The author proved in her first book, “The Warmth of Other Suns” that she is a storyteller. At 447 pages you know there is a story. Caste is a series of stories in the authentic voice of a great writer who has something to say. Everyone will not agree with the world as Isabel Wilkerson sees it but that’s why it is important to have many diverse voices.
In Caste, the worlds of the dominant and subservient classes in the US, Germany, and India are compared. The author strips parallel truths (as she sees it) over centuries of suffering and makes the argument that both racism and class fall short of explanations for the black experience in America. The author states “caste trumps class.. . caste is where you belong in the hierarchy… and insures everyone stays in their place.”
Everyone will not appreciate the depth and soul-wrenching reach in Caste — everyone will not have a point of reference. This reader is profoundly grateful for a better understanding of why being Black in America and the middle class does not set you free. The socio-economic data now is clear that the wealth disparity gap between blacks and whites in the US is wider now than during the Civil Rights era. The issues in America are indeed structural and one individual, one organization, or one political election will not remedy the challenges. The author makes the case that the silent majority is complicit with the absence of change and warns that the predictions of the majority becoming the minority in two decades presents a unique opportunity for the country to embrace its potential for leadership in diversity and inclusion.
Caste is a bold, and probably controversial telling of both Germany and India experience which I have no point of reference. I was in Poland last year at the invitation of a friend who took me to a Concentration camp where I vision / felt the suffering and could not stay the day. I was in India in January 2020 before the lockdown and had no understanding of caste and the impact on the people. I make these statements because it is this readers’ perspective if you have not lived or experienced caste as a society — empathy alone cannot get you there — nor will Caste. However, Isabel’s last line, I found the most compelling in her argument for change, “A world without caste will set everyone free.” The issue is how do we get there?
Now that I have shared her story, I will share mine. At halfway through this massive reading undertaking — I sat on a bench in the middle of a Sunday morning and cried. I had a point of reference — it came together for me. My parents are both deceased and I never understood their reality as black middle-class suburban dwellers in our segregated community. My mother was a domestic worker early in her career and I did not understand why she never wanted us to accompany her at work — she knew that we could escape from the lower to the middle class by hard work but she never wanted us to see her in a subservient caste role. My father was one of the first black bus drivers in our city and every day he would carry his briefcase to work with him; someone asked what was in the briefcase – he carried a bible — his work did not define who he was –his belief system did.