...elegant and persuasive ... She has, in particular, a masterly command of the complex extended metaphor ... What distinguishes Wilkerson is her grasp of the power of individual narratives to illustrate such general ideas, allowing her to tell us what these abstract notions have meant in the lived experience of ordinary people ... The dexterity with which she combines larger historical descriptions with vignettes from particular lives, recounted with the skill of a veteran reporter, will be familiar to readers of The Warmth of Other Suns ... Caste will spur readers to think and to feel in equal measure. Its vivid stories about the mistreatment of Black Americans by government and law and in everyday social life — from the violence of the slave plantation to the terror of lynchings to the routines of discourtesy and worse that are still a common experience for so many — retain their ability to appall and unsettle, to prompt flashes of indignation and moments of sorrow. The result is a book that is at once beautifully written and painful to read.
It’s an extraordinary document, one that strikes me as an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far. It made the back of my neck prickle from its first pages, and that feeling never went away ... Caste lands so firmly because the historian, the sociologist and the reporter are not at war with the essayist and the critic inside her. This book has the reverberating and patriotic slap of the best American prose writing ... Wilkerson’s usages neatly lift the mind out of old ruts. They enable her to make unsettling comparisons between India’s treatment of its untouchables, or Dalits, Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews and America’s treatment of African-Americans ... Wilkerson does not shy from the brutality that has gone hand in hand with this kind of dehumanization. As if pulling from a deep reservoir, she always has a prime example at hand ... Wilkerson has written a closely argued book that largely avoids the word 'racism,' yet stares it down with more humanity and rigor than nearly all but a few books in our literature.
To read Isabel Wilkerson is to revel in the pleasure of reading — to relax into the virtuosic performance of thought and form one is about to encounter, safe and secure that the structures will not collapse beneath you ... [Wilkerson] does not disappoint ... a masterwork of writing — a profound achievement of scholarship and research that stands also as a triumph of both visceral storytelling and cogent analysis ... Wilkerson supports her analysis with an immense compendium of documented research that spans centuries ... The descriptions are vivid in their horror; the connections travel across history and time to resonate in the mind. This structural move is a classic trademark of Wilkerson's style, and one of the attributes of her unique voice that imbues her writing with such textured depth. Wilkerson's use of a poetic focus on imagery and detailed characterization allows us an intimate and personal relationship with the lives of those she chronicles; when this empathic closeness is juxtaposed with the harsh brutality of the historical record the contrast is resonant and haunting, becoming a towering memorial to those violated by the violence of caste ... Although a claim can be made that the opening chapter or two on the fallout of the 2016 election appear dated, this to be fair, is only because of what has happened to America in the interim since Wilkerson penned those words ... What is problematic is the glaring absence of Africa in a book that aims to position itself as a seminal text on the concept of a global caste system and the positioning of Blackness within that global caste system. Wilkerson glances at this briefly with a scant mention of South Africa in a couple of paragraphs and by quoting a woman identified only as a Nigerian playwright saying that 'there are no Black people in Africa' — and then keeps it moving. Both are moments that do need to be unpacked. It is understandable why Wilkerson does not walk through this door to explore caste in Africa — Caste is 400 pages before adding the impressive list of research sources. But if Wilkerson is not opening that door, there does need to be an acknowledgement of why not, an acknowledgement of that absence.
[In] the manner of an anthropologist, she argues that the best way to understand a phenomenon (be that racism in America or anything else) is to step back and view it with a wider, comparative lens, instead of merely on its own terms ... Wilkinson concedes it will not be easy to change this situation. One problem is the lack of awareness ... But she does offer one faintly hopeful note: caste systems can sometimes crumble ... if repudiation of past assumptions is the first step towards healing, Wilkerson’s book offers a powerful frame for this ... It is essential reading for anybody who feels angry, guilty or threatened by the tangled issue of 'race' in America today.
