Book Review: Caste

Caste: The Origins Of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

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This book is an exploration of human caste systems with the purpose of illustrating how society in the United States of America has utilized a caste system since before its founding. No matter how ‘woke’ you are, this book will challenge you to reorganize your thoughts about racism and class in the US, and you will likely have a different understanding of the country and our society when you are through. It’s case is powerful and strongly supported by comparisons to the ancient caste system of India and the machinations Nazi Germany, as well as personal stories of being a successful black woman in America.

I have actually spent some of my own time meditating on this concept over the years, and when I began to listen (bad elbows make audiobooks easier) to the book I did not expect to be so deeply affected. I understand that there is a limit to my wokeness as a straight cis white guy, but I’m also a huge history nerd and I thought I’d likely already heard everything this book was trying to say in some form. I was flatly wrong, and by the end of the book I found I was enriched with new and shocking historical facts as well as a markedly different understanding of a few key events in our nation’s history.

When Isabel decries all those after the 2016 election that whined “how could all those white people seemingly vote against their interest?”, I must admit I was one of those people. Her take on the 2016 election makes an excellent case that when you take the caste system into account, these people were voting in line with their long term interests. Or at least what they perceived to be those interests, and how those interests were likely formed in the first place.

Apart from a few specific moments, however, Wilkerson generally stays away from being overtly political. That isn’t to say the book isn’t filled with the political consequences of caste systems. I just personally feel she does an excellent job of trying to make her case as matter-of-factly as possible in an effort to keep the book from being easily labeled pro-democrat and anti-republican vs. pro-education and anti-caste. It is for this reason, that I also think this book has some staying power as poignant historical analysis.

My final comment is that this book is HEAVY. If you are a person with a heart, there is a lot that is going to hurt. Human history then and now is full of suffering and injustice, and this book gives you an eye (ear) full of it. Do not be a coward and stay away from this book, but instead prepare yourself for a harrowing experience through time and sociology. As the book makes clear, we must all deal with the uncomfortable truths before we can truly make them better.

If you are white, this is essential reading to gain a more full understanding our of society and its founding. If you are not white, you can still gain so much from the historical analysis and personal stories. We all gain from increasing our knowledge of human history, US society, and the struggles of this specific successful female black New York Times reporter. Of all the thoughts expressed in this book, however, one point that is made overwhelmingly clear; if Isabel Wilkerson is waiting behind you to exit a plane, kindly keep your ass out of her face.

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