2020 has been the year for a lot of divisive debates, but one of the most interesting for students of history has been the one about dates. Is the United States fundamentally a 1776 nation built on Enlightenment ideals and heroic resistance to tyranny, setting before us aspirations to freedom that are still propelling us forward even if they are only gradually achieved? Or is this a 1619 nation, fatefully compromised by an early adoption of slavery and racialized power structures that fueled an economic powerhouse built on massive human suffering?
There are other options as well. I’d make a pitch that we are an 1877 nation, propped up on post-Civil War amendments that aimed to make right the wrongs of the original Constitution but once again compromised by a presidential election deal made palatable to a new Gilded Age elite that was weary of Reconstruction vigilance and neo-Confederate vigilantes in new Klan clothing. But you might pick a different year—1965, 1968, 2016. We reach a convenient window on the regular.
Beneath it all, however, is a much more subtle and sinister force–“an unseen skeleton” that props up the whole. Race is its visible manifestation but the underlying structure is caste.
Caste, as a word, has an archaic feel. For people of my generation it conjures up social studies textbooks describing the stifling Indian system of social stratification—Brahmins at the top, untouchables at the bottoms. In her new book, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkinson, does go there—to India, I mean—but her subject is much larger. Caste, she argues, is not just a name for one particularly developed system; it is the invisible system that, “like the cast on a broken arm, like the cast in a play…holds everyone in a fixed place.” (71)
So when you go looking for caste you find that it pops up in other places as well—Nazi Germany, for instance, with its brief but lethal descent into master race thought. And in the country Nazi Germany bowed its knee to as “the leading racist jurisdiction,” as James Q. Whitman, the Yale legal scholar, wrote—the United States of the 1930s. (81)
“Wait just a minute,” you might be saying at such an observation. “There is no comparison between Hitler’s antisemitic death structure and the United States.” And yet, when Isabel Wilkerson gets going with her slow drip storytelling method you realize how pervasive ideas of caste and race are within the American system. You are surprised at what ugliness is lurking just below the surface that you have held on to without knowing. It’s an ugliness with some features that even the Nazis rejected.
The common refrain of many white people in America is that slavery was an unabashed evil, but look at how far we’ve come. Arguments over race only take us backwards and punish contemporary white Americans for the sins of their ancestors.
Wilkerson’s book very effectively takes the mask off the arguments that race-based systems are a thing of history. In fact, when she turns to the “Eight Pillars of Caste” in the third part of the book, she highlights just how enduring the caste system is. I recognize how each of the pillars was taught to me by the society around me, even if they never passed the lips of my middle-class parents. It was an indoctrination that also afflicted those of the lower caste who saw clearly how they were valued by the larger culture. Wilkerson offers a heartbreaking example of a 1944 high school class in which “a 16-year-old African-American girl thought about what should befall Hitler. She won the student essay contest with a single sentence: ‘put him in a black skin and let him live the rest of his life in America.’” (164)
There are no end of books on the market this year helping put the current racial unrest in some kind of perspective. None is better written than Wilkerson’s Caste, which retains the engaging, convicting style of her earlier book on the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns. This is a book that combines social science with journalism and the author’s own experience as an African-American woman in 21st century America. You are ready to march off to battle with her by the end of the book.
Only Wilkerson doesn’t ask you to gear up against the system. Having convinced us that the problems are so pervasive that nothing less than a total overhaul will be effective, (“A single election will not solve the problems that we face if we haven’t dealt with the structure that created the imbalance to begin with.” (381)), she pulls her punches at the end. She turns to individual transformation as the source of hope.
Putting our faith in individual connection and the butterfly effect seems a whispery hope, a spiritual practice. But what Wilkerson is calling for is a spiritual practice. It is the call to radical empathy, which “means putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel.” (386)
Reading Caste is one small way to get to this kind of empathy. It’s certainly not enough by itself. But it’s a good place to start.