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Caste (Oprah's Book Club): The Origins of…

Caste (Oprah's Book Club): The Origins of Our Discontents (edition 2020)

by Isabel Wilkerson (Author)

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Title:Caste (Oprah's Book Club): The Origins of Our Discontents
Authors:Isabel Wilkerson (Author)
Info:Random House (2020), Edition: First Edition, 496 pages
Collections:Your library

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Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

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"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 |
The Pulitzer-winning author argues that the problem should not be called racism, but casteism. Caste is the hierarchical ranking of groups of people based on their traits, with rigidly enforced boundaries that favor the upper caste and stigmatize the lower castes. Caste is coded into us from youth, and we enforce it against ourselves and each other without being conscious of it. Like the Matrix, the caste system is invisible, making it stronger. We serve it without seeing it.

The book studies three caste systems: the religion-based one of India, the one defined by Nazi Germany, and, most of all, the 400-year-old one in the U.S. that is rooted in slavery. It's rich in history and scientific findings. It also shows how caste is the culprit in many shocking headlines as well as the mistreatment the author has endured while doing mundane things like flying on an airplane and eating in a restaurant.

This book is a great companion to How to Be an Antiracist and better in some ways. It's more readable and less doctrinaire. It gave me a better understanding of why the world is the way it is, and why people are the way they are. But it's a little too easy and tempting to blame every mishap on caste, so I have to keep that mentality in check.

I had a lot of takeaways from this book, but will whittle them down to just these:

1. In 2008, whites reacted strongly to the Presidential victory of Obama (a member of the lowest caste) and to the news that they would become a minority by 2042. To preserve their dominance, they engaged in birtherism, physical assaults/mass shootings, the Tea Party, Republican opposition to everything Obama did, changing election laws to make it harder to vote, and increased surveillance and interference with the daily lives of blacks (hence the Karen meme). There is a real question of whether whites will continue to allow America to be governed by majority rule when they become a minority.

2. We wonder why working-class whites vote against their own interests by electing Republicans. But they are not voting against their own interests; their chief interest is being members of the dominant white caste. Because they lack wealth, they have a much stronger need to feel dominant than rich whites. The feeling of dominance is their only spiritual nourishment, and they prioritize it over all other issues including health care, national defense, public education, and the economy. When the illusion of their superiority dies, so do they, as evidenced by the 2015 report of increased deaths among middle-aged low-educated whites from suicide, drinking, and drugs, a phenomenon not seen in any other rich country. (This also explains why white women voted the way they did in 2016; staying in the dominant caste is more important to them than female empowerment.)

3. The dominant group sees caste as a zero-sum game. If a lower-caste person rises, an upper-caste person falls. That's why the New Deal reforms initially excluded blacks at the urging of Southerners, and did so until the Civil Rights movement. Thus, after decades that enriched whites and neglected blacks, whites saw blacks as "entitled" and undeserving, not realizing the advantage that whites had had all along.

4. When the Nazis were ironing out their legal framework for racial subjugation, they looked for other racist countries they could emulate. They found that America was the most racist by far. The racist legal arguments of Southern lawyers were indistinguishable from Nazi ideology. The Nazis even thought that some Jim Crow laws were unreasonably excessive. Americans who pride themselves for defeating Hitler need to realize that they created Hitler.

5. In the U.S., there are about 1,700 Confederacy monuments. In Germany, there are no Nazi monuments. Hitler's gravesite was paved over. Germany pays restitution to Holocaust survivors. Berlin has countless, conspicuous memorials to the victims. If Germans feel annoyed or punished by seeing these memorials everywhere, then the memorials are working as intended.

6. It's not enough to let the older generation of bigots die out, because generations of insecurity and resentment can, at any time and in anyone, easily become hate. To help heal the wrongs caused by the caste system, and to eventually destroy the caste system, those in the favored caste must practice radical empathy. They must educate themselves by humbly listening to the disfavored. Until they do, they will continue to choose leaders who waste resources on maintaining divisions rather than solving human problems. ( )
  KGLT | Apr 8, 2021 |
4/5: In the process of reading the book now. In the first 25 pages noticed a superficial passing/skipping of the importance of the Class System in England and colonization on subsequent generations (even now). While the author briefly mentioned, does not give appropriate attribution to the Suffragette / Women's voting contribution to US Democracy. So far has not addressed the property of women lasted longer than the Color/Caste system of Black men (who could vote before white women); or previous landless white peoples who couldn't vote.

First impression: Great writer. I loved the initial focus on pathogen in Finland and public health influenced by WW2 anthranx. It veered off thought into rather simplistic story telling which unfortunately, undermines the initial, and exciting, search for truth.

So far, has not mentioned the Rape of Nanking or class/caste systems outside of North America/Europe. Wonder why not. ( )
  maitrigita | Apr 5, 2021 |
If you’ve read a lot about US racism, there might not be much new here—Wilkerson compares it to Indian caste systems because of caste’s requirements of hierarchy and degradation, but I think I might have gotten more from a book about Indian caste systems. Most shocking-but-not-shocking fact: “In hiring black teachers for segregated schools during Jim Crow, a leading southern official, Hoke Smith, made a deliberate decision: ‘When two Negro teachers applied to a school, to “take the less competent.”’ ” I also appreciated Wilkerson’s point that caste is at work “in how the parties respond to their respective bases. The Republican reverence for its base of white evangelicals stands in stark contrast to the indifference often shown the Democratic base of African-Americans ….” ( )
  rivkat | Mar 29, 2021 |
Clear-eyed and easily read breakdown of what systemic racism serves in America, with comparisons to the caste systems in Nazi Germany and India that show how societal and individual actions play a role in the way we treat each other. So much of current events makes more sense when viewed through this lens. ( )
  Perednia | Mar 16, 2021 |
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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
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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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