Caste is a fascinating comparison between the Indian religious caste system and the American social caste system with some references to the caste created by the Third Reich during World War II. Isabel Wilkerson makes a thorough argument that we live in a caste system based on race which she supports with the history of our country. She then uses more recent examples of different political and social situations to show the influence this system still has today. And she ends the book with steps we can take to end this system no matter where we may fall on the spectrum.
Even if you have read How to Be An Anti-racist by Ibram X Kendi or the Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby, this book comes from a slightly different perspective. It looks at the situations in America from a more global standpoint. Yes, it includes the atrocities of slavery and the Jim Crow era, along with redlining and other policies that left people of color out of the benefits. But it focused on motive, and it even showed how caste has even negatively affected white people in lower economic statuses. As long as there was a group below them, it was easier to keep them satiated in their role in the machine. And the machine’s ultimate purpose was to keep those at the top in power and wealth.
While it uses the function of the Indian caste system as a guide to show the same system in America, it doesn’t go into incredible detail about the Indian caste system. It does mention a few differences and includes anecdotes from people she knows during her travels to India, and some history of the lowest caste trying to break away from their function in society. Most of the book focuses on America.
Also, I felt like the Third Reich references of caste were a little distracting but also interesting. She references one historian who said that as they were trying to build their caste, they used America’s model as a prototype to their own oppressive system. It serves more as a warning of what the darkest parts of a caste system can accomplish and implies that those parts of the system are present in our country as well, both in history and more recent times.
In the more recent examples Wilkerson uses, most of them were easy to follow the line of thinking from historical practices and policies now manifesting to the struggles and racism of today. Some were not so easy. My immediate reaction was to want to clarify the situation with more nuance, but ultimately, I realized that I had to sit with the discomfort and learn how to listen. While I still feel some of the events that she mentioned are more than just another example of caste oppression and racism, I can see how caste and oppressive systems can also play a part in those same situations.
My favorite part was about the need for radical empathy. Having a kindred connection that allows us all to open up to the pain of others from their perspective. Just like so many have moved away from the Indian caste systems, we too can move away from the racist systems that have been placed in our society as well. It ends on a hopeful and challenging note. I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to continue their education on the Black history and experience.
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