A look at racism and caste, in America and abroad, that goes beyond what you learned in history class.
Good to know
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.
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.
Why I love it
Founder, Well-Read Black Girl
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.
Member ratings (12,105)
Chagrin falls, OH
It’s a book that is hard to love- not because it isn’t superbly written. It is. Its hard to love because our history, as a nation, is unloveable. To ensure a future filled with love, it’s a must read.
It presents our country’s sordid history, and present, in a way that builds empathy through a very wide world lens. A must-read for anyone working to identify “the origins of our discontents” & beyond
Hyannis , MA
It took a long time for me to read this book - it’s not the kind of book you “swallow” whole, more of the kind you take small bites of, see how the taste sits with you and give some time to digest.
Everyone needs to read this book! It’s amazing! Isabel Wilkerson’s exhaustive research explains the unique role caste plays in America. It explains much of what’s happening in our divided society.
Deer Park, NY
I normally wouldn’t read a history book and enjoy it very much but I loved this book. It was so informative and an easy read…not the subject matter but the writing style. My suggestion is read it.