The full pageantry of American cruelty is on display in Caste, an expansive interrogation of racism, institutionalised inequality and injustice ... Wilkerson’s choice of examining caste rather than race is a valuable one; this book is not about biology, social history or science, but about structural power ... Caste is a dark history of the inexhaustible scope of human violence ... This is an American reckoning and so it should be. Wilkerson has a deft narrative touch and she activates the history in her pages, bringing all its horror and possibility to light, illuminating both the bygone and the present ... It is a painfully resonant book and could not have come at a more urgent time.
...gorgeously crafted ... Her reporting is nimble and her sentences exquisite. But the real power of Caste lies tucked within the stories she strings together like pearls ... a luminous read, bearing its own torch of righteous wrath in a diamond-hard prose that will be admired and studied by future generations of journalists.
Wilkerson’s book is strongest when she illustrates her points through poignant stories, like that of a Black woman born in Texas after the civil rights era to parents who simply named her Miss, in defiance of the caste assumptions that required Black people to be addressed by their first names ... Wilkerson’s book is a powerful, illuminating and heartfelt account of how hierarchy reproduces itself, as well as a call to action for the difficult work of undoing it, but the fundamental conceit that drives its analysis is one of recognition ... Wilkerson reminds us that this is not the first time the United States, like other societies, has tried to come to grips with its foundational problem. Unless one reaches for those foundations and tears them out, she warns, caste is likely to remain with us long after our current moment of racial reckoning is done.
Writing with calm and penetrating authority, Wilkerson discusses three caste hierarchies in world history—those of India, America, and Nazi Germany—and excavates the shared principles 'burrowed deep within the culture and subconsciousness' of each ... Even on her home terrain, where she focusses on what she calls the 'poles of the American caste system,' Blacks and whites, her analysis sometimes seems more ahistorical than transhistorical, as temporal specificities collapse into an eternal present. But this effect is consonant with the view of history she presents in her book—one involving more grim continuity than hopeful departures, more regression to the mean than moments of progress ... In Wilkerson’s book, one senses that each word choice has been carefully weighed, and her tone remains measured even when describing her own assault ... Mustering old and new historical scholarship, sometimes to shattering effect, Caste brings out how systematically, through the centuries, Black lives were destroyed 'under the terror of people who had absolute power over their bodies and their very breath' ... As for how caste dynamics affect those Black Americans who really do pick up the laundry—or shell the shrimp, or clean the motel rooms—Wilkerson has little to say. At one point, she implies that poor people of color are in some ways more fortunate than wealthier ones, because they have fewer stress-related health problems. She surmises that this has to do with low-income people of color getting less white pushback. But the claim isn’t supported by most recent research, and she doesn’t mention the significant diagnostic gap created by unequal access to health care. Considerations of material resources, in her analysis, can disappear in the shadow of status ... Applying a single abstraction to multiple realities inevitably creates friction—sometimes productive, sometimes not ... Even in this country, as Wilkerson prosecutes the case for her caste model, she occasionally skirts facts that resist alignment with her thesis ... Wilkerson seems at times to have a sophisticated idea of how caste operates in the modern world, with all its internal diversities. But at this and other points in her book she appears to be reaching back toward older understandings of the system, in which each group is a monolith, consistent in its interests and political allegiances, impervious to contingencies or context...This resort to moral psychology—a self-oriented Gandhian move of the kind that infuriated Ambedkar—seems a retreat from her larger argument that white supremacy should be seen as systemic, not personal. Perhaps, boxed in by her caste model, she is seeking hope by reaching outside it. But, if the caste model can feel unnuanced and overly deterministic, the turn toward empathy can feel detached from history in another way...Talk of 'structural racism' is meant to highlight this difficult truth; Wilkerson’s understanding of caste, by emphasizing norms of respect over the promptings of distributive justice, can sometimes obscure it.
Caste the book, among the year’s best, makes a convincing, often scorching case that caste was there alongside the first colonials (divinely ordained, of course), there at the birth of the nation, and we wrestle every day with that legacy, some benefiting from caste, many never allowed their potential because of caste. Her book's ambition is large ... Wilkerson’s book, more than a decade in the works, arrives like the uncannily prescient context that’s been absent from our pandemic America, roiling from unrest and collapsing institutions ... Caste, the book, upsets the already rickety national myth that anyone in the United States can be anything — albeit, without entirely abandoning that hope ... it’s pleasantly eccentric, jumping from memoir to narrative journalism, history to sociology, unexpected in its direction.
