Caste. It’s not a very common word when describing America or its social structures. Usually, one might think of India or feudal Europe. National Humanities Medal and Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson’s latest bestselling book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent,” presents to readers a system rarely spoken of before in the context of American society.
Wilkerson’s book was released in August 2020, amid a pandemic and ongoing protests against police brutality across the country. Wilkerson writes to a general audience, but she also says people who deny this darker side of American history are who she keeps in the back of her mind. She writes with the intent to bring light to the institutional divisions that impact all of us.
On Jan. 28, she spoke to the Stanford community just a week after Martin Luther King Jr.’s 92nd birthday. King was a major inspiration for the book, Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson described how on a trip to India in 1959, King was able to meet the prime minister. On the streets, many people recognized him instantly, as much of India was paying close attention to the civil rights movement in the United States. The people in India were able to recognize that America itself had its own caste system, despite how rarely Americans apply the word “caste” to their own. Race has been the metric of American society, and in Wilkerson’s view, this artificial ranking demonstrates that caste makes distinctions where God makes none.
Wilkerson went on to discuss the riots on Jan. 6 at the country’s capital, where white supremacists looted the desks of lawmakers and attacked police officers. Despite this insurrection, she pointed out that they were able to walk away, saying that this would have never happened had the rioters been Black, Indigenous and people of color. George Floyd was stripped of his humanity and lost his life over an alleged counterfeit $20 bill. He, like many other Black people, including Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, were viewed as disposable and lost their lives because they were members of the subordinate group in America’s caste system.
The white mob that reached the capital, carrying Confederate flags, was able to make it farther than Robert E. Lee himself. In the aftermath of the American Civil War, there was a rush to heal and the country failed to hold people accountable; instead, Confederate figures received monuments dedicated to them. Reconstruction in America was unable to address the real problems with the country and Wilkerson pointed out that slavery tends to be seen as just a sad chapter in history, and thus we distance ourselves from it. However, she reminded us that no American living today will be alive when African Americans will have been free as long as they were enslaved.
Of the many videos circulating online relating to the Jan. 6 riots, one video stands out to Wilkerson. In the aftermath of the destruction, Black janitors hunch over and clean up the debris strewn across the floor, masked and suited in their cleaning uniforms. Nearby stood a white, maskless police officer stood. Had those same Black men been part of a mob that looted the Capitol building, they would have never walked away with their lives. Wilkerson emphasized that the racial reckoning our country is experiencing reveals that Dr. King’s mission did not end with him, and there is still much work to be done by all of us.
“Will [America] follow the path of darkness and division, of hate and hierarchy [that have driven it for centuries] or will it rise to what Dr. King has called the heights of the majestics and live up to its creed, become and defend true democracy with liberty and justice for every single one of us?” Wilkerson asked.
Contact Hana Dao at hanadao ‘at’ stanford.edu.