The Pulitzer Prize-winning, bestselling author of The Warmth of Other Suns examines the unspoken caste system that has shaped America and shows how our lives today are still defined by a hierarchy of human divisions.
...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.