... a superbly written and impeccably researched study ... Brave, clear and shatteringly honest in both approach and delivery, this book delves deep into the powerful caste system that has shaped the United States since the early 1600s, a system so strong, it goes above and beyond class and race to become the inescapable pillar of our social structure ... extrapolating Wilkerson’s ideas to contemporary America becomes an unsettling exercise that proves how right she is and how profoundly embedded into society the caste system is ... Caste is a profoundly uncomfortable book, which makes it a necessary read that should be taught in schools ... a book that cuts to the marrow of our caste system, exposes the rotten core within, and deconstructs the beginning of it to expose its flaws and why it shouldn’t be used anymore.
Wilkerson focuses most of her attention, rightly, on the tremendous suffering inflicted by caste on the lowest subordinate group in a system, and on Black Americans in particular ... the question of class hierarchy lingers tantalizingly ... Her exploration of why caste provides a rickety framework for society as a whole is particularly illuminating, exposing how America’s vulnerability to the pandemic is rooted in the neglect and vilification of the lower castes ... Wilkerson’s brutal accounting of the unimaginable cruelty inflicted under slavery, Jim Crow and the following decades makes a powerful case that white Americans resist being shocked and a bit peeved and acknowledge the truth revealed by her comparisons.
... ambitious and unwieldy ... Wilkerson skates over the inadequacy of race language perhaps too quickly ... As a history, it has too many gaps; as a memoir, it reveals no discernible structure of a life lived over time; as a polemic, it relies far too much on sentimental appeal ... I confess being unable to know what to do with a chapter that outlines canine hierarchy and concludes that 'humans could learn a lot from canines' about 'natural alphas. Similarly confounding is an odd interlude of an upper-caste Indian man jettisoning his symbol of caste identity, the sacred thread, and feeling that he is born again. Despite such unusual choices, most powerful in Caste are the vivid anecdotes of personal harm — the cumulative evidence for the lived experience of discrimination from slavery to segregation and into the era of civil rights and beyond ... turning to caste affords Wilkerson access to an experiential, affective register through which she collates moments that capture the persistence of discrimination ... such a personal focus serves as the anchor for the entire book as Wilkerson highlights the injury caused by unexpected behaviors ... That Wilkerson presents these ordinary encounters as 'radicalization' or 'awakening' — rejoicing that 'the heart is the last frontier' — indicates the limits of her political imagination where the agency of the subordinated is superseded by the appeal to the sentiments of the dominant castes. Such limits are particularly evident because her sustained insistence on the potency and pervasiveness of the entrenched caste system demands solutions other than banal realizations of privilege or of common humanity. Moreover, as Wilkerson educates herself on the persistence of caste in India, she also seems to miss the full vibrancy of Dalit politics, culture, and history, insisting instead that she has developed a kind of caste-radar ... While the specific legacy of slavery and segregation, as well as the magnitude of ongoing anti-Blackness, demands attention, any book that claims to pinpoint 'the origins of our discontents,' and provide a road map for the future must engage with changing and internally complex racial formations ... The vocabulary afforded by caste, uninflected by differential access to power, allows Wilkerson to claim that 'caste trumps class' but misses a true measure of the modalities in which discrimination is lived and how racial taxonomies change over time ... For those convinced that racism in the United States isn’t a big problem today, the book should be an eye-opener. For those of us who already know these histories, Caste may serve instead as an invitation to dig deeper than Wilkerson herself chooses to and to understand more fully the exact coordinates of the race-caste analogy, both difference and similarity. In challenging American exceptionalism by placing domestic racial formations within and against other times and places, Wilkerson admirably draws attention to the realities of global connectedness. But transnational comparison should ideally go a step further, in order to reframe the unexamined truisms of each site and illuminate something we would not otherwise see ... In the end, Wilkerson’s choice to define caste and race with partial precision inhibits a fuller understanding of how inequality and discrimination acquire new shape and form in the present — as historical forms of violence persist but also mutate and magnify. To misread the very nature of power makes efforts to combat it nearly hopeless but also denies agency to those who fought the battles of the past and march in the streets today. What struck me most as I read this book during the pandemic is that Wilkerson’s frame doesn’t help explain how the powerful social movements of our COVID-19 era could emerge, or what they mean — led by the young; the poor; by women; by queer, trans, and nonbinary people; by Black and Dalit leaders in both India and the United States. Wilkerson engages the failures of President Trump’s response to the pandemic, and the misery it has caused, but not the larger histories of the movements that have led us to this moment.
