In this brilliant book, Isabel Wilkerson gives us a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America as she explores, through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings.
Beyond race, class, or other factors, there is a powerful caste system that influences people’s lives and behavior and the nation’s fate. Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, stigma, and more. Using riveting stories about people—including Martin Luther King, Jr., baseball’s Satchel Paige, a single father and his toddler son, Wilkerson herself, and many others—she shows the ways that the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day. She documents how the Nazis studied the racial systems in America to plan their out-cast of the Jews; she discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires that there be a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she writes about the surprising health costs of caste, in depression and life expectancy, and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics. Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity.
I’ve been wanting to read this for a while and I even bought a hardcover, but as usual I kept procrastinating it. I finally got the chance to listen to the audiobook during my very long journey to India, and it was greatly insightful but also difficult company.
With comparisons to the oppressive caste system of India and the discrimination of Jews in Nazi Germany, the author provides a deep look into the how race is used as a tool to keep up the hierarchical and discriminatory white supremacist systems in the US. Using both historical evidence as well as anecdotal personal stories, the author brings these truths to life and we realize that only the years have changed, but this caste based oppression hasn’t gone anywhere and has really made a much more insidious comeback into the mainstream in the past four years. And even the latest election results don’t present a too optimistic picture considering the amount of voters ready to vote for and believe in a racist authoritarian leader, completely disregarding the danger to democracy and the country he represents.
I would highly recommend this book if you want to look at the racist history of US through a different kind of lens. It is painful at times but it’s also the truth that needs to be acknowledged, because it’s impossible to find solutions to end systemic racism if a majority of the country doesn’t even believe it exists. The audiobook is also excellently narrated and brings out a lot of emotion from a book that could have just been another history book.