Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

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Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
Cover image
Cover image, based on a photo by Bruce Davidson at Magnum Photos[1]
AuthorIsabel Wilkerson
Audio read byRobin Miles
Cover artistGreg Mollica (based on photo by Bruce Davidson)
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
PublisherRandom House (US)
Allen Lane (UK)
Publication date
4 August 2020
Media type
  • Print
  • digital
  • audiobook
Pages496
Awards
ISBN978-0-593-23025-1
OCLC1147928120
305.5122
LC ClassHT725.U6
All identifiers refer to the hardcover edition unless otherwise noted

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is a nonfiction book by the American journalist Isabel Wilkerson, published in August 2020 by Random House. The book describes racism in the United States as an aspect of a caste system – a society-wide system of social stratification characterized by notions such as hierarchy, inclusion and exclusion, and purity. Wilkerson does so by comparing aspects of the experience of American people of color to the caste systems of India and Nazi Germany, and she explores the impact of caste on societies shaped by them, and their people.

Caste, which followed Wilkerson's 2010 book The Warmth of Other Suns, was met with critical acclaim and commercial success. It won or was nominated for several awards, and was featured prominently on nonfiction bestsellers lists and year-end best-books lists.

Contents[edit]

Pillars of caste[edit]

In Caste, Wilkerson identifies eight "pillars of caste", or features of caste systems in various societies:[4]

  • Divine will: the belief that social stratification is beyond human control, either divinely ordained or a natural law, as in the biblical story of the curse of Ham that was used to justify Black inferiority in the U.S.
  • Heritability: the belief that social status is acquired at birth and immutable, as codified e.g. in the U.S. "one-drop rule" that determined Black ancestry
  • Endogamy: the prohibition of sex and marriage between castes, as in the former U.S. anti-miscegenation laws
  • Purity and pollution: the belief that the dominant caste is "pure" and must be protected against pollution by the inferior castes, as shown in the segregation of facilities for bathing, eating, education, etc. in the U.S. Jim Crow era
  • Occupational hierarchy: the reservation of the more desirable occupations for the superior castes, as enshrined in U.S. Jim Crow laws that restricted Black people to farm or domestic work
  • Dehumanization and stigma: the denial of individuality and human dignity of lower-caste individuals, as through the various arbitrary punishments and restrictions to which enslaved and free Black people were subject to in the U.S., down to racist carnival games.
  • Terror and cruelty: as means of enforcement of the caste system and control of lower-caste people, as through the whippings of slaves or the lynchings of Black people in the U.S.
  • Inherent superiority and inferiority: of castes: the belief that people of one caste are inherently superior to those of other castes, expressed e.g. in restrictions on clothing or displays of status by lower-caste people (such as driving a car).

Wilkerson illustrates these pillars through examples from three caste systems: those of India, Nazi Germany and the United States.

Aspects and consequences of caste[edit]

She goes on to describe the "tentacles of caste": the various ways in which a caste system society permeates the workings of a society infected by it. These include the anxious efforts of upper-caste people to retain their superior social status even while their economic status crumbles (hence the "necessity of a bottom rung", or the perceived need to prevent lower-caste success), unconscious biases embedded in a society's culture that perpetuate the caste system, or the function of lower-caste people as scapegoats.[5] In her view, the caste framework also helps explain the participation of lower-caste people (Jewish kapos, Black police officers) in the oppression of their fellow caste members: caste systems self-perpetuate by rewarding those lower-caste people who comply with the system, thereby keeping the lower castes divided.[6]

Wilkerson continues by describing the "consequences of caste", which degrade people of all castes. Among them are the "narcissism of caste", which makes culture revolve around and idealize the dominant caste, or the Stockholm syndrome that serves as a survival mechanism for lower-caste people but helps keep them captive, or the physiological stress experienced by lower-caste people that reduces their life expectancy.[7] She addresses the mechanisms of backlash against attempts to transcend the caste system, as exemplified by the first lower-caste U.S. president being succeeded by one intent on reinforcing the system, and the importance of the "symbols of caste", such as swastikas or Confederate flags, to the perpetuation of the system.[8] She concludes that societies in the grip of a caste system pay a harsh price for it: the distrust between castes translates into brutal criminal justice systems, and minimal or dysfunctional public health or social welfare systems – and as a result, a reduction in welfare for all but the most affluent, compared to other societies. In Wilkerson's view, the comparatively poor performance of the U.S. in the containment of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the high rate at which it impacts lower-caste Americans, are one example of such effects.[9]

