by Isabel Wilkerson
Publication Date: August 4, 2020
The Pulitzer Prize–winning, bestselling author of The Warmth of Other Suns examines the unspoken caste system that has shaped America and shows how our lives today are still defined by a hierarchy of human divisions.
“As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not.”
In this brilliant book, Isabel Wilkerson gives us a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America as she explores, through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings.
Beyond race, class, or other factors, there is a powerful caste system that influences people’s lives and behavior and the nation’s fate. Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, stigma, and more. Using riveting stories about people—including Martin Luther King, Jr., baseball’s Satchel Paige, a single father and his toddler son, Wilkerson herself, and many others—she shows the ways that the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day. She documents how the Nazis studied the racial systems in America to plan their out-cast of the Jews; she discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires that there be a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she writes about the surprising health costs of caste, in depression and life expectancy, and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics. Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity.
I started reading this when my library hold came up unexpectedly, a few days after the anniversary of January 6th, and I finished it yesterday, on MLK Day.
This isn’t going to be so much a review as it is a collection of thoughts about the book, and its impact on me.
Many years ago, I read a different book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, which had much the same effect on me. The scholarship behind that book and it’s foundational premise – that “ordinary” Germans were far more aware of the Holocaust and therefore far less blameless than had previously been believed – has apparently been challenged, even so, it is clear that the Nazi’s had a huge apparatus of death that they used to murder millions of people, that was accepted by a large part of the population.
Between this book and The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, whatever scales were over my eyes about the massive institutional apparatus, including the federal government and state governments, that was used to oppress Black Americans long after the end of the Civil War and post-emancipation have been removed. The devastating and detailed accountings of lynchings which involved massive, celebratory crowds engaged in the vigilante murder of young black men for what were shockingly minor offenses against the caste system left me nauseated and horror-struck, but also aware that entire communities took part in these rituals of dehumanization and displays of power.
Wilkerson’s premise is one that will piss off a lot of people who are stubbornly unwilling or unable, for whatever reason, to accept the reality that the United States was, until within my personal lifetime (I’m 55) a separatist nation, built upon a tradition of apartheid, and that many of the underlying factors that empowered this are buried just slightly below the surface now. As was the case with The Warmth of Other Suns, many of the events that she uses to illustrate her premises occurred either during my lifespan, or within a decade or two before it – certainly during the life of my mother, who is still alive at 76 years old.
It was in this atmosphere, in 1951, that a Little League baseball team in Youngstown, Ohio, won the city championship. The coaches, unthinkingly, decided to celebrate with a team picnic at a municipal pool. When the team arrived at the gate, a lifeguard stopped one of the Little Leaguers from entering. It was Al Bright, the only black player.
My mother was born in 1945. She was 6, only 3 years younger than 9 year old Al Bright, who was not allowed into the pool in Youngstown, Ohio because of his black skin. Rather than leaving, the party continued without him; he was apparently forced to remain outside the gates, while the rest of his teammates frolicked in the pool, the adult chaperones occasionally checking up on him. Ultimately, they were able to prevail upon the lifeguards to allow Al into the pool. According to Wilkerson, he was placed on a raft and the lifeguard pushed him around the pool for a single circuit:
During his short time in the raft, as it glided on the surface, the lifeguard warned him over and over again of one important thing. “Just don’t touch the water,” the lifeguard said, as he pushed the rubber float. “Whatever you do, don’t touch the water.” The lifeguard managed to keep the water pure that day, but a part of that little boy died that afternoon. When one of the coaches offered him a ride home, he declined. “With champion trophy in hand,” Watkins wrote, Al walked the mile or so back home by himself. He was never the same after that.
There are stories that White America tells ourselves that we want so desperately to believe. Wilkerson, ultimately, debunks them all. Slavery was not benevolent – it was violent, murderous and dehumanizing. And it lasted for centuries.
This was what the United States was for longer than it was not. It is a measure of how long enslavement lasted in the United States that the year 2022 marks the first year that the United States will have been an independent nation for as long as slavery lasted on its soil. No current-day adult will be alive in the year in which African-Americans as a group will have been free for as long as they had been enslaved. That will not come until the year 2111.
Jim Crow was very nearly as bad.
One day he was out riding with some other white men, southern white men, who were checking out some black sharecroppers. The black people were reluctant to come out of their cabins when the car with the white men pulled up. The driver had some fun with it, told the sharecroppers he was not going to hang them. Later, Dollard mentioned to the man that “the Negroes seem to be very polite around here.” The man let out a laugh. “They have to be.”
We revile the Nazi’s and their death machine while refusing to acknowledge that those self-same Nazi’s took what they learned at our knee about oppression and applied it to their Nuremburg laws, to enable the murder of 6 million Jews.
As they settled into their chairs to hash out what would eventually become the Nuremberg Laws, the first topic on the agenda was the United States and what they could learn from it. The man chairing the meeting, Franz Gürtner, the Reich minister of justice, introduced a memorandum in the opening minutes, detailing the ministry’s investigation into how the United States managed its marginalized groups and guarded its ruling white citizenry. The seventeen legal scholars and functionaries went back and forth over American purity laws governing intermarriage and immigration. In debating “how to institutionalize racism in the Third Reich,” wrote the Yale legal historian James Q. Whitman, “they began by asking how the Americans did it.”
We tell ourselves that the fact that Black families, as a group, have been unable to build wealth like white families, as a group, has nothing to do with institutional racism and ONLY has to do with Black weakness and failure. These are the stories we tell ourselves. These stories are lies.
Reading this on the heels of the anniversary of the Capitol Insurrection only strengthened my belief that what we are watching is a backlash to the ideas inside of these books and the growing discomfort with the dominant caste in America being confronted with a loss of power; a loss of automatic prestige; and a loss of their sense that no matter how poor they are, how meagre their lives, they could always believe themselves to be better than the subordinate class. And they could demand respect for it.
Rather than calling it backlash, we should call it whitelash. That’s what is happening, with “Christian nationalism,” with the “Oathkeepers” and Richard Spencer, but it’s also what’s happening at the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and the die-hard MAGA supporters of Donald Trump. We know the code behind “Make America Great Again,” and what the “again” stands for – a return to a different time, a past in which white (male) Americans reigned supreme over everyone else. That’s the only thing it can mean, because that is the only past we have.
We may underestimate, though, the aftershocks of a shift in demographics, the erosion of labor unions, the perceived loss of status, the fears about their place in the world, and resentment that the kind of security their fathers could rely upon might now be waning in what were supposed to be the best years of their lives. Rising immigration from across the Pacific and the Rio Grande and the ascendance of a black man as president made for an inversion of the world as many had known it, and some of them might have been more susceptible to the calls to “take our country back” after 2008 and to “make America great again” in 2016.
Everyone should read this book. It will take your breath away, at times. It left me crying – and I am a hardhearted bitch – more than once.
I admire the way that the German people have dealt with their history. I wish that Americans had the moral courage to do the same. Every day that we collectively refuse to reckon with our own history is a day when we continue to fail to live up to the promise of our founding documents, and that we give lie to our claim to being a moral force for good in the world.