Caste

Isabel Wilkerson

Last year was not my best year for reading or keeping up with a booklog. I hope to go back and conjure up some thoughts on at least some of what I missed writing about (books are posted based on the date finished — not posted — so they will show up under 2020), but for now I’m just trying to summon the discipline to get back into this practice for 2021.

I read this book with the Get Woke! Catskills reading group and having the opportunity for discussion was incredibly helpful, especially to process the more harrowing parts. Isabel Wilkerson argues that racism in the US is rooted in a caste system akin to those in India and Nazi Germany. It’s impressive how many facts and data points Wilkerson presents in this book while maintaining a narrative tone; her prose is so inviting and warm that it’s an easy book to read, even when many stories are awful.

In particular, many of us in the group were appalled to read how the Nazis looked to the US for inspiration when developing their policies. “Hitler especially marveled at the American ‘knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death.’” But some Nazis thought that US laws went too far.

While the Nazis praised “the American commitment to legislating racial purity,” they could not abide “the unforgiving hardness” under which “ ‘an American man or woman who has even a drop of Negro blood in their veins’ counted as blacks,” Whitman wrote. “The one-drop rule was too harsh for the Nazis.”

Among the more lyrical metaphors Wilkerson relates is this one responding to the question of why white people today are responsible for fixing the US caste system:

We in the developed world are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside, but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even. Many people may rightly say, “I had nothing to do with how this all started. I have nothing to do with the sins of the past. My ancestors never attacked indigenous people, never owned slaves.” And, yes. Not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we are, the current owners of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now.
        And any further deterioration is, in fact, on our hands.

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