Top positive review
Concise look at an important book
Reviewed in the United States on January 22, 2021
My rating is for this outline, which gives a concise chapter by chapter summary of Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of our Discontent.” This is a factual outline that neither advocates for or against the book. Personally, it persuaded me that Wilkerson has written an important work well worth of my time and I intend to read it next.
The only error I found -- though I cannot say if it crept into the outline or is Wilkerson's -- is that Hitler’s body was “dragged though the street” and buried in an unmarked plot. Hitler committed suicide in his bunker, which was captured by the Russians. The western allies knew of the alleged suicide from German sources, but for many years Russia did not confirm it nor offer information about what became of the body. This gave rise to many tabloid theories that he had escaped and was living in South America. Today we know the Russians disposed of his body and are in possession of a skull fragment verified by DNA to be Hitler’s. This error, if it is Wilkerson’s, is not relevant to her Caste theory, but I mention it as a curious misstatement.
Wilkerson’s book offers many powerful insights into race in America that shine through in this outline and make her book a must read. I am not personally persuaded her caste system is the best way to talk about race; the Nazis were in power only about ten years, while anti-Semitism has infected Europe since Christianity came to power.
McKay’s “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” (1841) gives insight into group behavior that transcends caste.
Erskine Caldwell’s novel “Trouble in July” (1940) offers a slightly different perspective on racism in America. Embittered poor whites in a small farming community are intent on lynching a young black man accused of raping a white girl. If the boy is lynched, the mob will likely go on a rip of lynchings until their personal frustrations and anger are appeased. This will cause blacks to flee the county, which panics wealthy landowners who need them to gather the cotton crop in August. The sheriff, the central character, wants to be reelected to office, but for this he needs the support of the wealthy and the votes of poor whites; whatever action he takes will alienate one faction or the other. Whether the black boy actually raped anyone is irrelevant to all parties in the story.
Another complication in the novel is a white woman who made a good living selling bibles to blacks. A Chicago firm came out with a “black Jesus” bible, in which Jesus is depicted as black, and it has put her out of business. She is embittered and wants the sheriff to sign her petition to deport blacks back to Africa. If the sheriff signs it, he will lose the support of powerful whites who need black labor, but if he does not, poor whites will think him a black-lover and vote against him.
Caste theory seems to me a little bit of an oversimplification if you read McKay and Caldwell, but I may be wrong. (Caldwell, in later years, came to believe intermarriage was the only cure to racism, and said he was always encouraged when he saw a bi-racial couple.)
But theory aside, Isabel Wilkerson’s has much powerful factual information to share with us about racism and the black experience in America. I intend to give her an honest read, and fully expect to learn a great deal from her.
This outline is optional. Isabel Wilkerson is obligatory reading.