A Challenge and a Tone Poem (Reviewing Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste)

“Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin.”

Isabel Wilkerson’s Warmth of Other Suns moved me in ways few books have. Reading Caste, her second book, was a different but no less profound experience. While the former was about the past, albeit a past that is all too resonant, Caste is a challenge to the present and the future. She challenges all of us to find stark parallels between the racial caste of the United States with the grave injustice of India’s historical caste system and the systematized anti-semitism of Nazi Germany. While I originally raised an eyebrow from an amateur social science perspective at some of the parallels she draws and how she choose these two specific examples to pair with the United States, it didn’t take more than a couple chapters for me to go, “I get it.”

This is more than just a work of non-fiction and it’s more than a challenge. Wilkerson’s message is transcendent. Her writing is lyrical and it is penetrating. It has the force of music. It is a tone poem weaving the melody of fact with the harmony of analysis; with the chords of social imperatives and the syncopation of structural racism. The vivid notes of her own life strike the reader as profoundly as the resounding gong clash of the historical references she employs.

One such reference stands out with such profundity that I ended up slowly coming to my feet while reading it. Once I came to, I remember looking around the room with revulsion. With intimate, in-the-room detail she recounts Nazi Germany efforts to study and incorporate legalized Jim Crow racism into mid-30s anti-Semitic laws. Most harrowing were the pieces of American racism too extreme for Nazi Germany. This is a good example of historical record somewhat known and previously published that Wilkerson expertly wends into her overarching narrative with precision.

This is a necessary work at a necessary time. There is appropriate destiny in its release after the onslaught of racially cruel COVID-19 and the resounding call for equality and equity unleashed following the murder of George Floyd. She had already been researching and writing for several years, admittedly against the backdrop of the race-baiting, dog-whistle blowing recent U.S. politics. Her attention to detail and her power of the English language serves not just her but everyone who experiences her writing and thoughts well. This is a book that is far from a rehash of well-known anecdotes and critical race theory. It is fresh. It is grounded. And it is important.

If you are reading this and find your hackles raising in internal defensiveness, I suggest you examine that closely. I greatly appreciate that Wilkerson gives us new vocabulary to confront an old evil. She even deftly discusses the use of the word “racism” itself, noting that it does not serve society as a lobbed end to a conversation or career but rather the basis to start talking and delving deeper to actually effect change. I get all too well how awkward and daunting it is to read, confront, and discuss racism from any demographic perspective — personally as a white cis heterosexual eldest child middle class male. But I sure as hell also know it’s much worse for those who are defined by it against their will. This is on all of us. Reading is the least we can do.

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