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Caste by Isabel Wilkerson
History

Caste

by Isabel Wilkerson

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Quick take

A look at racism and caste, in America and abroad, that goes beyond what you learned in history class.

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  • Illustrated icon, Icon_400

    400+ pages

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Literary

    Literary

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Acclaim

    Critically acclaimed

  • Illustrated icon, Icons_Serious

    Serious

Synopsis

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.

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Caste

The Man in the Crowd

There is a famous black-and-white photograph from the era of the Third Reich. It is a picture taken in Hamburg, Germany, in 1936, of shipyard workers, a hundred or more, facing the same direction in the light of the sun. They are heiling in unison, their right arms rigid in outstretched allegiance to the Führer.

If you look closely, you can see a man in the upper right who is different from the others. His face is gentle but unyielding. Modern-day displays of the photograph will often add a helpful red circle around the man or an arrow pointing to him. He is surrounded by fellow citizens caught under the spell of the Nazis. He keeps his arms folded to his chest, as the stiff palms of the others hover just inches from him. He alone is refusing to salute. He is the one man standing against the tide.

Looking back from our vantage point, he is the only person in the entire scene who is on the right side of history. Everyone around him is tragically, fatefully, categorically wrong. In that moment, only he could see it.

His name is believed to have been August Landmesser. At the time, he could not have known the murderous path the hysteria around him would lead to. But he had already seen enough to reject it.

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Why I love it

In this cultural moment, I can’t think of a more resonant and urgent read than Caste, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson’s extensive interrogation of racism in America and abroad.

Wilkerson argues that there is an unspoken force controlling Americans, one with far-reaching and profound effects, writing that, “If we have been trained to see humans in the language of race, then caste is the underlying grammar that we encode as children.” Drawing on two of the best-known caste systems in history—in India and Nazi Germany—as a lens for understanding how the abuses of power, privilege, and oppression intersect, she makes the case that we are all bound to a caste system that perpetuates rampant inequality in our society. Along the way, she offers us detailed narratives of disenfranchisement—like explaining why Americans rallied to watch public lynchings in the Jim Crow South—and with each historical example, we are left with a better understanding of how the caste system shows up over and over again in our country.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is an extraordinarily powerful and thought-provoking work. Wilkerson sets out to educate her readers, challenging us to go further beyond race 101. Ultimately, her outlook is hopeful: Wilkerson believes that with enough knowledge and honest indignation, we can successfully confront our history, acknowledge that Black Lives Matter, and dismantle oppressive caste systems.

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Member ratings (12,478)

  • Christine H.

    Indianapolis, IN

    ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ A masterpiece. Easily of the most brilliant, painful, & necessary books I’ve ever read. It should be required reading for anyone who can’t understand the US’s systemic problems with race.

  • Elizabeth Z.

    Hyannis, MA

    I really admire brutal honesty. That is what this book is filled with. I got this because it’s on Oprah’s book club. This is well documented and I’m eager to read more from this author. January 2021

  • Lori K.

    Kennesaw, GA

    Everyone should read this book. It’s beautifully-written, meticulously researched. But it is not a light or “fun” read. Like Schindler’s List, I only need to read it once; it’s seared into my brain.

  • Jesse F.

    Memphis, TN

    Required reading for being a human. This book was long, but it’s worth the time—compelling, challenging, paradigm-shifting. An important read regardless of how many (or few) books on race you’ve read!

  • Kirby S.

    Taylors, SC

    There are very few times in my life where I have stopped to marvel in someone’s style of writing… this was after one chapter. The content itself challenges and helps you see beneath the surface. 5????

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