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Is Caste the Culprit?

A few weeks ago, I asked Dan and Debbie at the Book Oasis in Stoneham to order a new book for me. An Oprah’s Book Club selection, it’s titled Caste: the Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson.


I had read her beautifully written first book, The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, and was eager to read this one.


Wilkerson is, above all, a story teller, and in Caste she begins by telling of a shipyard worker in Hamburg, Germany. The year is 1936 and a crowd of workers being addressed by Adolph Hitler are raising their right arms in Nazi salute. This worker, alone, has his arms folded, refusing to validate a government that makes certain people “outcasts.”


In her book, Wilkerson examines the origins of caste and its prevalence in our lives today. While doing so, she examines caste in India, in Nazi Germany, and, of course, in the history and current life of the United States.


As we think about caste in America, the great irony is that we were founded to be a casteless society, “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Yet we know that “all men” was narrowly defined, that it excluded native and African Americans and women. We know that our founders built a new caste structure to exploit the power of enslaved labor.


Caste systems may have originated in a desire to give order to society. A feudal Europe articulated the Great Chain of Being, or the Elizabethan World Order. Even those who broke away from its restrictions, like the Puritans of Massachusetts, rebuilt the order in their own image. Only now they were at the top, below God, of course. They sought to become “a shining city on a hill,” while at the same time treating natives and Africans as less than human.


Caste is different than race, Wilkerson argues, although it uses race to delineate who is on which level, and it’s deeper than class. African Americans who move up on the social and economic ladder are often resented, despite their higher “class.” Whites of a lower economic class are sometimes recruited (think of George Wallace) as a bulwark against those on the bottom caste.


Wilkerson chronicles the awful retaliation against bottom-caste people when they try to improve their standing, nowhere more evident than in the massacre of Blacks and destruction of their community in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921.


Even if we grow up in seemingly casteless communities, we discover that both race and class are in play. In school, we quickly identify the “in” crowd. We avoid certain students. We wear just the right brand of clothes and shoes. We vote on homecoming kings and queens. We brag about the elite schools we’ve applied to. We climb up by stepping on others.


Something in us still likes a world of caste, ruled by monarchs. If we can’t rule, at least we can attend court, helping to maintain an order that excludes, denigrates and persecutes those considered below us.



Isabel Wilkerson’s book has drawn criticism from some sociologists, who question her research and conclusions. Nevertheless, it has struck a chord. A master story teller, Wilkerson is asking us to look at ourselves and our society in a new way. And she is asking us to become caste busters.

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