In an evocative style, with a keen eye for metaphor, Wilkerson is popularizing an idea first put forward almost a century ago and reasserted every generation since by some scholars ... Revealing a relationship of resemblance instead, Wilkerson offers a breathtaking riposte to America’s image of itself as a moral beacon to the world ... Her treatment of the Indian caste system lacks the density of harrowing examples that gives her rendering of injustices against African Americans such moral power. Wilkerson offers few detailed stories of Dalit oppression from India’s history or headlines, but instead broadly lays out the precepts of caste there as a backdrop to accentuate the American reality. Although the book circles again and again to devastating scenes of African American lynchings, for example, it doesn’t mention the ongoing lynchings of Dalits ... In this context, where a global spotlight illuminates one group’s persecution while the other’s recedes into obscurity, naming matters ... By neglecting individualized Dalit experience, by skipping stories about the violence against lower castes in India, Wilkerson misses an opportunity to achieve a more radical goal: to build popular and more reciprocal solidarities on a global level—between the resistance movements against anti-Blackness here and casteism there, for one. Ironically, her approach embodies one aspect of the American exceptionalism she challenges: It centers the United States, using the world outside our borders mostly as reference point, as foil to show Americans that we are not better ... caste also bends in other ways that Wilkerson doesn’t convey ... As Wilkerson so movingly conveys, the irony of systemic oppression is that it robs both the subordinate and the dominant of their individualities, implicated in structures larger than themselves ... Although Wilkerson uses the vocabulary of a systemic problem, the solutions she suggests are not systemic ... For any who still entertain the notion of the United States as special, an ideal more than a nation state, and a place of equal opportunity, this book illuminates who we truly are by connecting us to a concept that many Americans view as foreign, feudal, backward.
[A] singular and vital perspective on American society ... Wilkerson's understanding of caste proposes a nuanced take on the Trump election: many working-class white voters did not in fact vote against their interests, but rather prioritized one interest—upholding the caste system—over others ... Caste is a thorough, brilliant, incisive investigation of the often invisible workings of American society. Original, authoritative and exquisitely written, its significance cannot be overstated ... meticulously researched and beautifully crafted.
...magnificent ... Wilkerson deepens and extends her examination of the inception and consequences of American racism ... Weaving in and out of past and present, Wilkerson provides the kind of history lesson that gives rise to countless aha moments ... Caste offers a forward-facing vision. Bursting with insight and love, this book may well help save us.
Wilkerson’s comparisons are profound and revelatory ... what makes this book so memorable is Wilkerson’s extraordinary narrative gift. Highly readable, Caste is filled with a multitude of stories, many of which are tragically familiar, such as those of Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray ... Wilkerson is never didactic. She lets history speak for itself, turning the events of the past into necessary fuel for our current national dialogue ... If you read only one book this year, make it Caste, Wilkerson’s outstanding analysis of the grievances that plague our society.
In her new book, which should be required reading for generations to come and is as propulsive a reading experience as her debut, she turns her attention to India, Germany, and what their histories have in common with America’s ... A significant work of social science, journalism, and history, Caste removes the tenuous language of racial animus and replaces it with a sturdier lexicon based on power relationships ... It feels inevitable that in a book about deep ruptures in the social, economic, and psychological fabrics that have gone unrepaired for so long would end with direct calls to action. On this, Wilkerson does not disappoint.
