‘Caste’ is a study of culture and power

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Pulitzer-prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson’s latest book is about caste systems.
ZBIGNIEW BZDAK/CHICAGO TRIBUNE/TNS

BY DR. GLENN ALTSCHULER
SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER

Review of “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents’’ by Isabel Wilkerson. Random House.  476 pages $32.

In November 2018, Isabel Wilkerson and Taylor Branch, the historian of the civil rights movement, met over coffee to discuss President Donald Trump, the “concentric circles of hate radiating outward” against Muslims and Mexicans, the murder of Jewish worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the estimate by demographers that in 2042 the United States will no longer be majority White.

“So, the real question is,” Branch asked, “if people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?”  They left the question unanswered, Wilkerson reveals, because neither of them was willing “to hazard a guess.”

In “Caste,’’ Wilkerson, the author of the critically acclaimed “The Warmth of Other Suns,’’ explains why. Using rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep groups apart and confined to assigned places, caste, she claims, is about power, resources, respect and authority.

CASTE AND RACE

Caste has been – and remains – the stigmatizing, brutal, and brutalizing “operating system” that shapes the daily life, choices, and opportunities of every American.

In the United States, the social construct we call race (which has no basis in science of biology) “is the primary tool and visible decoy, the front man, for caste.” And Americans embrace it “as the unschooled cling to superstition.”

Beautifully written and deeply personal, “Caste’’ draws on the experiences of “ordinary” people, dominant and subordinate, and the operating systems of India and Nazi Germany as well as the United States, to make a compelling case that “caste, along with its faithful servant race, is an x-factor in almost any equation, and any answer one might ever come up with to address our current challenges is flawed without it.”

Searching for origins, Wilkerson identifies eight “pillars” that have been “at one time or another burrowed deep within the culture and collective subconscious of most every inhabitant, in order for a caste system to function”: divine will and the law of nature; heritability; endogamy; purity and pollution; occupational hierarchy; dehumanization and stigma; terror as a means of control; inherent superiority and inferiority.

PILLARS ‘REMAIN INTACT’

The pillars, Wilkerson maintains, “remain intact.”  “Unyieldingly rigid,” the caste system is “defiant in the face of evidence contrary to its foundation.”  It “always seems to prevail.”  The caste system, she acknowledges, has mutated and shape-shifted with the times.  But the dominant caste uses “workarounds” and “the hierarchy remains intact.”

That said, one wishes that Wilkerson had examined in greater detail the impact those mutations and shape shifts have had on the concept of caste.  And the challenges mounted to some of the pillars, weakening some and, one might argue, toppling others.

Wilkerson tells us, for example, that as “the concept of caste grew more contentious” in the mid-20th century, Black parents had legal and political recourse to protect their children from abuse or harm done to their children by the state. How, one wonders, have divine will, endogamy, occupational hierarchy evolved over the last hundred years in the United States?

SUPPORTS COMMISSION

Acutely aware of the enduring power of caste, Wilkerson reminds us that it will not be dismantled “by a single law or any one person.” As a start, she supports the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission so that every American can understand our country’s wrenching history, realize that while we are not personally responsible for atrocities committed centuries ago, “we are responsible for what good or ill we do to people alive with us today.”

Wilkerson leaves this reader with the feeling that her answer to Taylor Branch’s question would be anything but comforting.  And so, she concludes with a call to personal responsibility: “it is for the owners, meaning each of us, to correct the ruptures we have inherited.”

A warning: “without the intervention of humanitarian impulses, a reconstituted caste system could… isolate the darkest Americans even further, lock them ever more tightly on the bottom rung.”  And an exhortation: “A world without caste would set everyone free.”

Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He wrote this review for the Florida Courier.

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