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Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (edition 2020)

by Isabel Wilkerson (Author)

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4052045,046 (4.46)19
Member:tkenney426
Title:Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
Authors:Isabel Wilkerson (Author)
Info:Random House (2020), 496 pages
Collections:Your library
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Tags:non-fiction, American, twenty-first century, first edition

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Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

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Showing 1-5 of 20 (next | show all)
A bit disappointing based on all the hype, but what is said here is important. ( )
  ghefferon | Sep 16, 2020 |
If I'm lucky, I come across one book per year that helps me become a better human. Caste is, without question, that book for me this year.

I'd need a few days and a lot of space to sum up my thoughts about Caste. What I felt while reading, those "ah-ha" moments, the connections I hadn't considered, things I knew but hadn't truly grasped... I want to talk about all of it. I want to sit down with you and say, "This is what I learned."

I'm a white, middle-class woman. My privilege is not my fault, but it is my responsibility.

If I could ask you a favor, it would be to please read this book. Buy it for a friend. Talk about it.

I'll leave you with these words, from Isabel Wilkerson: "Evil asks little of the dominant caste other than to sit back and do nothing." Don't do nothing. ( )
  Darcia | Sep 16, 2020 |
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson is a terrific book. I loved her The Warmth of Other Suns, but it had some repetitiveness issues. This one doesn't. It's well-written, well-researched, and well thought out. It's also timely, as we struggle to make progress against our frustrating systemic racism.

She comes to it with a "new" perspective, i.e., that our racism is a caste system akin to what has happened in India with the Untouchables, and what was done to the Jews in Nazi Germany.

"Caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in hierarchy. . . . Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things."

What insights this perspective brings! And it avoids the personal defense of "I work just fine with black people", and "I don't see color" (hah!) and "One of my best friends is black". We've got a systemic racism problem that is comfortable and routine for many.

It all begins, of course, with the horrors of slavery.

"The institution of slavery was, for a quarter millennium, the conversion of human beings into currency, into machines who existed solely for the profit of their owners, to be worked as long as the owners desired, who had no rights over their bodies or loved ones, who could be mortgaged, bred, won in a bet, given as wedding presents, bequeathed to heirs, sold away from spouses or children to convene an owner's debts or to spite a rival or to settle an estate. They were regularly whipped, raped, and branded, subjected to any whim or distemper of the people who owned them. Some were castrated or endured other tortures too grisly for these pages, tortures that the Geneva Conventions would have banned as war crimes had the conventions applied to people of African descent on this soil."

Wilkerson is careful to acknowledge her forebears in using a caste analysis for American racism. I found it extremely helpful in avoiding the "noise" that creeps into these discussions. The comparison with the Indian caste system is surprisingly apt and interesting. It turns out that many Untouchables were carefully watching developments with the U.S. civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Wilkerson is welcomed and appreciated in India as a sister in arms. The comparison with Nazi Germany is well done, despite many differences, including, of course, genocide. It turns out the Nazis were impressed by how white Americans oppressed blacks, and sought to adapt those tactics against the Jews.

One aspect I enjoyed most was Wilkerson's personal anecdotes, which she fits in seamlessly. An example is her eating at a restaurant with a white friend, who is amazed and angry at the shunning and bad service and bad food they get. She's been to the restaurant many times before, but never with a black friend, the only black person in the restaurant. Her white friend makes a scene, and says, it's obvious what's happening here, and demands to see the manager - who is a black woman. Attempts are made to appease her, but the white friend leaves in high dudgeon. Wilkerson is pleased that her friend's eyes have been opened to what Wilkerson and others go through all the time, but she also thinks her friend would exhaust herself if she reacted like that to all the slights that blacks here experience routinely.

What to do? Wilkerson, surprisingly, thinks a lowest caste may be necessary for the health of the whole, but argues that we need to allow mobility from the lowest to the dominant caste based on merit, not birth and color.

"The great tragedy among humans is that people have often been assigned to or seen as qualified for alpha positions — as CEOs, quarterbacks, coaches, directors of film, presidents of colleges or countries — not necessarily on the basis of innate leadership traits but, historically on the basis of having been born to the dominant caste or the dominant gender or to the right family within the dominant caste."

