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Book Review: Caste

Written by Isabel Wilkerson and Reviewed by John Guequierre

Our Covenant library recently acquired Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. Perhaps you have read Wilkerson’s previous bestseller, The Warmth of Other Suns, which richly documented the epic migration of blacks from the South to the cities of the North and West, where the emigrants found some release from the effective bondage of Jim Crow, but quickly found themselves suppressed by forces at once more sophisticated and insidious. Caste is a worthy successor. Everywhere in today’s volatile season we find references to “systemic racism." If you have wondered what that really means, you will find useful but troubling answers in Caste.

Wilkerson distinguishes racism from “caste." Perhaps employing human physical and cultural differences to justify a broad range of discriminatory and violent behavior is a fundamental human characteristic, the evidence of which can be found in nearly every society. Call that “racism." Caste goes beyond that simple and ubiquitous sin to the erection of a long-lasting infrastructure of laws, mores, religious tenets, taught assumptions and expectations that support the permanent and perpetual relegation of a class of people to the very lowest economic and political rung. Wilkerson explores this system by comparing and contrasting the structure of America’s 400-year-old suppression of black people to the world’s oldest caste system, that of Hindu India. The parallels are striking and overwhelming--just substitute “African-American” for “Dalit” (“Untouchable”) in a description of the Indian system.

Wilkerson leavens this American-Hindu comparison by adding a third version, the German Nazi’s brief, vicious isolation, then extermination of European Jews. If you were not previously aware of it, you will be shocked by Wilkerson’s minutely documented research on the rather academic Nazi deliberations on how to convert America’s Jim Crow legal framework into a German equivalent. In fact, in the first round of laws, the Nazi’s felt that German cultural sensitivities would not countenance some of the more extreme Jim Crow laws.

Let me challenge you. If you read this book and find that your reaction is best described as “anger," particularly after the seemingly unending litany of lynchings, you have missed something. I think the proper reaction is a “deep and profound sadness." As you make your way through Wilkerson’s enumeration and exploration of the fundamental characteristics of a caste system, please see how all of us – and I mean all of us - play a role in perpetuating the American caste system, whether intentionally or obliviously. Our American caste system is so very deeply entrenched that uprooting it will take so very much more than retiring a particular President or electing a few different Senators.

Yet Wilkerson lays out a hope and leaves us with this benediction: “A world without caste would set us all free.”

When I was three years old, I accompanied my mother on a trek from our rural village to Schuster’s in Milwaukee so she could buy a coat. While Mom was in the fitting room, I noticed a shopper who looked nothing like me or like anyone I knew. She had dark skin, which I found uproariously funny and pointed a finger at her and laughed and laughed. I made her cry. My mother, exiting the fitting room, saw this, comforted the women, then tried to explain to my ignorant little self how wrong my reaction was. As a Milwaukee public health nurse, often visiting those southern emigrants documented by Wilkerson, my mother had been profoundly impressed with their courtesy, kindness, and courage in the face of adversities that dwarfed my mother’s own impoverished upbringing. That day in Schuster’s bubbled up in my mind on the too frequent occasions in my long business career when this idiotic, damnable American caste system threw up obstacles to unleashing the talents of my co-workers. The obstacles were there when I was a new supervisor managing a few people, and they were still there when I was a CEO managing thousands. The experience left me convinced that we are all collectively poorer, deprived as we are of the fullest possible contribution of every citizen, just so a few can extract value from the lowest castes. I surmise that change will require appealing to both the logic and self-interest of the majority by showing just how much collective wealth and well-being we have heretofore abjured. I am writing a book for my children and grandchildren describing the mathematics of how disenthralling ourselves of this American sin will free us and enrich us.

Check Caste out, and many other books, from the Covenant Library!

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