Caste Summary

Caste is a 2020 nonfiction book in which prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson argues that the United States operates under a caste system based on race.

  • Wilkerson compares the United States to India and Nazi Germany, examining the similarities and differences between each nation’s caste system.
  • Through her “Eight Pillars of Caste,” Wilkerson explains what a caste system entails and how caste perpetuates itself through dehumanization and division.
  • Drawing on history, research, and personal anecdotes, Wilkerson explores the dire consequences of caste and proposes “radical empathy” as the solution.


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Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson opens with a passage in italicized type analyzing an old photograph that depicts hundreds of German workers joyfully saluting their leader, Adolf Hitler. In one corner of the frame is a lone figure who stands out because he is not saluting, having come to despise the Nazis for the way their anti-Semitic policies have affected his fiancée.

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Wilkerson then begins part 1 by describing two major events that took place in 2016. One was an unlikely anthrax outbreak in Siberia caused by the effects of global warming, and the other was the election of Donald Trump as United States president after a campaign based on a message of hate and division that unleashed long-simmering toxic forces from below the surface of American society. The rest of part 1 introduces four important metaphors that Wilkerson uses to establish the problem of America’s race-based caste system. She first describes the country as a sick patient visiting a doctor, who must take an honest and detailed history in order to diagnose the ailment and prescribe a remedy. Next, Wilkerson describes America as an old house, badly in need of expensive repairs that the owners have been avoiding due to the cost and inconvenience. In this model, caste is the invisible framework beneath the rotting surfaces that must be examined and repaired before the structure can be declared sound. Wilkerson then tells the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1959 visit to India as a guest of President Nehru and King’s learning of his heroic standing among India’s Dalits, or “untouchables,” whose servile, subordinated lives reminded him that African Americans were the United States’s own “untouchable” servant class. Finally, in order to illustrate both caste’s deep coding in the human mind and how resistant people are to confronting and breaking free of its illusions, Wilkerson compares caste’s predominance to the movie The Matrix and its bleak portrayal of existence as a computer simulation.

In part 2, "The Arbitrary Construction of Human Division,” Wilkerson gives historical context to the US’s race-based social hierarchy, which she traces back to 1619 and the establishment of an unprecedented form of generational, inescapable human enslavement based on skin color. This created the formerly nonexistent categories of “white” and “Black” that have been the definitive social determinant in the US since then. The American fixation on race limits people’s ability to see beyond their biases and coding, leading them to instead merely see what Wilkerson calls the “container” and resulting in misperceptions she has personally experienced. Taking genetic research as a basis, Wilkerson goes on to refute the value of race as a category. She then examines India’s ancient caste system, comparing and contrasting it with America’s and highlighting some key distinctions. Wilkerson’s other main example of a race-based caste system is Nazi Germany, where race laws were based on the American example the Nazi party so admired and at whose extremity they marveled.

In part 3, “The Eight Pillars of Caste,” Wilkerson outlines what she determines to be the essential, universal elements of caste systems regardless of their...

(The entire section contains 1278 words.)

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