Reviewed by Bev Scott
Do we have a class system or a caste system? When I studied sociology in college, I learned that we have a class system, and India has a rigid caste system. And, that the freedom of U.S. democracy gave opportunity for people in the lower class. They could work hard and raise themselves into the middle and maybe even the upper class.
Isabel Wilkerson’s masterful book sheds light on what has hidden in the darkness. We face the horrific reality that we actually have a caste system in America. She shows us how this system, more powerful than class or race, ranks human beings. Distinct from India’s caste system, the U.S. maintains only two castes, white and black. In contrast, India has many levels of its caste system. So in that aspect, our system more resembles the Third Reich in Nazi Germany rather than India. Wilkerson point also to links among all three caste systems. In fact, the Germans studied American race laws as a model for theirs.
Framework and History of Caste in U.S.
Using extensive research and stories about real people, Wilkerson shows us how the hidden phenomenon of caste has shaped American society from our early beginnings through to the present. She introduces eight pillars of caste by which society maintains the rigid hierarchy. Our hierarchy places African Americans at the bottom and white Americans of European heritage in the upper level. She explores how these pillars in detail. They are beliefs in the laws of nature and divine will, control of marriage, dehumanization and stigma, and terror as enforcement with cruelty as a means of control.
Wilkerson describes origins of caste in the United States beginning in the American colonies in 1619, and how it has become solidified through the Civil War, Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Reading this history and her individual examples in present day United States, enables the reader to understand the insidious ways in which the pillars she has introduced maintain caste today.
This is a painful book to read as Wilkerson reveals how superiority, privilege and dominance have intruded into our democratic beliefs. The hidden and insidious system is built into our institutions, systems, and way of life. She also points out that racism isn’t just the beliefs and actions of individuals. Rather, it is woven into every one of our institutions. The eight pillars keep caste in place which in turn reinforces racism.
Wilkerson has written an exceptional book. She deconstructs a topic we need to understand in order to address our “race problem” and solve racial inequity.