I think this is the first time I’ve posted about one specific book, but I just finished Caste by Isabel Wilkerson and I feel moved to talk about it. I think this is an amazing and important book, and I hope that sharing some thoughts might encourage others to read it.
I approached this book with apprehension because I knew I would be reading about atrocities and this wouldn’t be a comfortable or pleasant read. And I was right: the violent historical and current events Wilkerson describes are hard to read and think about. But this discomfort is deliberate and effective. Wilkerson doesn’t avoid or turn away from any of the realities she describes, and I think her scholarship and documentation are excellent (note: I’m not a historian and I don’t have the background knowledge to evaluate her historical scholarship, so I would like to read more historians talk about her work).
Wilkerson convinced me of her main (I think) premise: it is useful to think about the United States as a caste system (in the same context as the caste system in India and the caste system the Nazi’s established before WWII). I’ve been involved in many discussions that get stuck as the group tries to define what racism means (and doesn’t mean), and what exactly systemic racism means (contrasted with personal acts of racism, or racist attitudes, etc.) Thinking about the US as having a caste system based on race since before the beginning of our country can help cut through some potentially “wheel-spinning” discussions about definitions of racism and allow a group to get to productive discussions about what happened and is happening in the US (and maybe what to do about it).
Here is a somewhat random list of other details from the book that jumped out at me:
- Pg. 231 – I had no idea about the history of the idea and practice of vaccination, and how that story intersects with US history! (here’s the reference Wilkerson provides)
- Pg. 251 – Wilkerson describes the AMAZINGLY brave research done by Davis and the Gardners – Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class – I’m anxious to read more about that study and their recommendations.
- Pg. 283 – this quote floored me: “Knowledge without wisdom is adequate for the powerful, but wisdom is essential for the survival of the subordinate.” (Wilkerson quoting Patricia Hill Collins)
- Pg. 385 – check out the big brain on A. Einstein! I’ve never read about his thoughts on civil rights before: “We must make every effort [to ensure] that the pas injustice, violence, and economic discrimination will be made known to the people… The taboo ‘let’s not talk about it’ must be broken. It must be pointed out time and again that the exclusion of a large part of the colored population from active civil rights by the common practices is a slap in the face of the constitution of the nation.”