Friday, March 19, 2021

Review: Caste

From Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson:

Open quote I'd been writing about a stigmatized people, six million of them, who were seeking freedom from the caste system in the South, only to discover that the hierarchy followed them wherever they went, much in the way that the shadow of caste, I would soon discover, follows Indians in their own global diaspora." Caste

Americans think they know what caste is. It's the social stratification of society in India. Isabel Wilkerson compares and contrasts with its American cousin (slavery, Jim Crow, racism) and German Nazism. This work offers a new way of seeing an old evil.

Grade: B+

"Caste" is Isabel Wilkerson's followup to her excellent "The Warmth of Other Suns". That book looked at the migration of Blacks from the American South to the Northeast, the Midwest, and the West in the early decades of the twentieth century. It told more stories than her latest work, which looks at racism in America as one version of a more universal evil. That's caste. Caste and race are not synonymous, but they do overlap and reinforce each other.

Wilkerson identifies three significant systems of caste in world history: India, America, and Nazi Germany. India's has persisted for millennia, Nazi Germany's for just a decade. Wilkerson spends most of her book focusing on the caste system in America. The American caste system has persisted for 400 years. It didn't end when slavery was outlawed in 1865. It didn't end when Jim Crow was outlawed in 1965. It just morphed. She uses India and Nazi Germany to highlight aspects of the American caste system. She tells an anecdote of an American Black scholar attending a seminar on caste in India and being introduced as a member of America's "untouchable" caste. The American was taken aback, but the Indians recognized the American Black for what he was to other Americans. She details how the Nazis drew on the American Jim Crow laws to construct an anti-semitic legal system in Germany.

In many short chapters, Wilkerson discusses the many different aspects of the American caste system, starting with what she calls the pillars of caste: notions like divine will, heritability, purity, dehumanization, and terror. She goes on to discuss the many ways caste impacts American life, what she calls the "tentacles of caste." One such tentacle is the necessity of a bottom rung on the ladder. She documents how different immigrant groups have striven to be recognized as "White" or at least not "Black." She ends with some instances of backlash against the caste system and some instances of hope, what she calls "Awakening."

No matter what you think you know about the history and reach of racism in America, you'll learn something, a lot of somethings, from "Caste."

"Caste" is available in Kindle format from the Richardson Public Library.

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