Scanning through the reviews of this book on Goodreads and taking only the negative or critical reviews, I found the following two ideas predominated those: Wilkerson’s book is a solid overview of the concept and history of the American caste system, but not as incisive or in-depth as it could be AND the concept of race still being an issue is deeply offensive or laughably absurd.
You can imagine which one of these two paths I am more likely to take. I do have some issues with the book as it’s constructed, but I feel the need to separate a lot of those from what I think the intended audience for this book is, something that would also deal with the criticisms that the book doesn’t go as in-depth as it should. For me, the audience for this book are well-intentioned readers who are looking for an overview of how race is specifically stratified in the United State, how it got that way, and why they should care. The why they should care is obviously fluid based on who is reading the book. If I am a white person (and I am!), I am always curious about the reasons given for why white people should care that they benefit from a historically unequal system, that the various changes in the culture and the law have often been replaced by different, but similar new versions, and how it still impacts me and my life. And so for Isabel Wilkerson, the answer comes in the form of a metaphor. She begins the book with the metaphor of an old house, recently purchased. The house is beautiful on the outside, but susquent inspections show cracks in the foundation, faulty wiring, and other significant flaws. So you can ignore those, privileging the mostly still intact or update exterior, but unfixed, those flaws do affect the life and health of the house. As a metaphor, I think it’s solid. It’s similar to the ways in which James Baldwin also talked about why white Americans should care about racial justice, because injustice is a corrosive and painful force not just on those who receive it, but on those who inflict it. And of course, you can take the central theme of corrosion from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, about how cruelty and injustice destroys those in power alongside those not in power. It’s a difficult argument overall to make, because in looking at just the American racial social structure of the last 400 years, you find some common themes crop up. For one, white people constructed this system to benefit them economically. To what degree racism influences the economic system of America or that the economic system of America influences America is probably not a directly answerable question. Culture and economics are deeply knotty forces and entanglement of them together is very difficult to accurately pick apart. So the existence of the system as it is, speaks to one of the reasons it’s so hard to still eradicate from the American system. Second, the history of racial violence, racial terrorism, and racial anger that white Americans have participated in repeatedly over the course of 400 years, often at the slightest hint of status loss (or just to uphold a system) is staggering. This book cannot catalog them all, and goes to a lowlight reel of them to make the argument. Three, the legal entanglement of white supremacism into US code didn’t magically stop in 1964 and any implying that it did is magical thinking. Even if it had, the absence of a new constitution that re-asserts racial justice into legal framework of the country means that the damage has never been addressed in any meaningful way. There exists several examples of countries that have address racially divided pasts through new constitutions built of equality. Four, the storytelling, myth-making, and outright lying that happens in discussions of white supremacy show how strong cultural forces are. Currently temper tantrums by conservatives in this country (and liberals if you press them too much) speak this.
One of the most important points that Wilkerson also makes in her book is thinking about caste as the architecture, and the specific articulations of race as the more fluid elements. One changes, while the other remains mostly the same. This further speaks to the idea that if you won’t change the structures, changing the content merely reinscribes the inequalities in new ways.
The book probably could go further than it does, but I think it reaches the audience in meaningful ways based on who it is trying to reach. There’s some frustrating books out there right now that pin everything on individual interactions of race, that make it difficult to deal with the large issues, and the groundedness of this book on historical arguments makes this one much more effective as a primer.