I am Indian-American, so taking a step back this book, which focuses on the system of oppression in India, Nazi Germany, and the US, hits me on two out of its three fronts. It’s really reassuring to start reading a book on the exotic yet wildly known Indian caste system and not feel like you have to cringe and get weirdly defensive of an indefensible system. Wilkerson is measured, insightful, and at times pointedly critical of the Indian system and the network of academia that has grown around it. If part of the goal of this book is to develop the radical empathy she later talks about, then the first parts of the book certainly serve to cut me down to size.
But the main premise, that it’s not fundamental racism but fundamental casteism that festers at the heart of America, is one that I find myself only half able to clearly articulate. My litmus test—being able to recite the points of a book for someone else who is not reading the book and did not ask for me to start recounting its minutiae—made it clear that despite being a fantastic writer, Wilkerson might not be best suited for what is, at the end of the day, a research paper of sorts.
I’ll also caveat that this point isn’t of Wilkerson’s invention, and that she references scholars before her who came to the same conclusions and/or wrote on the same topic.
Back to points for/against.
– I think of examples like France, which one would argue has more racism than casteism as an issue (my contention, not Wilkerson’s). Pillars such as “one drop rule” and “no intermarriage” separate the one from the other, and to the best of my knowledge there’s no intermarriage ban in French history. It’s all that égalité, after all.
– Even though Indian caste is nominally not visible at first glance, Wilkerson realizes that with some time, she can pick out those of dominant/subordinate castes at various academic conferences
– The melting of time of the boundaries of the dominant caste—while just as white as anyone else, it took a while for Italians and Irish immigrants to be allowed to enter into the same group
– It’s hard to argue that every time Wilkerson talks about subordinate class she’s talking about Black Americans. And while sure, the dominant class definition might have grown to include more white immigrants over time, it’s also true that their defining characteristic has always just been skin color based. Rules like “one drop” were meant to deal with the ambiguity or ability for some people to pass
– Which is to say, how can you discount that it’s “just” racism? I don’t think I’m doing a great job of explaining the parts of the book that lost me, but at the end of the day I felt like Wilkerson hadn’t convinced me that racism is just part of the caste issue.
This book is, I will caution those interested, a lot. Wilkerson emphasizes the “Origins” part of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, and even as someone who has a pretty fulsome understanding of the horrors of slavery and the utter bitter injustice of, well, all the years after, I found myself learning new terrible facts. People used to send lynching postcards?! White school district heads would purposefully hire the worst of two candidates for teaching positions in Black schools?!
If anything, I think that the emphasis on the terrible left fewer words to create the strong line from America’s 1619 Sin to the present day. While the overall timeline is there—slavery to Civil War to a Short Stint with Reconstruction to etc—the individual parts are a bit disparate.