Caste: The Origins of our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson is my choice for the Social Justice Book of the Year, 2020 – Here are my six lessons and takeaways

Caste• The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly.
• And only recently have circumstances forced us, in this current era of human rupture, to search for the unseen stirrings of the human heart, to discover the origins of our discontents.
• Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions. It is the architecture of human hierarchy, the subconscious code of instructions for maintaining, in our case, a four-hundred-year-old social order.
• Looking at caste is like holding the country’s X-ray up to the light.  
• The elevation of others amounts to a demotion of oneself, thus equality feels like a demotion.
 • The stigmatized stratify their own, because no one wants to be in last place. (anthropologist J. Lorand Motary). 
• “The ‘function’ of upholding that caste system itself, of keeping the ‘Negro in his place.’”
• This caste system would trigger the deadliest war on U.S. soil, lead to the ritual killings of thousands of subordinate-caste people in lynchings, and become the source of inequalities that becloud and destabilize the country to this day.  
Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of our Discontent


I have presented synopses of ten books dealing with issues of social justice this year for the Urban Engagement Book Club, sponsored by CitySquare.

The fact is that a number of books I presented, dealing with issues of race, were significant, substantive books.  I would call them must-reads… The Making of a Racist by Charles Dew and The Color of Law by David Rothstein (I actually presented these two books last year); How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi; The Broken Road: George Wallace and a Daughter’s Journey to Reconciliation by Peggy Wallace Kennedy; among others.  I also presented a good and needed book on antisemitism: Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah Lipstadt. And a book on living in poverty – kind of a modern update of Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich.  This book is Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land.

But, as much as I learned from all of these books, and as important as they all are, there was in fact a crystal clear choice for my selection of The Social Justice Book of the Year, 2020, for me.  That book is Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (New York:  Random House. 2020).

A few years ago, I presented a synopsis of Isabel Wilkerson’s earlier book: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. It is such a profound book.  (Read my blog post: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson – A Big Book).

Caste, her new book, is a breathtaking book.  It is sweeping; it is damning; it is far-reaching.

Ms. Wilkerson is a Pulitzer Prize winning author.  Oprah chose Caste as an Oprah’s Book Club selection.  The book has been selected for numerous “best books of 2020” lists.

My comment is simple:  I learned so very much from this book.  And as I learned, I felt my heart touched, and my empathy rekindled. Even as I felt disappointment, and anger, at what our country has done.

To tell you that the book contains details of:  India’s caste system; slavery in America; the history of race in America post-Civil War; the abuse of human beings through segregation and the Jim Crow Laws; and so many more details, is still to leave too much out.

Her chapters on Nazi Germany’s reliance on the American racist systems, and her chapter on Confederate monuments, both stand out.  But really, the whole book is filled with such valuable insight.

Ms. Wilkerson wraps all of the discussion of racism into the over-arching concept of caste.  It is a convincing and compelling case.

And, in this post, I simply do not have space to tell of her utterly revealing and engaging stories; from the horrendous abuses of enslaved people by Robert E. Lee, to the use of American Laws by the Nazis, to personal mistreatment she experienced on airlines and at restaurants, and many others. (Watch the video of my synopsis, and you will hear some of these stories.  See below).

In my synopses, I always ask What is the point?  Here’s my answer for this book:
• The dominant caste looks down on the lower castes, and especially the lowest caste.  The lowest caste cannot rise any higher.  This is the essence of the evil of casteism. 

And I always ask, Why is this book worth our time?  Here are my three reasons for this book:

#1 – This book is a comprehensive look at the reality of caste, which is the real undergirding of racism in America. 
#2 – This book is a layer-by-layer journey into the omnipresence of casteism in America (and, in India). 
#3 – This book is a call to action for white people to address, abandon, renounce, and defeat casteism.

I always include quite a few pages of Quotes and Excerpts from the book – the “best of” Randy’s highlighted Passages.  Here are the best of the best that I selected from Caste:

• Few problems have ever been solved by ignoring them. …In fact, you do the opposite. You educate yourself.
• A caste system is 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 on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places.
• In the American caste system, the signal of rank is what we call race, the division of humans on the basis of their appearance. In America, race is the primary tool and the visible decoy, the front man, for caste.
• We may mention “race,” referring to people as black or white or Latino or Asian or indigenous, when what lies beneath each label is centuries of history and assigning of assumptions and values to physical features in a structure of human hierarchy.
• It is the historic flash card to the public of how they are to be treated, where they are expected to live, what kinds of positions they are expected to hold, whether they belong in this section of town or that seat in a boardroom, whether they should be expected to speak with authority on this or that subject, whether they will be administered pain relief in a hospital, whether their neighborhood is likely to adjoin a toxic waste site or to have contaminated water flowing from their taps, whether they are more or less likely to survive childbirth in the most advanced nation in the world, whether they may be shot by authorities with impunity.
• “The mill worker with nobody else to ‘look down on,’ regards himself as eminently superior to the Negro,” observed the Yale scholar Liston Pope in 1942.  … “Let the lowest white man count for more than the highest negro.”
• Americans are loath to talk about enslavement in part because what little we know about it goes against our perception of our country as a just and enlightened nation, a beacon of democracy for the world.
• “For the first time in history, one category of humanity was ruled out of the ‘human race’ and into a separate subgroup that was to remain enslaved for generations in perpetuity.”
They were regularly whipped, raped, and branded, …tortures that the Geneva Conventions would have banned as war crimes had the conventions applied to people of African descent on this soil.
• Slavery made the enslavers among the richest people in the world.
• No current-day adult will be alive in the year in which African-Americans as a group will have been free for as long as they had been enslaved. That will not come until the year 2111.
• The dominant caste devised a labyrinth of laws to hold the newly freed people on the bottom rung ever more tightly, while a popular new pseudoscience called eugenics worked to justify the renewed debasement.
• Any action or institution that mocks, harms, assumes, or attaches inferiority or stereotype on the basis of the social construct of race can be considered racism.
• Any action or structure that seeks to limit, hold back, or put someone in a defined ranking, seeks to keep someone in their place by elevating or denigrating that person on the basis of their perceived category, can be seen as casteism.
• Many leading Americans had joined the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century, including the inventor Alexander Graham Bell, the auto magnate Henry Ford, and Charles W. Eliot, the president of Harvard University.  … the German Society for Racial Hygiene applauded “the dedication with which Americans sponsor research in the field of racial hygiene and with which they translate theoretical knowledge into practice.”
• The Nazis were impressed by the American custom of lynching its subordinate caste of African-Americans, having become aware of the ritual torture and mutilations that typically accompanied them. Hitler especially marveled at the American “knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death.”
• In the zero-sum stakes of a caste system upheld by perceived scarcity, if a lower-caste person goes up a rung, an upper-caste person comes down.

