Isabel Wilkerson | Nonfiction, 2020

479 pages (includes 88 pages of notes, acknowledgements, a bibliography, and an index)


In a single word, powerful.  I am floored by this book.  Wilkerson presents a history of caste.  Not race, but caste ... a ”stubbornly fixed ranking of human value.” (pg 24). There are only three examples of caste systems in the modern world.  India, Nazi Germany, and the United States.  She compares and contrasts these systems, spending most of her time on the US institution of slavery as a prime component of caste in this country.

Of the many, many things I learned, here are three.

  1.  Slavery was in place in America for 12 generations.  I knew how many years in my head, but the impact of seeing it in generations is profound.
  2. The United States served as the model for the Third Reich’s Nuremberg Laws.  As they began to define the ideology, the early designers of the Nazi philosophy first looked to the US to understand how we were so effective at institutionalizing racism.
  3. The caste system provides offers an important explanation for the US 2016 elections.  Suicide rates rose among middle-class whites in the late 1990’s as labor unions were eroded, more people of color and women took middle-wage jobs, and there was a general sense of “dominant group status threat.”  Plus, a lower caste member rises to the highest station in the land in 2008. The bottom caste seemed to be rising, pushing upon the security of the castes above.

This is a hard book to read.  While Wilkerson uses a lot of metaphor, especially early in Caste, to engage the reader, it still is not a story in the way The Warmth of Other Suns was.  It is pure non-fiction. And the facts are extremely hard to take.

No question, I highly recommend this book to all of you.  It could be required reading for every single student or teacher of American History.  It is what “Patriotic education” should really be about … telling the truth.  It teaches an important story we never, ever learned in fifth grade.


4 responses on “Caste

    1. Andrea Sigetich Post author

      Good for your book club! I don’t know if mine might be willing to take it on … I haven’t decided if i will propose it or not. If any of the Casting Crew is reading this conversation, what do you think?

  1. Daniel Murphy

    I couldn’t agree more with Andrea’s review of this book. It’s not too much of a reach to call Wilkerson’s achievement here a game changer. I thought I was fairly well educated on the way caste works, but…I was not. The book is definitely not for the faint of heart. Whatever you THINK you knew about the brutality of caste-ism in the United States, specifically its role in the oppression of African-Americans, Wilkerson’s historical depth reveals depravities that will likely make you shudder.

    There is a problem with interpreting much of what we are seeing in America at present. We use the term racism liberally, despite the fact that there almost no serious scientists that cling to the outmoded notion that there are different races. If there are no races, what exactly does racism mean. Wilkerson offers a different perspective on the deeply ingrained tendency of humans that belong to the caste that is in power to work tirelessly, and brutally, to maintain their influence and power. Sound too foggy? Read this book. It will give you the sort of discomfort that is always experienced by those who value the truth when the factual ground beneath their feet shifts. And this book, whether or not it changes your opinion, will most likely make the current cognitive ground that you are standing on buck and ripple.

    1. Andrea Sigetich Post author

      Thank you so much for this thoughtful and wise reply, Dan. (Of course, you agreed with me, so that always makes me smile!) “Game changer” is a really good phrase for this perspective she presents. It is a very different way of looking at something we thought we knew about. And the truth if it is obvious. I called it “powerful” in my posting. Since then, in email conversations, I have been calling it “profound.”