[Wilkerson's] aim is as ambitious as it sounds, which makes Caste's success as both a work of historical analysis and a tremendously engaging read all the more gratifying. Part of the accessibility and richness of the text come from the multiple points of entry Wilkerson offers to the idea of caste ... There's also the accessibility to self she offers; threaded throughout are personal stories about Wilkerson's experiences in the American caste system and her observations from her research for this book, which took her around the world ... It's clear that Wilkerson has tremendous belief in humanity – its capacity for warmth and ingenuity, as well as for cruelty and intentional ignorance – and that lends Caste a certain moral clarity and directive. Over and over, Wilkerson returns to the idea that we are not ourselves when we cooperate with a caste; we are participating in a lie either about what we are entitled to or about the limits of others' and our own abilities. Unraveling a belief may feel impossibly slippery, but by framing America's gross racial inequality as a system, she insists that it can be dismantled, the actors can learn new parts, and we can all move toward freedom.
Caste does not abandon racial terms. Wilkerson does not leave us to flounder with the labels she wants incorporated, though at times I wished she would ... as I progressed through this big book, saddled with terms I’m to understand are inadequate, I wondered why, a couple hundred pages in, I still wasn’t trusted with the training wheels off ... Caste proposes a remedy, yet its national articulation of present-day Black people raises more questions than answers ... Caste could benefit from more, or maybe deeper, research on the histories of resistance movements ... it finds comfort in sentimentality, faith that the answer lies in the heart ... I can’t blame Wilkerson, it’s a nice place to be, a place where we can believe people in power are one sincere interaction away from radical empathy ... we’ve been here before, have we not?
Hopefully, Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson's bracing and thoughtful new book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents will help the country see itself not as a projection of wish fulfillment but closer to its true form ... Caste is a more personal, pointillist look at how this history is lived by those who experience it ... Caste is another in a series of gauntlets that writers have been throwing to the ground to contest the many perniciously persistent myths around race and class in America. Time will tell whether enough people are willing to pick it up and accept Wilkerson's challenge to see clearly at least some version of what the social hierarchy truly is.
By comparing African-Americans’ situation to that of untouchables in India and Jews in Nazi Germany, Wilkerson achieves a remarkable refocusing on race — a kind of anthropological clarity ... Wilkerson’s use of personal and shared anecdotes, historical stories and pointed metaphors make the book extremely readable ... By utilizing a new terminology — dominant caste, ruling majority, upper caste, subordinate, lowest or bottom caste — surprising insights arise.
... a painful exploration of what human beings are capable of doing to each other ... In an American election year, her observations on the Obama and Trump presidencies are chilling reminders of the deep prevailing chasm ... Some may argue that linking race relations in America to Nazi atrocities and the Indian caste system is tenuous but she strongly argues her case with a powerful document that holds lessons for aggressors and their victims all over the world.
The approach [Wilkerson] takes is both persuasive and unsettling ... But the case Wilkerson puts forward is inspiring and hopeful. Her writing incorporates and reflects the anti-racist traditions embodied by figures such as African American liberationist WEB Du Bois and the trailblazer of India’s Dalit movement, Bhimrao Ambedkar, who wrote: 'Caste is [just] a notion; it is a state of mind.' Like him, Wilkerson wants us to recognise that caste can be dismantled, setting everyone free.
