Isabel Wilkerson’s new book “Caste: the origins of Our Discontents” is currently number two on the New York Times Best Seller list. I have no doubt that this book will join other works like White Fragility in the Social Justice canon.
The basic premise of the book is that America is (and always has been) a racially discriminatory caste system.
There are varying opinions on this notion. I would argue that, more than anything, America is a meritocracy where anyone can use their talents and work ethic and achieve goals for bettering their lives and those for their family. But my point with writing isn’t primarily arguing against Wilkerson’s suggestion that America is a caste system.
My biggest concern from the book is the toxic and hopeless ideology Wilkerson spreads. The book offers very little in the way of suggestions to make a better world. It’s 447 pages of beating the drum of how unfair the American system is. She’s profiting greatly off of selling victimhood.
But what’s even worse is that she’s giving people limitations. There are two opposing views. One of them is that this is a country where people can use their talent and work ethic and accomplish goals build the life they desire for themselves and their families. People of all races and backgrounds overcome humble beginnings and circumstances everyday.
Wilkerson’s idea is that a racist system irrevocably locks a person into a caste. The world is setup against you. If you’re from a “lower caste” and succeed, it’s in spite of the caste system (which will be angry that you’ve succeeded because you’ve failed to fall in line with where you’re supposed to be).
There’s a fatalism and existential despair in going through life thinking that the world is setup against you. There’s nothing that is more disempowering that that.
In the opening chapters of the book, Wilkerson compares America to a house with cracks in its foundation. While people living today didn’t build the house, we have to live with it and the faulty foundation. We need to address the structural flaws in the home. But then Wilkerson all but ignores steps which have been taken for more than a century and a half such as the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, constitutional amendments, and other federal laws.
And while she begins the book by saying that we didn’t create the problems that we have today, she later focuses on how Americans from the “upper caste” intentionally enforce this caste system. Wilkerson says: “Like the cast on a broken arm, like the cast in a play, a caste system holds everyone in a fixed place. For this reason, many people – including those we might see as good and kind people – could be casteist, meaning invested in keeping the hierarchy as it is or content to do nothing to change it, but not racist in the classical sense, not active and openly hateful of this or that group.”
In the prologue, the epilogue, and throughout the book, Wilkerson compares the American caste system to Nazi Germany. She mentions Hitler more frequently in the book than she mentions Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Frederick Douglas combined.
One of the most troubling quotes in the book was found on page 268 where she argues that white people – no matter how bad their lives are – can take solace that they’re not minorities: “Those accustomed to being the measure of all that is human come to depend on the reassurance that, while they may have troubles in their lives, at least they are not at the bottom. As long as the designated bottom dwellers remain in their designated place, their own identities and futures are secure.” Wilkerson quotes sociologist Andrew Hacker saying, “No matter how degraded their lives, white people are still allowed to believe that they posses the blood, the genes, the patrimony of superiority. No matter what happens, they can never become ‘black.”
Seriously? Who thinks that way?
She looks at everything in her life, throughout history, and in contemporary American culture through a racial lens. For instance, she has a chapter on Barack Obama and talks of how most white people did not vote for him, and then proceeds to give numerous examples of times when people opposed Obama and chalks them up to racism. There’s never any nuance. There’s no consideration that people might politically disagree with his progressive policies. Throughout the book, she acts like conservatives works to maintain the caste system against liberalism. I’d argue that liberalism is what keeps people in poverty by working against invaluable social structures while major cities are essentially one-party rule and they’re rife with crime and poverty and have criminally bad school systems. No, there’s not a caste, but it’s those policies which keep people poor.
She gives examples from her own life (such as a bad dining experience at a restaurant) as obvious examples of racism. But that’s what much of the book is. Anecdotes and stories rather than hard data to back up her audacious claims.
As I have said, it’s a book that has no message of hope and says very little about reconciliation. The closest the book came to hope was Wilkerson looking forward to 2042 when demographers predict that minorities in America will outnumber caucasians (although she then quickly suggest that the caste will be expanded to include some of these groups in order to maintain the caste system).
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