Customer Review

Reviewed in the United States on August 7, 2020
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, makes the case that America is a caste system analogous to that of India's but organized on the basis of race. She strongly implies that the 2016 Presidential Election was somehow evidence for this claim and then outlines what she posits are the features of the American caste system (8 pillars of caste):

Wilkerson's 8 Pillars of Caste:
1) Divine Will and The Laws of Nature
2) Heritability
3) Endogamy and the control of marriage and mating
4) Purity vs pollution
5) Occupational hierarchy
6) Dehumanization and Stigma
7) Terror as enforcement, cruelty as a means of control
8) Inherent superiority vs inherent inferiority

Wilkerson's thesis is ostensibly ridiculous as a description of contemporary America, which is actually organized as a hierarchy of competence where competence is roughly determined by free market forces (any serious discussion of political economy is strikingly absent from Caste), a meritocracy in other words. Wilkerson's claims are also reckless, especially given the media attention given to her work (i.e. Oprah's recommendation). This is not a work that is seeking to achieve the racial reconciliation and harmony of a post-racial America where all races and creeds can cash the promissory note of the American founding and the American dream. It wallows in the racial sins and misery of America's past (slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow) and labels those evils as America's essence rather than the chronic disease that America has always aspired to eliminate.

I would be more inclined to take her arguments seriously if she didn't assiduously avoid all the aspects of American life that plainly contradict her or at least mitigate against such a stark perspective. For instance, Wilkerson completely ignores Asian American minorities in her books. She fails to address why in a caste system organized by race with "whiteness" as the dominant identity that Asian Americans are the most educated, wealthiest ethnic group. Of course black/African Americans historically suffered much deeper, more severe iniquities than Asian Americans, but her thesis is predicated on the claim that society is systemically organized to ensure dominant status for white Americans. It's just sloppy to have such a glaring omission, a white elephant of sorts that lurks behind every lines. Moreover, Wilkerson's seeming aversion to sociological and economic data is evidence as she opts for the telling of emotive anecdotes of racial iniquities. Wilkerson is a moving writer; however, the lack of rigor, specificity, data, and analysis belie her true intentions, which are those of an activist rather than a scholar (activists don't have time for pesky facts or to dissect a delicate, hot-button topic in a balanced, dispassionate fashion).

There were some aspects of Wilkerson's discussions of race that I thought were accurate. For instance, she does point out that there is no biological (i.e. genetic) definition of race, making it decidedly a social invention. I think this is an important insight, but Wilkerson does not follow this understanding through to its conclusion. Given the harm caused by the arbitrary use of skin color as a historical system of oppression and disenfranchisement, we should aim for a future where skin color is no longer a meaningful measure (a color-blind egalitarian society where one's merit determines their place in the social hierarchy). Despite Wilkerson's vagueness on how this supposed American racial caste system can be remedied, it is clear that this is not the vision she has for America's future or even believes that such a future is possible.

I could belabor my critique endlessly, but I think a recommendation to readers interested in this topic would be better. Political Tribes by Amy Chua, although not as directly engaged on the issue of race, is still far superior in its discussion of similar issues, a balanced, reasonable analysis of the tribalism in contemporary American society.
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