Finally, Wilkerson asks whether a "world without caste [that] would set everyone free" can exist. She concludes that it is possible – as in the dismantlement of Nazism after World War II – but that it requires both the bravery of individuals and an enormous effort of collective will especially by the dominant caste, given how deeply caste systems, like a chronic disease, are embedded in and shape societies.[10]

Race and caste[edit]

Wilkerson argues that the social constructs of race and caste are not synonyms, but that they "can and do coexist in the same culture and serve to reinforce each other. Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin."[11]

Film adaptation[edit]

In October 2020, Netflix announced that it would produce a film adaptation of the book to be titled Caste and directed by Ava DuVernay.[12]

Reception[edit]

According to the review aggregator Book Marks and its parent organization, Literary Hub, the book has received critical acclaim.[13][14] Having analyzed 35 reviews of the book using their four-tier rating system, categorizing 21 as "rave", 4 as "positive", 9 as "mixed", and 1 as "pan", Literary Hub named it number one of "The Best Reviewed Nonfiction of 2020".[14] The only negative ("pan") review recorded by the site came from Tunku Varadarajan[15] writing for The Wall Street Journal.[16] The book received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly,[17] The Library Journal,[18] Kirkus,[19] and Booklist,[20] and was also reviewed by Kwame Anthony Appiah,[21] Dwight Garner,[11] Gillian Tett,[22] Fatima Bhutto,[23] Kenneth W. Mack,[24] Sunil Khilnani,[25] Gaiutra Bahadur,[26] Emily Bernard,[27] Lauren Michele Jackson,[28] Carlo Wolff,[29] Colin Grant,[30] Mihir Bose,[31] Matthew Syed,[32] and Yashica Dutt,[33] among others.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, for the cover story of The New York Times Book Review in August 2020, wrote that the book is "elegant and persuasive" and that it "is at once beautifully written and painful to read."[21] Dwight Garner, in The New York Times, described Caste as "an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far."[11] Publishers Weekly called Caste a "powerful and extraordinarily timely social history" in its starred review of the book.[17] The Chicago Tribune wrote that Caste was "among the year's best" books, while The Washington Post called the epilogue "a prayer for a country in pain, offering new directions through prophetic language".[34][35]

Tunku Varadarajan gave the book a mixed review, writing that Wilkerson "never offers a convincing argument for why American history and society are better examined through the lens of caste than of race" and "scarcely acknowledges that modern America has made vast strides to address racism."[15] Time magazine called the book a "transformative new framework through which to understand identity and injustice in America."[36] The New York Journal of Books commended Wilkerson's body of work, writing, "Caste draws heavily on the powerful mingling of narrative, research, and visionary, sweeping insight that made Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns the definitive contemporary study of African Americans' twentieth-century Great Migration from the Jim Crow South to northern, midwestern, and western cities. It deepens the resonance of that book (a seemingly impossible feat) by digging more explicitly into the pervasive racial hierarchy that transcends region and time."[37]

Oprah Winfrey, after choosing the book for her 2020 Summer/Fall book club selection, said: "Of all the books I've chosen for book club over the decades, there isn't another that is more essential a read than this one."[38] The book was also listed as one of Barack Obama's favorite books of 2020.[39]

Awards and honors[edit]

Caste's honors include the 2020 Goodreads Choice Award for History & Biography[2] and the AudioFile Earphones Award for the audiobook edition in 2020.[3] The book was a finalist for the 2020 Kirkus Prize[40] and was longlisted for the 2020 National Book Award for Nonfiction,[41] the 2021 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award,[42] and the 2021 PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction.[42] In December 2020, Literary Hub analyzed 41 year-end best-books lists and reported that the book was among the most recommended of the year, making fifteen of the analyzed lists.[43] The lists include Time, who placed Caste at the top of its list of the 10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2020, calling it an "electrifying work that reframes injustice and inequity in the U.S."[44]

