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Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Updated: Jul 7, 2021

by Isabel Wilkerson

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism

Our book club for Faith Formation is reading Caste as a way to transform us from an informational focus to a formational or transformational understanding of social justice in a rather complex society. This book is written by the same writer for the Warmth of Other Sons. She states in the front cover of the book:” Beyond race, class, or other factors, a powerful caste system influences people’s lives and behavior and the nation’s fate. Linking the caste system of America, India, and Nazi Germany, The author explores eight pillars that underlie cast systems across civilizations, riveting stories about people including Martin Luther King, Jr. baseball’s Satchel Paige, a single father and his toddler son and Wilkerson herself. She shows the ways that the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day. Se documents how the Nazis studied the racial systems in America to plan their outcasting of the Jews; she discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she write about the surprising health costs of caste, in depression and life expectancy and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics. Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separation of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity.”

“Throughout human history, three caste systems have stood out. The tragically accelerated, chilling, and officially vanquished caste system of Nazi Germany. The lingering, millennia-long caste system of India. And the shape-shifting, in spoken, race-based caste pyramid in the United States. Each version relied on stigmatizing those deemed inferior to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep the lowest ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement. A caste system endures because it is often justified as divine will, originating from sacred text or the presumed laws of nature, reinforced throughout the culture and passed down through the generations.” Caste and race are neither the same or mutually exclusive. They can and do exist in the same culture quite well and reinforce each other. Caste is the bones and race is the skin. Race is what we can see, the physical traits that have been given arbitrary meaning and become shorthand for who a person is. Caste holds each group in its place. “Thus we are all born into a silent war-game, centuries old, enlisted in teams not of our own choosing.”

Wilkerson presents us with example after example of how the caste system invades our lives and lives well. The species has suffered enormously with incomprehensible loss over the false divisions of caste: the 11 million people killed by the Nazis; the three quarters of a million Americans killed in the Civil War over the rights to enslave human beings; the slow, living death and unfulfilled gifts of millions more on the plantations in India and in the American South. This is a book that should be read by all. It is a bit dark but does present, in the best way possible, the complexities of the caste system.

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