Isabel Wilkerson writes about devastating history in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. It’s long, intense, and absolutely necessary to read. Thinking of the social and societal issues around race as based in a complicated caste system makes perfect sense. And Wilkerson lays out her case like a prosecutor in the most vital trial of her life. Every chapter adds a layer to the last, and by the end she convinced me. 

Wilkerson compares three primary systems of caste—America, Nazi Germany, and India. Each system has its own unique traditions and identifiers. But they’re also more similar than we generally realize, so Wilkerson’s theories hold a lot of water. And she defends and illustrates them with historical and present-day examples that often left me gobsmacked. 

She also explains how caste is built on eight concepts, or pillars. These include divine will, heritability, endogamy, purity, hierarchy, dehumanization, terror, and inherent superiority. Then Wilkerson explains how these pillars tentacle out into regular life. She uses examples like the alpha male in a wolf pack, which is actually mostly a myth. 

Next, she explains the inevitable consequences—both short and long-term—for caste systems. Again, she uses examples from the three societies to show both the longer history and the extreme applications of caste.

Most importantly, Wilkerson ends with a few chapters that discuss current day and look into the future. If we study these concepts, we must assess how to integrate the knowledge we gain. And of course, how to change the patterns and damages that caste creates in society.

My conclusions

Wilkerson’s writing style is readable, although I had a hard time getting started. However, once I reached the 30% mark, it was hard to put down. She balances history, philosophy, real-life stories, and many other ideas perfectly. Owning this book is the way to go, because there’s a lot to absorb in just one reading.

Despite reading a wide variety of racial justice books in the last several years, Caste enlightened me considerably. I highlighted like crazy and share the book’s ideas at every opportunity. Still, the process of spreading the knowledge is slow going. On the other hand, if we don’t see the full picture, will anything every change?

Reviewing Caste is hard. What I really want to say is “Just go read it already!” Especially to those folks in the back who doubt that racism is systemic in this country. I’ll just say it again more loudly for those folks.

I plan to pair this book with Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. I also suggest starting with White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson, Ph. D.