By Isabel Wilkerson
Reviewed by Andrew Carberry
I read Caste as a part of a book club at work last year, and discussed it over a couple of sessions with my coworkers. The book argues that America operates within a caste system. A caste system is a rigid social structure that elevates and advantages one group over another and pits groups against each other, all based on arbitrary traits. Throughout the book Wilkerson draws comparisons between the caste systems in India, the caste system imposed by the third reich in Germany, and the caste system in the US. The US caste system is different from others in that it is based on race, and that having it based on a visible trait makes it more pernicious and durable than caste systems based on non-visible traits.
This is a heavy book because it brings to light lots of hidden or forgotten history about our country. One fact that startled me was that the Nazi’s Nuremburg laws were inspired by and based on US laws and treatment of indigenous people. The Nazi’s actually looked up to the US because our country established itself with racial heirarchys from the beginning and they sought to replicate our systems of discrimination in Germany. Heinrich Krieger, a young German lawyer studied at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville for two years, and later advised Hitler’s administration on how to structure their laws to control Jews in Germany.
This book covers a lot of ground historically and takes an academic tone at times, as well as offering a modern, personal perspective. Wilkerson includes personal anecdotes throughout, sharing her experience as a Black woman living in the US race-based caste system. These personal stories were especially hard to stomach but informative for me. I move through this world as a white man and have not had the experience of being dismissed or insulted based on my race or gender the way Wilkerson describes.
This book does not offer ‘solutions’ other than a personal story of Wilkerson and a MAGA-hat wearing repairman finding a way to see humanity in one another. This book offers a new way to look at racism in the US, and outlines many of the ways racism has been enforced since before our country’s founding through today. This is not an easy or feel-good book, but it is helpful in bringing daylight and attention to things that white people can so easily ignore. I was glad to have coworkers and friends to discuss and process it with, and recommend reading it in community.