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Caste: The Origins of our Discontents

by Isabel Wilkerson

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15. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
reader: Robin Miles
published: 2020
format: 14:26 audible audiobook (496-pages in hardcover)
acquired: April 2
listened: Apr 5-25
rating: 4
locations: US and India (and a little of the UK)
about the author: journalist from in Washington, D. C., born 1961

I adored [The Warmth of Other Suns]. It revealed the storyteller Wilkerson is, and her ability to re-contextualize things, to make you look at the same story in different ways and find that story suddenly entirely new. It's my favorite audiobook.

I had a little trouble with this because it opens with what I felt was a manifesto, an at least four chapter introduction. And when she starts telling stories, they are overshadowed by this introduction and the context. They feel anecdotal. So early on I was uncomfortable with this. But as I listened more, what she was saying started to ring with me and I started to use her ideas in how I evaluated things. And it made a difference, a maybe profound difference. I've begun to rethink much of American culture in this context - Trump, anti-vax, covid-denial, global warming denial, immigration xenophobia, go-it-alone stuff, voting against your own interest financially, or health-wise. It works. The simple idea of seeing white entitlement as a caste system takes a little thought and experimenting, at least it did with me. But ultimately it's very meaningful. Recommended.

https://www.librarything.com/topic/330945#7495216 ( )
  dchaikin | May 2, 2021 |
There is a lot to unpack here. And I think we need to understand who this book is for. If you are someone who wants a hyper-intellectual, full of statistics, comprehensive study of caste, this is not the book you are looking for. If, on the other hand, you want to read a book that ties lived experience in with an expansive, but not comprehensive, look at the power of caste, then this is an essential read.

I learned a lot--mostly about the ways that the Nazis used US segregation, miscegenation laws and our institutionalized racism as a model, but also how the "one-drop rule" was too much even for them: "While the Nazis praised "the American commitment to legislating racial purity, "they could not abide"the unforgiving hardness" under which "; an American or woman who has even a drop of Negro blood in their veins' counted as blacks," Whitman wrote." (88). If you aren't aware of the one-drop rule and its history (in play much more recently than you might think), check out the revised anniversary edition of Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum.

Wilkerson tells us that caste, "like grammar, became an invisible guide" (18), and that complacency is casteist (79). It is an uncomfortable walk through history and an uncomfortable leaning into the present day. That's why it is so important. Wilkerson employs her skills as a journalist to utilize personal stories to amplify and illuminate well-researched truths. If you are in the dominant caste, you will find moments that may make you examine yourself and how you uphold the caste system in the way you wield your privilege, assume your superiority (see the eighth pillar of Caste, Part III of the book), and how "fear" is sometimes a privilege of the dominant caste and really about protecting status.

What is perhaps most important to the understanding of caste is to see how it self-perpetuates and invests in a continual and multi-tentacled process of de-humanization. Purity is constantly defined by the dominant caste, and even supposed "freedoms" can be disguised attempts to uphold the system, inasmuch as they should be things that are "granted" at all.

