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Caste by Isabel Wilkerson | Book Summary

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” is an illuminating and profound book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson. 

Published in 2020, it explores the concept of caste systems as they exist around the world and as they function as hidden systems of hierarchy in society. 

The book delves into the intricacies of the caste structure, dissecting its roots, impacts, and potential for change, primarily focusing on three major caste systems: India, Nazi Germany, and the United States.

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson Summary

The book begins with a definition of the term ‘caste’, distinguishing it from ‘race’ or ‘class’

Wilkerson defines caste as a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed worth and inherent superiority of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits. 

She argues that societies structure themselves around hierarchies, invisible systems that dictate power dynamics, resources distribution, and interactions.

In order to convey her argument, Wilkerson draws on a variety of sources, including historical accounts, personal narratives, sociological studies, and psychological insights

She compares and contrasts the three principal caste systems, revealing their unique features while underlining the similarities.

In the section devoted to India, she outlines the complexities of the four-tiered system, highlighting the untouchables or the Dalits as the lowest tier, whose members have been stigmatized and marginalized for centuries.

Nazi Germany’s Aryan ideology forms the second case study. 

Wilkerson elucidates how the Nazis studied the U.S. Jim Crow laws to inspire their own oppressive system of racial hierarchy. However, they found some aspects, such as anti-miscegenation laws, too extreme even by their standards.

The third and most prominent focus of the book is the United States. Wilkerson reframes the American racial hierarchy as a caste system, with whites at the top, African Americans at the bottom, and other racial groups arranged in the middle. 

She provides detailed accounts of the brutal injustices inflicted on African Americans during the era of slavery and Jim Crow laws, and how these discriminatory practices continue in subtler forms today.

Wilkerson goes on to elaborate the eight ‘pillars’ or characteristics that uphold a caste system

These include divine will, heritability, endogamy, and purity versus pollution, among others. Each of these are explained in depth, with examples demonstrating how they function in different societies.

The book also delves into the psychological impacts of living in a caste system for both the oppressed and the oppressors. 

It discusses the systemic and personal costs of such a hierarchy: internalized self-loathing, perpetual fear, and prejudice among the lower castes; and denial, ignorance, or guilt among the upper castes.

Toward the end, Wilkerson discusses the possibilities for dismantling the caste system, suggesting empathy, awareness, and introspection as critical starting points. 

She underscores that acknowledging the existence of a caste system is the first step towards dismantling it.

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson Summary Infographic

What can you learn from the book?

1. The Ubiquity and Endurance of Caste Systems

One of the primary lessons in Wilkerson’s work is the ubiquity and endurance of caste systems. 

Wilkerson identifies three major caste systems in human history: the Indian caste system, the Nazi regime’s racial hierarchy, and the American racial hierarchy. 

She argues that these systems persist because they provide a simplified structure of societal organization, assigning roles and statuses. This understanding is crucial because it forces the reader to confront how deeply ingrained caste systems are in society.

For example, in the American context, despite legislative and policy changes aimed at racial equality, the underlying racial hierarchy — a form of caste system — persists, demonstrating its resistance to superficial alterations.

2. Caste is Distinct from Race, Class, and Other Social Hierarchies

Wilkerson proposes that caste is a more useful lens to understand American society than race or class, though they are closely intertwined. Caste, she argues, is the bedrock, the infrastructure of our divisions, while race and class are the manifestations and consequences of that system. 

A key lesson here is that in order to make meaningful social progress, we need to address not just the symptoms (racial and class disparities) but also the root cause — the caste system that underlies these disparities.

3. The Role of Dehumanization in Sustaining Caste Systems

Wilkerson uses historical and contemporary examples to demonstrate how dehumanization of the “lower caste” is instrumental in perpetuating caste systems. 

Dehumanization not only allows the “upper caste” to rationalize their dominance but also makes it socially acceptable. For example, she describes how African-Americans were subjected to scientific racism — pseudo-scientific claims about their inferiority — during the Jim Crow era, which was a key factor in sustaining the American racial caste system.

4. The Impact of Caste Systems on Everyone Within Them

Lastly, Wilkerson emphasizes that caste systems do not only affect those at the bottom, but also those at the top. The fear of losing power or status, or the fear of retaliation from lower castes, can cause psychological and moral distress for members of the upper castes. 

For example, she narrates the story of a white working-class woman who, despite her own economic struggles, was deeply afraid of losing her relative privilege and status in the racial caste system.

Final Thoughts

“Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” is a deeply researched and profoundly humanistic analysis of social hierarchies. Through her compelling narratives and rigorous scholarship, Wilkerson calls for a more egalitarian future, where caste hierarchies are acknowledged and dismantled for a more equitable society.

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