Year Award Category Result Ref(s)
2020 Goodreads Choice Award History & Biography Won [2]
AudioFile Earphones Awards Won [3]
National Book Award Nonfiction Nominated (longlist) [41]
Kirkus Prize Nonfiction Nominated (finalist) [40]
Los Angeles Times Book Prize Current Interest Won [45]
2021 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award N/A Nominated (longlist) [42]
PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award Nonfiction Nominated (longlist) [42]

Release details[edit]

The book became a number one New York Times nonfiction best-seller in early November 2020[46] and, as of the January 10, 2021 issue, has spent 21 weeks on the combined nonfiction best sellers list.[47] It is also a USA Today Best Seller, having debuted on August 13, 2020, the book peaked at number three and has spent 21 weeks on the list as of January 5, 2021.[48] According to Publishers Weekly, the book had sold over half a million copies by the close of 2020.[49]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "The 13 Best Book Covers of August". Literary Hub. 2020-08-28. Retrieved 2021-01-04.
  2. ^ a b c Williams, Sydney (8 December 2020). "Goodreads Choice Awards 2020: Best 20 books this year". NBC News. Retrieved 2021-01-04.
  3. ^ a b c "Caste by Isabel Wilkerson Read by Robin Miles | Audiobook Review". AudioFile. August 2020. ISSN 1063-0244. Retrieved 2021-01-04.
  4. ^ Caste, pp. 99–164
  5. ^ Caste, pp. 171 et seq.
  6. ^ Caste, pp. 238 et seq.
  7. ^ Caste, pp. 263 et seq.
  8. ^ Caste, pp. 311 et seq.
  9. ^ Caste, pp. 353 et seq.
  10. ^ Caste, pp. 361 et seq.
  11. ^ a b c Garner, Dwight (July 31, 2020). "Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Is an 'Instant American Classic' About Our Abiding Sin". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331.
  12. ^ Jackson, Angelique (14 October 2020). "Ava DuVernay to Write, Direct and Produce 'Caste' Film Adaptation at Netflix". Variety. ISSN 0042-2738. Retrieved 2020-10-14.
  13. ^ "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents". Book Marks. Retrieved 2021-01-04.
  14. ^ a b "The Best Reviewed Nonfiction of 2020". Literary Hub. 2020-12-16. Retrieved 2021-01-05.
  15. ^ a b Varadarajan, Tunku (August 28, 2020). "'Caste' Review: The High Cost of Feeling Superior". The Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660.
  16. ^ "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents". Book Marks. Retrieved 2021-01-04.
  17. ^ a b "Nonfiction book review: Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents". Publishers Weekly. ISSN 0000-0019.
  18. ^ Sendaula, Stephanie (August 2020). "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents". Library Journal. ISSN 0363-0277. Retrieved 2021-01-04.
  19. ^ "Caste". Kirkus Reviews. 15 June 2020. ISSN 1948-7428.
  20. ^ Bush, Vanessa (July 2020). "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by By Isabel Wilkerson". Booklist. ISSN 0006-7385.
  21. ^ a b Appiah, Kwame Anthony (2020-08-04). "What Do America's Racial Problems Have in Common With India and Nazi Germany?". The New York Times Book Review. ISSN 0028-7806. Retrieved 2021-01-04.
  22. ^ Tett, Gillian (30 July 2020). "Why we need to talk about caste in America". Financial Times. ISSN 0307-1766. Retrieved 2021-01-04.
  23. ^ Bhutto, Fatima (2020-07-30). "Caste by Isabel Wilkerson review – a dark study of violence and power". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2021-01-04.
  24. ^ Mack, Kenneth W. (31 July 2020). "Running deeper than race: America's caste system". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 4 January 2021.
  25. ^ Khilnani, Sunil (7 August 2020). "Isabel Wilkerson's World-Historical Theory of Race and Caste". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 2021-01-04.
