NPJ Book Review: Caste, The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

 Caste, The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (2020)

 I wanted to wait a year for my own journey through history and the studies that I recall decades ago before tackling Wilkerson’s work.

My take: Truth is very personal. A Buddhist priest once suggested to me that “if one seeks truth, it might be wise to consider dropping one’s opinions.”  In other words what are the facts?

It would be easy to say this work is brilliant and insightful, which it is for the most part, but in this case her research alters how one thinks about race, social constructs, politics and how we communicate with each other.  Yes, there’s racism as we all belong to a race as it were, though race consciousness is only several centuries old. On the other hand the concept of caste is much older.

Prior to the invention of the word race other terms were used and I think the author develops her thesis in a provocative fashion. Namely that we have and are experiencing in the Unites States and other countries is the complexity of human subjectivity, tolerance and intolerance of others unlike those who perceive themselves as superior to others around them. The darkness of skin color is easily identifiable for some. It’s ultimately about power…who has it and who doesn’t.

Wilkerson provides the eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will and heredity, dehumanization and stigma, endogamy and the control of marriage and mating, purity vs pollution, occupational hierarchy, terror as enforcement, cruelty as a means of control, Inherent superiority vs inherent inferiority. Again, though one might view these divisions as a form of social stratification – it’s ultimately about power and control over those defined as being less than human. It’s the caste perception of equality and inequality.

Whether writing about Blacks in the United States or the Jews in Germany under Nazism or the Untouchables in India, the author research gives one pause to the vast nature of prejudice and intolerance and power below the service that involves cruelty beyond measure.

Is not the caste system alive and well with Asians today in the United States, let alone the human problem in Africa, Oceana and Asia? Power can easily corrupt is terse and apt.

I suppose if the human skin were transparent there would be other ways to affix our attitudes and our prejudices… and position our self for greater power…how much of intolerance and the grab for power is also about the ruthlessness of competition and human greed? What role do religions play in the quest for power? How do we use the concept of God to position us in a superior role? To what degree is the caste system dependent on human fear and insecurity? What is in a human being that desires to control another human being? At what juncture does one human not or no longer respect the dignity of another? It’s deeper than merely saying Man is sinful. How will we define evil tomorrow? And who does the defining?

Wilkerson’s work opens the door for much further discussion. This is a remarkably well researched and thought-provoking work. An exceptional read and reference tool along with her other writings.  Much more is yet to be written.