Plenty of food for thought! The New York Times calls this "an instant classic", and NPR says it's "a profound achievement of scholarship and research that stands also as a triumph of both visceral storytelling and cogent analysis." Agreed. ( )
3 vote jnwelch | Sep 15, 2020 |
Summary: Proposes that American society throughout our history has been structured around a caste hierarchy, showing the character, costs, and hope for a different future.

“Caste” is a social reality in countries like India, right? True, but Isabel Wilkerson argues and shows in this new book that a caste system is embedded in American society. She defines caste as “a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it.”

She traces the development of caste from the subjugation of the first Africans brought to Virginia in 1619, the institution of slavery and the legal structures that sustained it, the institution of Jim Crow, resistance to de-segregation and civil rights that, and the contemporary backlash against minorities and immigrants and voter suppression efforts. Bluntly put, all of these efforts, even in the face of growing populations of people of color, are designed, Wilkerson maintains to maintain the supremacy of whites, even lower class whites, within the caste system.

Perhaps one of the most chilling chapters in this work is where she documents how Nazi Germany studied the American subjugation of blacks under Jim Crow to develop their own models to subjugate and eliminate the Jewish population through “legal” means. She cites the common and public use of lynching to “keep blacks in their place.” She tells stories, including personal narratives, to illustrate her contentions. She compares the prevalence of chronic diseases among African Americans and Africans who have far lower incidences.

One story that I found gripping took place in my hometown of Youngstown. Al Bright, a black child who later founded Youngstown State’s Black Studies program and was a gifted artist, played on a championship winning Little League team, the only black on the team. When his team was treated to a picnic and pool outing, Bright was banned from the pool. Eventually when parents and coaches protested, Bright was allowed to float on a raft, not touching the water, towed around the pool by the manager after all the other white children vacated the pool. Scenes like this were not uncommon in the North in the 1950’s. It was thought Blacks would contaminate the pool.

In the central section of the book, she delineates “Eight Pillars of Caste,” showing how these manifest in the U.S.:

1. Divine Will and the Laws of Nature
2. Heritability
3. Endogamy and the Control of Marriage and Mating
4. Purity versus Pollution
5. Occupational Hierarchy: The Jatis and the Mudsill
6. Dehumanization and Stigma
7. Terror as Enforcement, Cruelty as a Means of Control
8. Inherent Superiority versus Inherent Inferiority

She concludes the work by discussing the backlash to the Obama election, the election of Donald J. Trump, and how these reflect the continued need to maintain the caste structure. She traces the great costs of this structure and ends on a note of hope for a post-caste America.

I found the argument persuasive. What is striking is how excluded eastern and southern Europe ethnic groups could be included under the white umbrella, joining northern Europeans, but Blacks, who have been here far longer continue to face efforts to subordinate and subjugate them. I would like to embrace Wilkerson’s hope, and think we can never give up such hope and keep fighting for that hope. But watching America in 2020, I find myself troubled that we could descend into widespread civil disorder, even civil war, but across the fault lines of caste rather than geographic lines. I suspect many never thought civil war could happen in 1861. It did, and it can. I think the sun is setting on our opportunities to heal the long-standing divisions of caste. We can’t heal what we don’t acknowledge. Wilkerson offers us a clear diagnosis. We must decide whether we’ll act. ( )
  BobonBooks | Sep 14, 2020 |
Should be read by anyone and everyone in this country. ( )
  Steve_Walker | Sep 13, 2020 |
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Epigraph
Because even if I should speak,
no one would believe me,
And they would not believe me precisely because
they wuld know that that I said was ture.
--------James Baldwin
If the majority knew of the root of this evil,

then the road to its cure would not be long.

-------------------Albert Einstein
Dedication
To the memory of my parents

who survived the caste system

and to the memory of Brett

who defied it
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In the haunted summer of 2016, an unaccustomed heat wave struck the Siberian tundra on the edge of what the ancients once called the End of the Land.
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