Here are a few of the key points  I included from the book, in my synopsis:

  • Caste is about: Power; Resources; Respect, authority, assumptions of competence.
  • The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources—which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence—who is accorded these and who is not.
  • It’s Caste; it’s race; it’s caste/race…
  • Caste and race are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive. They can and do coexist in the same culture and serve to reinforce each other. Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin. Race is what we can see, the physical traits that have been given arbitrary meaning and become shorthand for who a person is. Caste is the powerful infrastructure that holds each group in its place.
  • Caste is fixed and rigid. Race is fluid and superficial.
  • While the requirements to qualify as white have changed over the centuries, the fact of a dominant caste has remained constant from its inception—whoever fit the definition of white, at whatever point in history, was granted the legal rights and privileges of the dominant caste.
  • “When we speak of the race problem in America, what we really mean is the caste system and the problems which that caste system creates in America.”
  • THERE IS NO “RACE” – Two decades ago, analysis of the human genome established that all human beings are 99.9 percent the same. “Race is a social concept, not a scientific one.”
  • Caste, on the other hand, predates the notion of race and has survived the era of formal, state-sponsored racism that had long been openly practiced in the mainstream. …But caste does not allow us to ignore structure. Caste is structure. Caste is ranking.
  • Caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.
  • Who is at the top? Who is at the bottom?
  • White
  • Asian
  • Latino
  • Black
  • While this book seeks to consider the effects on everyone caught in the hierarchy, it devotes significant attention to the poles of the American caste system, those at the top, European Americans, who have been its primary beneficiaries, and those at the bottom, African-Americans, against whom the caste system has directed its full powers of dehumanization.
  • Dominant caste, ruling majority, favored caste, or upper caste, instead of, or in addition to, white. Middle castes instead of, or in addition to, Asian or Latino. Subordinate caste, lowest caste, bottom caste, disfavored caste, historically stigmatized instead of African-American.
  • Caste — must be kept separate – otherwise the dominant caste might be polluted… (Remember  Jim Crow laws)
  • separated in eating
  • separated in learning/education
  • separated in working
  • separated in dating/marriage
  • separated in housing/separated neighborhoods
  • About white supremacy, and the Confederate States, and Confederate monuments
  • the Cornerstone Speech
  • “Its foundations are laid,” said Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, “its corner-stone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth….With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system.”
  • what the Confederate monuments signal to Black people
  • Germany and the Nazis, contrasted to the US and the Confederate monuments…
  • Caste/(Race) is at the very center, the very foundation, of our history:
  • the country cannot become whole until it confronts what was not a chapter in its history, but the basis of its economic and social order.

And here are my Six Lessons and Takeaways:

#1 – We live in a country with people separated by caste. Acknowledge it.
#2 – We live in a country with people separated by caste. You will see it. Recognize it when you see it.
#3 – We live in a country with people separated by caste. Stand against it.
#4 – We live in a country with people separated by caste. Speak out against it. At the personal level.
#5 – We live in a country with people separated by caste. Speak out against it. At the societal/cultural level.
#6 – We live in a country with people separated by caste. Speak out against it. At the governmental level. 

This book is a wonderful, clear book to read.  But it is also deeply disturbing.  How could our country have been like this?  How could our country still be like this?

But the book ends with a moving story of her encounter with a plumber: a white man, who was not very approachable, or attentive, or helpful.  But with her human connection, she transformed a pretty bleak encounter into a human connection.

And her final chapter beckons us toward something better.  Here’s how Bilal Qureshi put it in his review of the book:  “A surprising and arresting wide-angle reframing . . . Her epilogue feels like a prayer for a country in pain, offering new directions through prophetic language.”

Caste is my selection for the Social Justice Book of the Year, 2020.  I strongly encourage you to read it.


Click on image to download the synopsis handout for Caste

Click on image to download the synopsis handout for Caste

You can download my entire comprehensive, multi-page, synopsis handout by clicking here.

I posted my video of my synopsis presentation on YouTube.  It is embedded in this blog post:  Here is the video of my synopsis presentation of Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, from the December, 2020 Urban Engagement Book Club.

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