Caste – Book Review

I’ve been posting book reviews on the themes of egalitarianism, common good, and restorative justice since 2014. Click on the above “Book Reviews” heading to see all of them. 

Even though I can’t remember her name, I’ll never forget what she had to say. We were participants at a church conference in Houston, where I was a young, white, bilingual Lutheran pastor. With three or four others, we sat circled together in a small breakout group. She was Black and told the group she was a retired teacher and a member of the Lutheran congregation in Houston’s Third Ward. Our group’s topic of discussion was racism.

She explained that she grew up during Jim Crow on land outside of Houston in the 1930s. Her father was a sharecropper, and the area where her family lived was populated by Blacks and whites. One year during the fall harvest, she remembered, white children walked to school as she and some of her siblings helped their father in the fields. Her segregated school wouldn’t start classes for a few weeks yet. She asked her father: “Why do the white children go to school already while we’re still working in the fields?”

Her daddy, she told us, answered her question in a quiet and measured tone: “It’s because it takes those white children longer to learn.”

Many things in America have changed since the 1930s, but not all things. Does it still take white children longer to learn? Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Random House, 2020), answers the question as concerns issues related to racial equity. Her book focuses on racial justice through the lens of caste structure.

“Caste is more than rank, it is a state of mind that holds everyone captive, the dominant imprisoned in an illusion of their own entitlement, the subordinate trapped in the purgatory of someone else’s definition of who they are and who they should be” (p. 290, hardcover).

When most Americans think of caste, India and apartheid-era South Africa come to mind, or maybe Nazi Germany. Wilkerson asks Americans to think again about caste and peek into a mirror. Standing in stark opposition to this country’s upstanding ideals of equality and “liberty and justice for all” is the caste system, Wilkerson writes, with its 400-year run in America. Well-intentioned Americans responding to the markers of racism, white supremacy, and racial inequality yet present in this society often say: This is not who we are.

Caste forcefully asserts otherwise: Actually, this is who we are.

Wilkerson details many differences of lived experiences between Blacks and whites – home ownership and wealth, incarceration rates, life expectancy rates – to make her case that there is such a thing as an American caste system.

“Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routine and unthinking expectations, patterns of social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things” (p. 70).

This society’s numerous virtues and contradictions – inalienable rights and slavery, freedom of opportunity and lynching, wealth creation and high rates of childhood poverty, and the consecutive elections of Obama and Trump – are the conversation points Wilkerson presents to her readers. “Caste does not explain everything in American life, but no aspect of American life can be fully understood without considering caste and embedded hierarchy” (p.324).

Wilkerson’s research reveals that Nazi leaders in the 1930s looked to the American South as the prime example by which to establish their racist system based in Aryan supremacy. The Nazis noticed the expanse of “white and colored” separation mandated in US southern states for schools, restaurants, public and private transportation, jails and prisons, in marriage and for sexual intercourse. The 1935 Nuremberg Laws, protecting “German blood and honor,” were inspired by the Jim Crow laws of the American South.

Toward the end of the book, she quotes her friend Taylor Branch, the civil rights historian, from a recent conversation they had about the demographic change of whites losing majority status in the US in 2042 and becoming a minority. “If people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?”

It’s an excellent question for readers’ consideration, one of many such opportunities presented by Caste.

Wilkerson’s writing style ably reflects her status as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who previously worked for the New York Times. Her 2010 book, the highly regarded The Warmth of Other Suns, is a narrative nonfiction detailing the lives of three African Americans and their families during the twentieth century’s great migration of Blacks fleeing Jim Crow in southern states for northern cities.

In the 1950s, her mother-to-be migrated from Georgia and her father-to-be from Virginia to Washington D.C. where they would meet, marry, and raise their daughter. Wilkerson’s mother was a school teacher and her father a civil engineer. They hoped their daughter, Wilkerson writes, “might somehow escape the arrows of caste that they had to endure” (p.395).

That wasn’t to be. Yet, those arrows and the wounds they inflicted pointed to a life’s mission.

That was the case with the retired school teacher who I met at the church conference in Houston. She told us that her daddy’s words of subversive resistance inspired her to become a teacher, her way of combatting the racial inequities she experienced at such a young age.

Similarly, Wilkerson’s parents raised a daughter whose mission also was and is to teach, albeit through her writing. In Caste, Wilkerson lifts her impassioned voice against past and present racial injustices and advocates for “radical empathy” – “to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective” (p.386).

Who are we? Caste is a definitive must-read in answer to that question.

T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Austin City Lutherans (ACL), the social ministry expression of a dozen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019). Readers describe it as “compelling,” “inspiring,” and “well written.”

I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (ACTA-Chicago, 2014), which traces the history of economic inequality in American society. Reviewing Just a Little Bit More, journalist Sam Pizzigati says, “Anderson, above all, writes with a purpose. He’s hoping to help Americans understand that an egalitarian ideal helped create the United States. We need that ideal, Anderson helps us see, now more than ever.”

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