  26. ^ Bahadur, Gaiutra (2020-11-25). "Is America Trapped in a Caste System?". The New Republic. ISSN 0028-6583. Retrieved 2021-01-04.
  27. ^ Bernard, Emily (2020-08-04). ""Caste" Is a Trailblazing, Must-Read Book on the Birth of Inequality". O, The Oprah Magazine. ISSN 1531-3247. Retrieved 2021-01-04.
  28. ^ Jackson, Lauren Michele (2020-08-03). "Caste Offers a New Word for Injustice in America, Not a New Way of Thinking". Vulture. Retrieved 2021-01-04.
  29. ^ Wolff, Carlo (5 November 2020). "Journalist's dissection of caste systems shines light on racial dynamics in the U.S." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. ISSN 1068-624X. Retrieved 2021-01-04.
  30. ^ Grant, Colin (30 October 2020). "Caste: The lies that divide us by Isabel Wilkerson book review". Times Literary Supplement. ISSN 0307-661X. Retrieved 2021-01-04.
  31. ^ Bose, Mihir (17 October 2020). "Caste: The Lies that Divide Us by Isabel Wilkerson: heartrending but too simplistic". The Irish Times. ISSN 0791-5144. Retrieved 2021-01-04.
  32. ^ Syed, Matthew (9 August 2020). "Caste by Isabel Wilkerson review — a country divided by race". The Sunday Times. ISSN 0140-0460. Retrieved 2021-01-04.
  33. ^ Dutt, Yashica (17 September 2020). "Feeling Like an Outcast". Foreign Policy. ISSN 0015-7228. Retrieved 2021-01-04.
  34. ^ Borrelli, Christopher (August 3, 2020). "Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' is about the strict lines that keep us apart — lines that are more than race or class". Chicago Tribune. ISSN 1085-6706.
  35. ^ Qureshi, Bilal. "Isabel Wilkerson knows that effective discussions about race require new language. That's where 'Caste' comes in". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2020-11-17.
  36. ^ Worland, Justin (23 July 2020). "''Racism' Did Not Seem Sufficient.' Author Isabel Wilkerson on the American Caste System". Time. ISSN 0040-781X. Retrieved 2020-11-18.
  37. ^ Nathans-Kelly, Steve (August 2020). "a book review by Steve Nathans-Kelly: Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents". New York Journal of Books. Retrieved 2020-11-18.
  38. ^ Haber, Leigh (2020-08-05). "Oprah Is Sending 500 Copies of Her New Book Club Pick to CEOs and Leaders". O, The Oprah Magazine. ISSN 1531-3247. Retrieved 2021-01-05.
  39. ^ Simret, Aklilu (18 December 2020). "Barack Obama lists his favorite books of 2020". CNN. Retrieved 2021-01-05.
  40. ^ a b "Raven Leilani's debut novel 'Luster' wins $50,000 Kirkus prize". USA Today. 6 November 2020. ISSN 0734-7456. Retrieved 2021-01-04.
  41. ^ a b "National Book Awards 2020". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2020-11-18.
  42. ^ a b c d "Announcing the 2021 PEN America Literary Awards Longlists". PEN America. 2020-12-22. Retrieved 2021-01-05.
  43. ^ Temple, Emily (2020-12-15). "The Ultimate Best Books of 2020 List". Literary Hub. Retrieved 2021-01-04.
  44. ^ "The 10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2020". Time. ISSN 0040-781X. Retrieved 2020-11-23.
  45. ^ Pineda, Dorany (2021-04-17). "Winners of the 2020 L.A. Times Book Prizes announced". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2021-04-17.
  46. ^ "Combined Print & E-Book Nonfiction - Best Sellers". The New York Times Book Review. November 1, 2020. ISSN 0028-7806. Retrieved 5 January 2021.
  47. ^ "Hardcover Nonfiction Books - Best Sellers - Books - The New York Times". The New York Times Book Review. 10 January 2021. ISSN 0028-7806. Retrieved 2021-01-05.
  48. ^ "Caste". USA Today. Retrieved 2021-01-05.
  49. ^ "Hardcover Frontlist Nonfiction". Publishers Weekly. 4 January 2021. ISSN 0000-0019. Retrieved 2021-01-05.

External links[edit]