I was fortunate to hear Isabel Wilkerson discuss her recently released book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
. She says that the time has come for a new language to confront the structural ways the United States maintains dominant and subordinated groups. She hopes her book will create a new framework to understand this hierarchy which continues to maintain a strict system of privilege and oppression based on skin color.
Wilkerson is the author of the award-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which tells the story of the migration of millions of black Americans from the South in the mid-20th century. In her new book, she sheds light on the concept of race, a term she deliberately omitted from her first book. The concept of race by skin color was created in the United States to maintain slavery. Race was used to articulate and enforce citizen rights by caste.
She compares the United States' structure to caste systems in India and Nazi Germany, distilling the tenets of how caste systems are maintained. Her book is a well-researched and comprehensive history of caste in the United States. It is also a book that will help us understand where we are today.
One of the most startling stories, to me, is how Germans of the Third Reich turned to the United States' Jim Crow laws to develop their own anti-Semitic laws. They marveled at how Americans were able to so clearly articulate racist policies with an air of wholesomeness, and they found many of the states’ laws too draconian to export to Nazi Germany.
Another story in the book tells of how Martin Luther King, Jr. toured India and visited some Dalit students. In the Indian caste system, Dalits are at the bottom of the hierarchy, sometimes referred to as "Untouchables". The principle introduced King as a fellow Untouchable, which initially disturbed King. He later embraced this analogy as a fitting comparison to America’s rigid caste system.
This is an important book and I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to understand ‘race’ in America.