Wilkerson makes a strong case for adopting a term associated with traditional society and heritable hierarchy to describe American racism ... Wilkerson is clear that '[c]aste and race are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive.' I appreciate the gesture. The forms of inequality signaled by the terms “'' and 'race' are neither identical nor symmetrical. But why then, is the lexicon Wilkerson has chosen drawn from a social order that she believes has both predated and outlasted state-sponsored racism? Since her intervention has less to do with Indian caste than with the changing conditions of American racism, I wonder whether Wilkerson has not politicized race at the cost of essentializing caste. She grasps the power of Indian parallels, but she does not engage sufficiently with caste to understand the deep lessons it has for the American experience ... She is less interested in the history of the concept than in the power of analogy ... A consummate storyteller, Wilkerson chooses her anecdotes to illustrate caste’s enduring logic, from humiliation and prejudice to spectacular violence ... The resistance to engaging with the history of racial capitalism is indeed surprising ... Wilkerson supports the forms of reconciliation undertaken by both Germany in the wake of the Holocaust and South Africa in the aftermath of apartheid. The viability of that measure without serious engagement with dispossession, destitution, and mass poverty — the problem of redistribution, in brief — appears questionable ... Wilkerson has written an important book that reminds us that a comradeship of interwoven histories might illuminate each other analogically but that they are neither identical nor symmetrical. The conversation that she has begun forces deeper engagement with the utopian possibilities, the missed meetings, the productive misrecognition, and the silenced voices which constitute the archive of global caste.
... a landmark new study of the power of racial distinctions in America ... Even as it may appear to shape-shift, advance, or recede over time, Wilkerson argues with staggering precision, clarity, and conviction that caste cuts far deeper than any local or federal law, prevailing attitude, or temporary cultural drift ... Part historical inquiry, part essay, part sociological analysis, part memoir, Caste draws heavily on the powerful mingling of narrative, research, and visionary, sweeping insight that made Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns the definitive contemporary study of African Americans’ 20th Century Great Migration from the Jim Crow South to northern, midwestern, and western cities. It deepens the resonance of that book (a seemingly impossible feat) by digging more explicitly into the pervasive racial hierarchy that transcends region and time, and further explains why Blacks who fled segregation and terror in the South found so much of the same in their new homes ... Wilkerson’s focus is somewhat broader in Caste, and less narratively driven, in what amounts, essentially, to a book-length essay. In as shattering a shot across the bow of American exceptionalism as one can imagine, Wilkerson helps readers understand the nature of a caste system and how it manifests itself in the United States by comparing America’s racial hierarchy to the millennia-old Hindu caste system in India and the one rapidly installed in Germany during the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich ... While Caste is not a memoir per se, Wilkerson’s judicious use of a few personal anecdotes (and her remarkable gift for rendering them with searing intensity) to illustrate specific aspects of how the caste system impacts even Pulitzer Prize winners and New York Times bureau chiefs in the subordinate caste provides some of the book’s most powerful moments ... far more than a volume written simply to be added to a virtue-signaling bookshelf that adds an ostentatious veneer of wokeness to an upper-caste home. Nor is it a manifesto for reversing longstanding racial injustices. Rather, it provides a new and more nuanced diagnosis of an ancient and chronic disease, a template for recognizing its symptoms—even among those who only distantly feel their effects—and a springboard to action in mitigating its impact in the absence of a miracle cure or a panacea of absolution.
Ms. Wilkerson sows confusion in the reader’s mind, however, by declaring that 'caste and race are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive' and by using the words almost interchangeably throughout her book ... You would be right to ask how a caste system—so defined—is really that different from a race-based one in the American context. And your fear that Ms. Wilkerson’s thesis—while always elegantly expressed—may rest in part on semantic foundations is borne out by her assertion that she uses 'language that may be more commonly associated with people in other cultures, to suggest a new way of understanding our hierarchy' ... Ms. Wilkerson sets up her system of caste by shuffling words around and offering what seems at times to be little more than a taxonomical reworking of the language of hierarchy...Yet she never offers a convincing argument for why American history and society are better examined through the lens of caste than of race ... Instead, Ms. Wilkerson seeks to make her case for caste by the repeated assertion that it is a case worth making. When she does seek to explain caste—elaborating on its characteristics and consequences—she often resorts to rhetorical statements that are stirring but not always illuminating ... It is apparent, in any case, that she is writing for those who wouldn’t challenge her assumptions ... Ms. Wilkerson scarcely acknowledges that modern America has made vast strides to address racism, and her swatting down of Donald Trump as 'a cocksure champion for the dominant caste, a mouthpiece for their anxieties,' lays bare her own politics ... The contradictions in her analysis are apparent: How can the 'deplorables' belong to the same caste as the woke coastal elite? Wasn’t their cultural disparagement by Mrs. Clinton an expression, precisely, of her feeling that they belonged to a different (and inferior) caste? ... Many readers will be disappointed that Ms. Wilkerson doesn’t focus more on the role that caste plays within races ... Ms. Wilkerson also makes notably little use of 'class' as a social category ... Ms. Wilkerson, I fear, does not give America its due.
