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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.