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addabook - Caste
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Caste
The Lies That Divide Us
Isabel Wilkerson
read on September 10, 2020

For the most part I thought this was a great book. In some ways it was predictable, in some it was confusing, and in some it was genuinely new and thought provoking. It was, of course, consistently depressing. The central idea is that America has forever been built on a caste system, which remains intact today, and which has generally been defined by a persons race, though need not be limited to that. My brief notes were:

  • Interesting Indian caste explainer. India's caste system is based on karma and reincarnation. I.e., you reincarnate into the caste commensurate with how you have lived your prior lives (you get what you deserve). This is fascinating. If bought in, takes a lot of the morality out of it, making all participants much more likely to believe in the justice of the system.
  • Wilkerson documents how the Nazis literally modeled their laws for Jews around US segregation.
  • I had quibbles / confusion over the 'race doesn't exist' language. Wilkerson goes on for some time how race is not a biological classification, it apparently does not exist in science. That might be true, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. A person can have physical features that I would call "black" or "Asian", and which are hereditary in nature. Can we not call that "race"?
  • I think the very interesting discussion here in the book is around the questions of what constitutes a 'white' or 'black' person, which has changed dramatically over time. E.g., was Italian, Sicilian, Irish, etc, always "white"? (No). Were literal Caucasians white? (per SCOTUS, no). Are Japanese (with skin whiter than EUs) white? SCOTUS said no.
  • I wish there were more discussion around the inclination of humans to develop caste systems. Wilkerson focuses on India, Germany, US - but no counter-examples. Are there examples of complex societies that didn't have castes at all? Why? Why not? The focus tends to just be "look how vile this is" rather than understanding why humans tend to organize in this awful way.
  • Not sure I understand the difference between "caste" and racism. I understand conceptually, but not clear on how what we have in the US isn't just racism. Caste can certainly exist without racism, but can racism exist without caste?
    • Slight counterpoint to this, I liked the examination of racism in terms of relative positioning in the caste system. E.g., it's poor whites who are going to be the most racist, because they have the most to lose from the dissolution of a race-based caste system. They may be poor, but they're still white, so they're not at the bottom rung. It is in fact highly rational, if obviously disgusting, for them to perpetuate race-based caste as much as possible.
    • Additional point: Interesting discussion of race vs class in terms of recent black immigrants (Jamaica, Caribbean) who purposefully try to keep their foreign accent, to remain in an 'immigrant' class, and be treated as only 'black' and not 'African American', the lowest caste.
  • The anecdotes about American military racism were largely new to me and somehow surprising. Wilkerson writes about how black (American) troops were popular with the French during WWI, and that the US military explicitly instruct the French to treat American soldiers like shit, particularly when/if American whites were around.

Language toward the end of the book, on the post-WW2 German reaction to Nazism compared to post-1865 American reaction to the Confederacy is amazingly considered and written. One long section below, while Wilkerson was speaking to a German about their reaction to their own actions after WW2:

And then, we have the stumbling stones. These are the micro-memorials of discrete, brass squares the size of ones palm, inscribed with the names of Holocaust victims and placed throughout the city. More than 70,000 of these stumbling stones, known as stolpersteina, have been forged and installed in cities across Europe. They are embedded among the cobblestones in front of houses and apartment buildings, where the victims whose names are inscribed on them are known to have last lived before being abducted by the gestapo. "Here lived Hildegarde Blumenthal. Born 1897. Deported 1943. Died in Auschwitz." reads a stumbling stone clustered among others outside an apartment building in western Berlin. Nearby are the stones for Rosa Gross and Arthur Benjamin, who were deported in 1942 and who perished in Riga. The stumbling stones force the viewer to pause and squint to read the inscription, force the viewer to regard the entry doors the people walked through, the steps they climbed with their groceries and toddlers, the streets they strolled that were the everyday life of real people, rather than abstractions of incomprehensible millions. Each one is a personal headstone that gives a momentary connection to a single individual. Leaning over to read the names on the stumbling stones forces you to bow in respect.

And then this:

There is no death penalty in Germany. We can't be trusted to kill people, not after World War II.

That quote absolutely floored me. I was making coffee while listening to the book, and I literally had to stop and brace myself against the counter after hearing it. I have never before heard anything so succinctly wise and empathetic, and it made me so angry and sad that the United States has instead chosen to ignore our own history rather that to confront it.

One of the last things that book touches on are the changing race demographics in the US, and how in a few decades we're expected to be a majority minority nation. How will that affect caste and politics? Prior to reading this book, I've read and heard a lot about this, and how it seems inevitable that Republicanism is charging towards oblivion, since it is doubling down on whiteness and racism in a country that is clearly moving demographically in the opposite direction. (And why R's today are pushing so hard for anti-democratic rule, like gerrymandering, senate malapportionment, judiciary control, keeping electoral college, etc.) Anyway, by looking at it through the lens of caste instead, Wilkerson argues that the nation will just instead expand the upper caste before risk losing it. That is, we would slowly accept that Asian's or lighter skinned African Americans, (or whatever other group) can be full-fledged upper caste, such that sufficient demographics remain in place to protect the caste system. I wish Wilkerson had gone into more detail here (e.g., is there historical precedent?) but this continues to linger with me.

Author Bio:

Isabel Wilkerson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Humanities Medal, has become a leading figure in narrative nonfiction, an interpreter of the human condition, and an impassioned voice for demonstrating how history can help us understand ourselves, our country, and our current era of upheaval. Through her writing, Wilkerson brings the invisible and the marginalized into the light and into our hearts. Through her lectures, she explores with authority the need to reconcile America’s karmic inheritance and the origins of both our divisions and our shared commonality. Her debut work, The Warmth of Other Suns, won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Heartland Prize for Nonfiction, the Anisfield-Wolf Award for Nonfiction, the Lynton History Prize from Harvard and Columbia universities, and the Stephen Ambrose Oral History Prize and was shortlisted for both the Pen-Galbraith Literary Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. She is a native of Washington, D.C., and a daughter of the Great Migration, the mass movement that she would go on to write about. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 1994, as Chicago Bureau Chief of The New York Times, making her the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism. She then devoted fifteen years and interviewed more than 1,200 people to tell the story of the six million people, among them her parents, who defected from the Jim Crow South. As for her new book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, the venerable U.K. bookseller, Waterstone’s calls it an “expansive, lyrical and stirring account of the unspoken system of divisions that govern our world.”