Caste is the bones, race the skin,' says Isabel Wilkerson, the author of Caste. In her hard-earned view, caste is largely about power, race largely about color ... In Wilkerson’s insightful and angry telling, only Germany has learned from its history, and now disowns the structure that justified the Nazi genocides ... Published as the U.S. during a volatile presidential election, Caste calls for a 'Truth and Reconciliation Commission' that will teach history truthfully and nurture the empathy required to tear down the walls of caste itself.
One of Caste’s signature strengths is its tweaking of the usual language of discourse on race. The reimagining of familiar tropes underpins the book’s thesis ... It’s refreshing to read a popular North American writer reach beyond her country’s solipsism regarding race to imagine the system replicated elsewhere – part of a worldwide effort. In doing so, she also resists the centrifugal tug of her own culture ... Wilkerson spins a tale that is necessarily brutal and bruising, but always suffused with tenderness for America’s Black citizens and the ignominies they continue to endure.
Wilkerson ignores the fact that Nazis drew on centuries of European anti-Semitism which dated back to the dawn of Christianity and led to many European Jews fleeing to America ... She also simplifies the very complex Indian caste system. There can be no question Hinduism’s treatment of the so-called lower castes, now known as the Dalits, is its original sin which has caused untold misery to millions of Indians over many centuries. Wilkerson is right that caste puts people in containers but while caste imprisons individuals, caste containers can move ... Wilkerson’s book is full of heartrending stories of the oppression suffered by African-Americans, and her description of her own experiences of discrimination is very evocative, but her attempts to link America with Nazi Germany and India does not quite work and is at times simplistic.
... the type of book that is bound to be polarizing ... While race mediates these interactions, they cannot be so easily reduced to concrete hierarchies of caste ... It is always dangerous to ascribe labels to historical actors that they themselves never used to describe themselves. The result is often that our modern lenses distort historical specificity. Yet this is precisely what Wilkerson does by equating Black and lowest caste, white and upper caste and lumping everyone else in the middle. Wilkerson replaces race with an idea that does not consider context or the particularities of how race is variously used to marginalize and uplift certain populations in the interests of the economic elite and structures of white supremacy ... This imprecision points to the other major drawback of Wilkerson’s idea of 'caste:' its failure to understand the ways that race intersects with many other social categories of privilege and oppression, not in the least class, gender, and sexuality ... By replacing race with racial determinism, and racial determinism with 'caste,' Wilkerson does little to explain the ways race is experienced, created, and maintained in the United States. Instead, Caste offers an overly simplified explanation of shifting racial divisions that are consistently being challenged, redefined, and reasserted. It is only by considering the ways race follows and diverts the trajectories of power that we may begin to challenge these relationships. Imagining the racial hierarchy as rigid and inflexible only obscures the insidious power of race as an intersectional marker of who succeeds, who is restricted, who is promoted, who is imprisoned, who lives and who dies ... Wilkerson presents an intriguing idea that falls short of reimagining hierarchy in the way she intends. But that is not to say that there is nothing useful to be drawn from Caste ... To restrict our focus solely to race without the nuance of its intersectional and contextually dependent expressions, however, is to miss the particular ways that power operates through a number of deterministic categories that affect the ways individuals in America are evaluated, categorized, and acted upon in a racial state.
