Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

America is an old house. We can never declare the work over. Wind, flood, drought, and human upheavals batter a structure that is already fighting whatever flaws were left unattended in the original foundation. When you live in an old house, you may not want to go into the basement after a storm to see what the rains have wrought. Choose not to look, however, at your own peril.

In Caste, Isabel Wilkerson looks into America’s basement to unearth the system in our foundation that is putting it in peril. She emerges with the idea that the country has, since its origins, been built on caste system in which people are assigned places in a hierarchy that have nothing to do with merit or internal qualities. And she compares the U.S. caste system, based on artificial racial classifications, with the Hindu caste system and with Nazism.

I had been hearing a lot about how great this book was and I thought the idea of an American caste system was interesting, but I fear that this book fell victim to something of a law of diminishing returns when it comes to popular contemporary books on race. That is to say, it treads a lot of ground that’s been covered elsewhere. When it comes to my reading about race, I’m starting to think that I’m better off reading either classics, books that are very focused, or books with extraordinary writing.

My hope was that the caste thesis might provide something new to chew on, and it does, but the book doesn’t go as deeply into the comparisons between the caste systems as I’d hoped. Instead, Wilkerson spends a lot of time on what it is like to live in the caste system in America. This is an important topic, and some of the stories she tells are shocking and upsetting. And so I think this worth reading for someone new to thinking about these topics, but I’m not sure I’d say it’s a must-read for those already immersed in the subject.

As for the caste discussion, I found myself wishing she delved more deeply into how caste operates not just in America, but among Hindus in India. She talks about Dalit liberation movements and tells a few stories, but I wanted more. I can’t make up my mind about the Nazi connection. She makes a good case for how the Nazis were inspired by American racist structures, and I think that’s important, but, again, I wanted her to go more deeply on the connection and how it relates to caste.

Overall, I think she’s trying to cover too much, and at times the book feels like a series of short essays on race and racism, past and present, without a clear connection to her overall argument. The best section of the book is the one called “The Eight Pillars of Caste,” where she describes the foundations on which caste is built. I wished she had gone deeper into each of these eight pillars and explored how they appear in multiple caste systems. Some of the chapters are rather short and only deal with one system, but if she’d pulled in more examples and gone deeper, they could have served as an organizing principle for the book and made it feel more coherent.

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1 Response to Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

  1. I really enjoyed this and thought the writing was quite beautiful, while some of the material was still new to me. I agree that it could have benefited from more of a focus on the core idea though. The idea of caste gave her a slightly new take on the topic, but I’m not sure it actually helped me better understand racism in the US.

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