The Origins of Our Discontents
By Isabel Wilkerson
Random House. 496 pp. $32
In 1946, the Indian social reformer Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, born into Hinduism’s “untouchable” caste, sent a letter across oceans to the African American scholar W.E.B Du Bois. In writing about American racism, Du Bois had asked, “why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?” Ambedkar wrote to express his kinship with a man he saw as a fellow prisoner of a caste system, but one rarely referred to in such “Indian” terms.
In the new book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Isabel Wilkerson traces the echoes of that correspondence to contemporary America. She reframes America’s racial divisions as the very system Ambedkar named in his letter – a rooted, historic and perpetuated caste system.
“It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things,” she writes. To move beyond the emotional debates that have plagued American race relations, “our era requires new language,” Wilkerson tells me.
Wilkerson examines America’s centuries-old racial hierarchy through the lens of two other historic caste systems, that of Indian Hinduism and the defeated ideology of Nazi Germany.
The book, years in the making, opens with a recently updated and urgent introduction that integrates the killing of George Floyd and the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on communities of color as proof of an entrenched American hierarchy. In her exacting focus on words, Wilkerson avoids “racism” and “white supremacy” because, “it is language that carries the freight of the past. Caste, because it hasn’t been applied to the United States, allows us to see ourselves differently. It doesn’t allow you not to see the structure of a thing, and it’s time to look at the structure.”
On the heels of the book’s debut, Oprah Winfrey chose “Caste” as her next book club selection and reportedly sent hundreds of copies to CEOs and civic leaders. In an age of writers as public brands, Wilkerson prefers to remain a private person. Her social media presence is a carefully managed and formal series of quotes and portraits. A former New York Times bureau chief, trained in traditional American norms of journalistic objectivity, she says, “I don’t like to make myself the center of the story.” But with her new book, delivered in poetic and emotional language, she has situated herself firmly at the center of the summer of American reckonings.
When I first read an excerpt of “Caste” in the New York Times Magazine over Independence Day weekend, the United States was inflamed in protests. I was watching from abroad as Confederate statues were dragged through the streets of my hometown of Richmond. Fellow journalists of color were taking to Twitter to describe painful traumas and income disparities in newsrooms.
In the midst of this, Wilkerson’s analysis came as a surprising and arresting wide-angle reframing of the entire scene. It provided a precise diagnosis of an ailment so dire, black squares of solidarity on Instagram couldn’t begin to address it. Wilkerson, who describes herself as feeling like a home inspector delivering an unwelcome prognosis to the owners of a crumbling old house, says America’s impasse wasn’t a problem ignited by a divisive presidency but a structural flaw in the very foundations of the country – a rigid and embedded caste system we refuse to acknowledge.
The idea of caste challenges fundamental notions of America as a meritocratic society in which individual actions and perseverance can shatter old world tentacles of tribe and social entrapment. Wilkerson writes that it was in fact African American scholars of the 1930s and ’40s who intentionally avoided the term “caste” in hopes that an alternate and more equitable future could emerge.
It was a hopeful avoidance. With the arc of the civil rights movement and so many historic firsts, including Wilkerson’s own extraordinary career, is it possible that the notions of a rigid hierarchical system akin to India’s are misplaced? Wilkerson says it is precisely in the divisive and violent aftermath of the first African American presidency that the word needs to become the defining descriptor of American society.
To make such an ambitious argument, Wilkerson’s book uses an interdisciplinary approach that integrates history, journalism, sociology, cultural criticism and even memoir. She travels from Donald Trump’s America to reunified Berlin and the Indian capital of New Delhi. She learns how Nazi Germany’s anti-Jewish regulations were shaped by the Jim Crow laws policing the movement of African Americans. In India she comes to recognize how scholars from India’s lowest caste, now known as “Dalits” (broken people), constantly fight to feel heard as she has in her own life.
The novelist Arundhati Roy, who has written extensively about India’s caste system, once described it to a South African interviewer as a “very rigid society that lives in an iron grid of caste, of ethnicity, of religion, and any transgressions, even today, are met with extreme violence.”
Wilkerson says policing those boundaries is the essence of the system. “Caste is all about maintaining boundaries and keeping someone in their place,” she says. “That is one of the primary indicators that caste is at work.”
Wilkerson has a generous and warm presence, so it’s easy to share with her my own experience of living across societies, including Germany, India and the Middle East. As a dark-skinned American with a Muslim name, I tell her I am rarely identified as an American expatriate abroad and how I’ve often found my own “caste” seems to change across borders. Wilkerson immediately underscores the importance of those distinct experiences as proof that it’s not about one country but about what human beings do when they create hierarchy.
“[You’re] the same person and yet as you move between different spaces,” she says, “based on the way that the hierarchy is ranked or based upon where you as an individual would be inserted into that hierarchy, you are treated differently, but what remains is that there is a hierarchy in each of those places.”
Wilkerson’s message about social orders, however, is neither as rigid nor as hopeless as the systems she wishes to expose. Her epilogue feels like a prayer for a country in pain, offering new directions through prophetic new language.
In such moments, the private Wilkerson emerges from beyond the dispassionate “house inspector” that narrates most of this book, and her lived experience becomes clear.
When I mention over our Zoom chat that I grew up in Richmond, her face lights up as she points to a framed black-and-white photograph behind her on the shelf. “My father is from Virginia and the history runs deep in my family. He was a Tuskegee Airman,” she says proudly.
Wilkerson dedicates the book to the memory of her parents who “survived the caste system,” she writes, and to her late husband Brett Hamilton, who “defied it.” Friendships and loves that transcend those inherited hierarchies are the heroes of her book – from resisters in Nazi Germany to activists in India, and finally to her own American story.
“We can break free,” she says. “I dedicate this book to the people who were closest to me who in their own way broke caste, and I seek to do it myself in the way that I move about in the world.”
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Bilal Qureshi is a culture writer and radio journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times and Newsweek, and on NPR.