Wilkerson’s most conspicuous achievement is putting stories behind these statistics, bringing these injustices to life, providing the reader with a sense, however vicarious, of how this plays out in the lives of millions of people every day. Much of this is told through the prism of her own life, but she also paints a broader mosaic of black experience in contemporary America, contrasting this with what it means to be white ... Her other achievement is shining a light on the history of racism in the US, not just its pseudo-scientific justification, but also its appalling violence. Her descriptions of lynchings in the early 20th century are particularly shocking ... Where the argument falls down, though, is in its main thesis. Wilkerson claims that American racism is comparable to the caste system of Hinduism and the eugenic practices of Nazi Germany. As someone with Indian heritage, I found the former analogy more than a little strained, given that the Brahmic system is a hierarchy based on ancient theology, but the latter comparison is both exaggerated and dangerous. Hitler was seeking to wipe out the Jewish people through mass murder. At that time in American history, black people suffered segregation and extrajudicial violence, but nothing approaching the state-sanctioned massacre of an entire people ... I also worry that Wilkerson’s remarkably bleak characterisation of America takes little account of the progress that has been made over the past 100 years, or of the fact that a broader comparison would have shown that most regions are in a more parlous state when it comes to social cohesion ... Wilkerson’s book is impressive in many ways, its characterisation of the everyday experience of racism almost perfectly judged. But it is let down by its organising analogies and arguments, and should be read with care.
Wilkerson patiently peels each carefully matted layer of racial hierarchy to lay bare the history of oppression that people such as myself, a Dalit, have inherited from our ancestors. And in some 400 pages, she obliterates decades of New Delhi’s diplomatic attempts to prevent caste from getting the global notoriety it has always deserved ... Yet Wilkerson, like many before her, unequivocally centers her work on the United States, with caste as a larger framework—a structure of gradation to explain how race represents the skin atop the bones of the fixed, immovable ranking that is known as caste. In doing so, Wilkerson gives us a language uniquely tailored for our times ... The brilliance of Wilkerson’s book lies in her painstaking research, her clear understanding of the different executions of caste, and her ability to draw a single direct thread that goes from the enslavement of African natives, captured and brought to Virginia in 1619, to nearly every form of inequity inflicted on Black folk—public lynchings, segregation, legal slavery under Jim Crow, redlining, mass incarceration, underrepresentation, voter disenfranchisement, suppression, killings by police, medical mistreatment, and constant microaggressions. She deftly and neatly reveals how systemic coding and learned cultural assumptions of white superiority—along with the unconscious biases—are often responsible for upholding the racial hierarchy of caste ... As she unbraids each knot of the United States’ complex racial caste system, however, the absence of a critique of the capitalist forces that define the American social order is glaring ... Making a case for radical empathy, Wilkerson asserts—somewhat tidily and with a mild case of moral grandstanding—that our prejudices are systemic yet our awakening can only be individual. But if that is so, then it’s difficult to imagine how structural power and privilege might spontaneously topple in the wake of the personal recognition of inequality. But this seemingly naive and even simplistic belief in our humanity might possibly be the single most subversive statement in Wilkerson’s laborious undertaking ... Wilkerson’s definition of caste makes one expect that her book would underline the ongoing horrors of the caste system in India and within Indian communities in the United States and elsewhere. Reading Caste, however, it would be hard to know that ... Wilkerson gives little space to the inequities that affect Dalits today, some of which are more brutal and dehumanizing than even before India’s independence ... But even as the most sensitive analyst, Wilkerson appears to give in to the idea of American exceptionalism and centers Western narratives while failing to dig into the continued brutalization of Dalits who largely reside in India—in the global south. Despite her humanist and internationalist approach to bring all three systems of caste on par with each other, the original Indian version, as Wilkerson calls it, suffers the most in the service of the greater rationalization and possibly in favor of a largely American audience ... Wilkerson forces readers to confront the implications of a skewed racial hierarchy. Yet for me, a Dalit reader often marginalized and restricted to the bottom of an even more lopsided global order, it often feels like being left out of my own history.
Wilkerson offers a deep, scholarly dive into the foundations of human hierarchical organization ... In the Backlash section of Caste, Wilkerson examines the post-Obama presidency in the context of caste and its weaponized pry-bar, race. I found the detail in this analysis one of the most fascinating aspects of a very enlightening book.