning of Caste, author Isabel Wilkerson compares American racial hierarchy to a dormant Siberian virus. What are the strengths of this metaphor? How does this comparison help combat the pervasive myth that racism has been eradicated in America?
  2. Wilkerson begins the book with an image of one lone dissenter amidst a crowd of Germans giving the Nazi salute. What would it mean—and what would it take—to be this man today?
  3. What are some of the elements required for a caste system to succeed?
  4. Wilkerson uses many different metaphors to explain and help us visualize the concept of the American caste system: the bones inside a body, the beams inside a house, even the computer program in the 1999 film The Matrix. Which of ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

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...continued

Full Review (774 words).

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(Reviewed by Grace Graham-Taylor).

Media Reviews

Chicago Tribune
[Caste] should be at the top of every American's reading list.

The Washington Post
Wilkerson’s book is a powerful, illuminating and heartfelt account of how hierarchy reproduces itself, as well as a call to action for the difficult work of undoing it

O, The Oprah Magazine
Magnificent . . . a trailblazing work on the birth of inequality . . . Caste offers a forward-facing vision. Bursting with insight and love, this book may well help save us.

New York Times
[Caste is] an extraordinary document, one that strikes me as an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far...I told more than one person, as I moved through my days this past week, that I was reading one of the most powerful nonfiction books I’d ever encountered...Wilkerson has written a closely argued book that largely avoids the word 'racism,' yet stares it down with more humanity and rigor than nearly all but a few books in our literature.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
The Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist chronicles the formation and fortunes of social hierarchy...A memorable, provocative book that exposes an American history in which few can take pride.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[P]owerful and extraordinarily timely...This enthralling exposé deserves a wide and impassioned readership.

Library Journal (starred review)
Similar to her previous book, the latest by Wilkerson is destined to become a classic, and is urgent, essential reading for all.

Booklist (starred review)
This is a brilliant book, well timed in the face of a pandemic and police brutality that cleave along the lines of a caste system.

Reader Reviews

CarolT

Thought-provoking
Wilkerson's easy to read prose kept me reading, but the topic kept me up nights. Everything she says is true. So, when I wonder about a "lower caste" person's promotion, am I wondering because she really isn't as qualified as other ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Johnson–Jeffries Riots

The Johnson-Jeffries fight In Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson describes how, in a caste system, challenges to the superiority of the dominant caste can produce "an epic existential crisis." This is particularly true for the people situated at the bottom rung of the dominant caste group (in the United States, working class or impoverished whites) for whom the status of superiority is most precious. In the logic of caste, she writes, "equality feels like a demotion," as when a member of the inferior caste becomes successful, "the natural human response from someone weaned on their caste's inherent superiority is to perceive a threat to their existence, a heightened sense of unease, of displacement, of fear for their very survival." In 1910, ...

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