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Isabel Wilkerson digs into the history of division in 'Caste'

By Sharyn Vane
Special to the American-Statesman

In “Caste,” Isabel Wilkerson drills down to excavate the roots of our deepest inequities.

The veteran journalist, who won a Pulitzer Prize for 2010’s “The Warmth of Other Suns,” spent years researching and writing “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” (Penguin Random House, $32). She argues that caste – the unspoken, invisible hierarchy that consigns people to different rungs of the societal ladder – drives us to act and think in certain ways.

Isabel Wilkerson

“Caste” is the Austin360 Book Club powered by Texas Book Festival’s December pick. Learn more in Wilkerson’s virtual Texas Book Festival conversation with June book club author Saeed Jones (“How We Fight For Our Lives”). The replay of their talk will be available to watch at texasbookfestival.org throughout the month.

Published in August, “Caste” has won wide acclaim for its depth of scholarship and incisive, inviting storytelling. Oprah Winfrey tapped it for her book club, deeming it her “most important pick ever.” Director Ava DuVernay will adapt a version into a feature film for Netflix. It was longlisted for the National Book Award and named one of the best books of 2020 by The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time magazine.

Wilkerson examines three caste systems: India, Nazi Germany and the United States. “The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality,” she writes. “It is about power – which groups have it and which do not.”

Caste is the “infrastructure of our divisions,” Wilkerson writes of American history. “It is the architecture of human hierarchy, the subconscious code of instructions for maintaining, in our case, a four-hundred-year-old social order. Looking at caste is like holding the country’s X-ray up to the light.”

"Caste" by Isabel Wilkerson

In her appearance at the Texas Book Festival, Wilkerson noted that “Caste” arrives at a time when America is in the midst of an “existential crisis” and is an attempt to understand “the origins of our current rupture.”  She knew that to discuss caste, she had to explore India’s millennia-old system, but she said that her investigation of Nazi Germany was sparked by marchers in Charlottesville, Va., which clearly linked for her the neo-Nazi movement in America and supporters of the Confederacy.

“Those protesters brought those things together,” Wilkerson said.

Remedying caste’s deep structural issues is far from a quick fix, she counseled.

During her research trips to Berlin, she noticed that city’s massive memorial to those who perished in the Holocaust. “What’s distinctive about it … there is no signage. There are no panels of description of why it is there,” she recalled. “The reason they can do that is because … everyone learns the history.”

That’s not the case here.

“We are not on the same page about our country’s history,” she said. “We are not on the same page about basic things that have happened that have gotten to us where we are. We are not even on the same page about what we’re not on the same page about.”

Joining the Austin360 Book Club Powered by the Texas Book Festival is easy and free: Go to the Facebook page and ask to be added.