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Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Isabel Wilkerson
Published by Random House in 2020

Early on in the book Caste, Isabel Wilkerson invokes a metaphor familiar to anyone conversant with Jesus’s parables.  She says that society is like a homeowner who has inherited a house, “…on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside, but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched, but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades.” (p.16)  She describes what sounds like a slow-motion version of the house that the foolish man in the parable built on the sand, without a solid foundation.  And the parallel metaphor should resonate with Christians as Wilkerson spends the rest of the book defining the cracks in how America interacts with race — not only as individual prejudice or even systemic racism, but as a caste system, flexible enough to remain foundational in our society even as laws and policies seem to change to fight injustice. 

Wilkerson defines a caste system as “…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.”  (p.17).  A caste system features rigid and arbitrary boundaries that keep the different levels of people in their assigned places.  The book describes the caste systems in India, in Nazi Germany, and argues not only that we have had a caste system in America since the United States began, but that such a system has remained utterly pervasive in spite of emancipation, the civil rights movement, and legal reform.

Caste uses historical documentation, insightful analogies and analysis, direct quotes, and remarkably powerful anecdotes to convince the reader of Wilkerson’s argument.  There is not enough space in this review to fully lay out either her argument or her evidence – think of this as a taste of a much more complex and contextualized persuasive narrative and delve into the book yourself. 

Wilkerson describes how Hitler relied on research by American geneticists Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant to support his caste system to justify his crusade to kill Jewish people and everyone who did not fit his conception of a supreme Germanic person.  The book details a fact-finding expedition that Hitler sent to the US to study the ways that the Jim Crow laws of the post-Civil-War south could be used in Germany.  Historian Jonathan Spiro writes of that expedition that the visiting Nazi dignitaries were impressed by the American custom of lynching and that Hitler was amazed at the way that Americans had a “…knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death.” (81)  

After laying a foundation, part three of the book describes the eight pillars of caste, of which the first is the use of divine will and natural law to support an arbitrary caste system.  Other pillars include the notion that one’s caste position is inherited and can neither be renounced nor escaped, that marriage must be kept within caste boundaries, that caste determines what occupations and callings are available to people in different caste levels, that cruelty is necessary for control, and other salient ideas.  

The book includes quotes from Christian ministers like William Goodell (who was appalled by slavery), and other quotes from Christians who supported caste divisions by citing Biblical passages to support the idea that God set some groups of people on the Earth to be subservient to others.  Many quotes in the book made me feel I had been kicked in the stomach.  And yet, other quotes gave me hope.  Albert Einstein, drawing on his Jewish heritage, wrote that “The worst disease is the treatment of the Negro.  Everyone who freshly learns of this state of affairs at a mature age feels not only the injustice, but the scorn of the principle of the Fathers who founded the United States that ‘all men are created equal.” (p. 378).  Just a few pages later, Wilkerson points out that, “Every spiritual tradition says love your neighbor as yourself. Not to merely tolerate them.” (p. 397)

Some of the most powerful moments of the book are anecdotes that Wilkerson recounts.  She speaks of a moment when she arrived at an arranged interview and the man she was interviewing refused to believe that this black woman could possibly be the New York Times reporter he had agreed to meet.  Another anecdote describes a moment when, at a party, then-Senator Barak Obama was asked by a white woman to fetch her a drink.  There are countless other such stories of the minor and major ways that caste insinuates itself into our daily lives. 

The end of the book offers the tiniest sliver of hope.  Wilkerson recounts moments when people woke up to the reality of caste, and even a moment with a MAGA-hat wearing plumber who at first refused to help Wilkerson with her basement, then connected with when he realized she had recently lost her mother – and for a while they could see past caste to see each other as humans. Caste is a helpful step away from thinking of racism only as a personal issue – in which there are some people in the world who are racists and others who are not.  It also is a step away from attributing the notion that fixing our problems is just a matter of dismantling the systems that empower and support racism.  Rather, this book’s vision of racism as empowered and sustained by a deeply ingrained caste system is a more truthful and accurate understanding of a world deeply torn by the sin that affects even the way we understand and see God’s children, our sisters and brothers.  Its insightful arguments are well worth reading.    

William Boerman-Cornell

Bill Boerman-Cornell is a professor of Education at Trinity Christian College.  He is the co-author most recently of Young Adult Literature and Spirituality: How to Unlock Deeper Understanding with Class Discussion.