I did a four-week long book group read and I'm hoping to do a second one this summer because this book needs to be read and talked about. There is value, of course, to reading in isolation, but I'd encourage those of us who are in the dominant caste to gather others together and dig into this book. You are sure to find sentences that punch you in the gut, because Wilkerson is an extraordinarily skilled writer, yes, but also because this book asks us not to see ourselves as different than offending "outliers", but to understand how we uphold the system in myriad ways. ( )
1 vote rebcamuse | Apr 19, 2021 |
This was one of the best books that I have ever read. I rate it right up there with "Sapiens" by Yuval Harari as books that give a framework and lens for you to view all things in our world. In Sapiens Harari helps explain how throughout history arbitrary decisions based on myths and non-scientific beliefs came to create the world we live in today. Wilkerson drills down from these concepts in Caste. Her contention is that in our country( she also looks at India and Nazi Germany) we have created dominant and lowest castes based on nothing more than peoples race or some other arbitrary trait that the dominant class uses to stigmatize the lower caste. Wilkerson traces the history of the blacks in America starting with 1619 and the first slaves all the way through present day. In example after example she takes her narrative and makes it real by showing how caste impacts our everyday lives and actions. She gives examples in her own life about how she, an educated black woman who was a New York times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner, had to constantly justify herself as more than a member of the lowest class. This book shows the extensive research that she did and her use of data was excellent. An example that I liked was her potrrayal of blacks as being poor and living in horrible places. The realty is that 22% of blacks live in poverty which means 78% don't yet Blacks in the media etc are portrayed as poor which creates this as the first thing that comes to mined when whites think about blacks. She has many examples of pre conceived attitudes that lead to actions that have nothing to do with a persons skill or worth but reflects their low caste. Wilkerson contends that no matter what class or economic success the lowest cast achieves, the dominant white class will continue to view them as the lowest rung of the caste hierarchy. This book is a must read. Should be required reading in order to graduate high school. Once you read this and really think about what Wilkerson is reporting, hopefully you will have more empathy for blacks in America. I know that this book has helped me to have a different focus on race in America. ( )
1 vote nivramkoorb | Apr 18, 2021 |
race relations, social stratification, racism, caste, American history ( )
  midwestms | Apr 18, 2021 |
"Once every few years a book comes along that fundamentally reframes the conversation around race and racism in the United States. The last book I recall having had such a broad impact was Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010), “a stunning account of the rebirth of a caste-like system in the United States, one that has resulted in millions of African Americans locked behind bars and then relegated to a permanent second-class status—denied the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement.”" ~EUAR
  stlukeschurch | Apr 9, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 69 (next | show all)
The descriptions are vivid in their horror; the connections travel across history and time to resonate in the mind. This structural move is a classic trademark of Wilkerson's style, and one of the attributes of her unique voice that imbues her writing with such textured depth. Wilkerson's use of a poetic focus on imagery and detailed characterization allows us an intimate and personal relationship with the lives of those she chronicles; when this empathic closeness is juxtaposed with the harsh brutality of the historical record the contrast is resonant and haunting, becoming a towering memorial to those violated by the violence of caste.
“Caste,” the book, upsets the already rickety national myth that anyone in the United States can be anything — albeit, without entirely abandoning that hope.... It’s the creeping horror of potentially losing ground. “Make America Great Again” is, if nothing else, a plea to maintain caste. Political scientists in Wilkerson’s book refer to that panic as “dominant group status threat,” a funhouse reflection in which those on the bottom rungs are seen as moving up a little too easily for the comfort of those at the top.
Wilkerson’s book is a work of synthesis. She borrows from all that has come before, and her book stands on many shoulders. “Caste” lands so firmly because the historian, the sociologist and the reporter are not at war with the essayist and the critic inside her. This book has the reverberating and patriotic slap of the best American prose writing.... “Caste” deepens our tragic sense of American history. It reads like watching the slow passing of a long and demented cortege. In its suggestion that we need something akin to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, her book points the way toward an alleviation of alienation. It’s a book that seeks to shatter a paralysis of will. It’s a book that changes the weather inside a reader.
added by Lemeritus | editNew York Times, Dwight Garner (pay site) (Jul 31, 2020)
A memorable, provocative book that exposes an American history in which few can take pride.
added by Lemeritus | editKirkus Reviews (May 30, 2020)
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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
To the memory of my parents

who survived the caste system

and to the memory of Brett

who defied it
First words
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.
Hitler had made it to the chancellery in a brokered deal that conservative elites agreed to only because they were convinced they could hold him in check and make use of him for their own political aims. They underestimated his cunning and overestimated his base of support, which had been the very reasson the had felt they needed him in the first place. At the height of their power at the polls, the Nazis never pulled the majority they coveted and drew only 38 percent of the vote in the country's last free and fair elections at the onset of their twelve-year reign. The old guard did not foresee, or chose not to see, that his actual mission was "to exploit the methods of democracy to destroy democracy." (p 82)
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