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  • Cathy Sweeney

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents – a Book Blog

We have been inundated recently with book lists that encourage us to learn about and practice racial reconciliation. That is certainly justified, given our reluctance to learn lessons from history, and our stubbornness to advocate for equity in the long term.

Even as we read all we can, sometimes all the book subjects seem to mesh, and they often offer similar guidance and insight to the systemic problem of racism. There is no problem with reading the same thing more than once, of course. That is how we learn.

Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste,” however, is not one of those books. It addresses not just skin color, but hierarchy and how status has been lived out in the United States since colonial times. This book looks at the hidden caste system in the United States, and details eight pillars of a caste system that support her argument. Wilkerson goes beyond racism as the sole indicator of hierarchy and compares the hidden caste system in the US with the imbedded, and very open, caste system in India. In a brilliant move to draw our attention, she also applies the pillars to the development of Nazi Germany’s caste system leading up to and during World War II.

Speaking to the hidden nature of the US caste system, Wilkerson writes,

“Just as the joists and beams  that form the infrastructure of a building are not visible to those who live in it, so it is with caste. Its very invisibility is what gives it power and longevity.”

We owe it to ourselves, and to our neighbors, to understand what is hidden, using examples that are evident to us from other cultures.

Many books I read in a week. “Caste” was one that absorbed my attention, and my reflection, for a month. Pay attention to the notes, and the references of further reading. Take your time to understand Wilkerson’s position, and appreciate the vast research she has gathered for us. Then, let us join to address how we can change a system that is so hidden, it took reading a book to point out what is right in front of us.


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