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December 11, 2020

Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste is one of the smartest, most illuminating and important books I’ve read this year—or ever. A rich, engaging and fascinating text that draws a connection between India’s caste system, the Nazis’ plans for Germany’s Jews, and America’s racial hierarchy—matter-of-factly, she shows that India and America’s hierarchies are parallel, and also how the Nazis drew on America’s example for their own purposes, though there were certain examples where the Nazis wouldn’t go that far (one instance: the one-drop rule.) And just think of it—when the Nazis think you’ve gone too far.

Americans are not widely known for using examples of other cultures to better understand or even benefit themselves—see: the reasons people come up with as to how measures to fight Covid all over the world couldn’t work in a place like Nebraska; or how while public healthcare functions just fine in Canada, in Florida it would be impossible (I SPEND TOO MUCH TIME READING SOCIAL MEDIA COMMENTS)—and so what Wilkerson is doing here is really radical and profound.

Caste, Wilkerson writes, is like grammar. Not explicitly taught, but absorbed, until it becomes part of the atmosphere, or perhaps foundation is a better metaphor, because everything else is built upon it, and she shares her observations for being able to tell what caste Indians are from by watching their interactions, the natural superiority one might assume to another, even somebody with very good intentions.

I found this book useful in a way that not all books on race and anti-racism have been to me. For the way it illuminating the questions I’ve been having for the last five years (why does the white working class keep voting against their interest? Because perpetuating the hierarchy is in their interest, even if they have to suffer for it.)

This is the kind of book whose reading only deepened the furrows on my brow, because I spent the whole time reading and wondering, “What the fuck?” Did you know that lynchings were once commemorating with wildly popular postcards? And when the postal service finally got wise and banned these, people just stuck the images in envelopes. People who threw glass into pools to keep Black people from swimming in them, and the district that just did without public schools altogether instead of segregating. Bull Connor paying a Black man to shake hands with the mayoral candidate he did not support, and a photographer to capture the moment, because it was unacceptable for a white man to shake hands with a Black man. And the legacy of Robert E. Lee, for whom schools across the nations are named, who got to become a university president after the Civil War (Wilkerson compares this to how Nazi Generals were NOT remembered after World War Two) and Wilkerson recounts a story of his torture of three of the people he enslaved: “Had these and even more gruesome atrocities occurred in another country, at another time, to another set of people other than the lowest caste, they would have been considered crimes against humanity… But the slaveholders…were not only not punished but were celebrated as pillars of society.”

And that this is the culture we are steeped in. (I am not American, but we are still steeped in American culture AND the history of my nation is not so vastly different even if we weren’t). It just seems like such a powerful way to explain the situation, and also to explain why racism is so hard to tackle, which is that racism is underlined by a caste system upon which not only institutions are built but which also informs our sense of self. Racism is just a symptom of a deeper and more insidious problem, which Wilkerson illuminates through a blend of anthropology, history, cultural studies, memoir, and reporting. A framework that has so long been invisible, but once you see it there, you realize it’s everywhere. You realize why the backlash to America’s first Black President, say, has been so awful and vicious, because of how so many are willing to gamble everything to keep that hierarchy intact.

Identifying a problem is the first step toward finding a solution, no matter how difficult finding that solution might be, and to that end, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Wilkerson has done something so powerful with this, her second book after the acclaimed The Warmth of Other Suns. This is a book that continues to shift our understanding of race and white supremacy in a moment where we’ve never needed it more.

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