Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
By Isabel Wilkerson
A Review by Dwight A. Moody
What you really need to read is not this 748-word review but the 12-page Epilogue of this stunning book. It ends with this prophetic word: “A world without caste would set everyone free.”
A first step toward that hopeful future is to see the world as it really is. Pulitzer-Prize winning author and scholar Isabel Wilkerson helps us see just that in her newly published Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. And what she makes visual for us is different than what we have seen before, because it replaces the lens of race with the perspective of caste.
Caste is color-coordinated, of course, in the United States, at least. But not necessarily in the two other countries Wilkerson includes in this study: India and (Nazi) Germany. It jars the imagination to see our country lumped together with these two nations and their despicable histories. But the jarring is good, even necessary; it forces us to see ourselves as others see us— and by “us” I certainly mean white folk, even Southern white folk. We need to read the remark of Albert Einstein as quoted by Wilkerson: “The separation of the races is not a disease of the colored people but a disease of the white people.”
Here the separation is of black and white; in Germany it was of Aryan and Jew; in India it is the division of the people into five castes with the Dalit—the untouchables—below the bottom rung.
Wilkerson draws attention to eight common characteristics of caste cultures: divine authorization, heritability, endogamy, purity/pollution, occupation, stigma, terror, and inherent superiority. All of them are generously illustrated by the continued treatment of black people in these United States of America.
Wide ranging scholarship and first-person anecdotes populate this book with credibility, readability, and quotability: “You know that there are no black people in Africa …. They don’t become black until they go to America ….” They then discover they are suddenly a member of the lowest caste in their new country, one sanctioned and enforced by all levels of government until very recently and still embraced by millions of Americans today.
In fact, the disruption of the caste system by the recent successes of black entertainers, athletes, and statesmen (Colin Powell and Barak Obama, for instance) has created a mighty blowback. It began, we all now know, in the days of Martin Luther King Jr. and merged with an established political party and powerful religious networks (white Christian) to create the movement that fueled the election of Reagan, the “Contract with America”, the Tea Party rebellion, and finally the rise to power of Donald J. Trump.
“Trump channeled insecurities and disaffections that went deeper than economics,” Wilkerson writes then quotes researchers who assert that “white voters’ preference for Donald Trump was … strongly related to concerns that minorities were taking jobs away from whites” (325).
Confederate monuments are symbols of caste, she asserts, and thus explains the fervid defense of rebel and slave leaders (preserving the story of our country’s “descent into madness”) in sharp contrast to the German repudiation of Nazi flags, Nazi art, and Nazi statuary.
In one chapter in the section on Backlash she quotes noted King biographer Branch Taylor as saying that “if given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?” (352)
Of course, I read these things through the lens of religion—mostly, the Christian religion—and extrapolate that question into another: If given the choice between their religion (which they call Christian) and whiteness, what would they choose? Many of us are convinced that the majority of white Christians in America (Catholic, Evangelical, and Protestant, the research declares) are choosing caste over Christ, white over right.
Wilkerson concludes (and I agree): “Thus, regardless of who prevails in any given election the country still labors under the divisions that a caste system creates and the fears and resentments of a dominant caste that is too often in opposition to the yearnings of those deemed beneath them” (381).
Other than calling for a rebirth of “the humanitarian impulse”, Wilkerson gives little to no guidance on how we extricate our country from the bondage of caste presumption and practice.
And me? I bow my head and wonder if there is in our future a version of Christian community that can repudiate our addiction to whiteness and live out the gospel in living color: red, yellow, black, and white—and everything in between.