A critic shouldn’t often deal in superlatives. He or she is here to explicate, to expand context and to make fine distinctions. But sometimes a reviewer will shout as if into a mountaintop megaphone. I recently came upon William Kennedy’s review of “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” which he called “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.” Kennedy wasn’t far off.
I had these thoughts while reading Isabel Wilkerson’s new book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” It’s an extraordinary document, one that strikes me as an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far. It made the back of my neck prickle from its first pages, and that feeling never went away.
I told more than one person, as I moved through my days this past week, that I was reading one of the most powerful nonfiction books I’d ever encountered.
Wilkerson’s book is about how brutal misperceptions about race have disfigured the American experiment. This is a topic that major historians and novelists have examined from many angles, with care, anger, deep feeling and sometimes simmering wit.
Wilkerson’s book is a work of synthesis. She borrows from all that has come before, and her book stands on many shoulders. “Caste” lands so firmly because the historian, the sociologist and the reporter are not at war with the essayist and the critic inside her. This book has the reverberating and patriotic slap of the best American prose writing.
[ This book is one of our most anticipated titles of August. See the full list. ]
This is a complicated book that does a simple thing. Wilkerson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting while at The New York Times and whose previous book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” won the National Book Critics Circle Award, avoids words like “white” and “race” and “racism” in favor of terms like “dominant caste,” “favored caste,” “upper caste” and “lower caste.”
Some will quibble with her conflation of race and caste. (Social class is a separate matter, which Wilkerson addresses only rarely.) She does not argue that the words are synonyms. She argues that they “can and do coexist in the same culture and serve to reinforce each other. Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin.” The reader does not have to follow her all the way on this point to find her book a fascinating thought experiment. She persuasively pushes the two notions together while addressing the internal wounds that, in America, have failed to clot.
A caste system, she writes, is “an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning.”
“As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance,” Wilkerson writes. She observes that caste “is about respect, authority and assumptions of competence — who is accorded these and who is not.”
Wilkerson’s usages neatly lift the mind out of old ruts. They enable her to make unsettling comparisons between India’s treatment of its untouchables, or Dalits, Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews and America’s treatment of African-Americans. Each country “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.”
Wilkerson does not shy from the brutality that has gone hand in hand with this kind of dehumanization. As if pulling from a deep reservoir, she always has a prime example at hand. It takes resolve and a strong stomach to stare at the particulars, rather than the generalities, of lives under slavery and Jim Crow and recent American experience. To feel the heat of the furnace of individual experience. It’s the kind of resolve Americans will require more of.
“Caste” gets off to an uncertain start. Its first pages summon, in dystopian-novel fashion, the results of the 2016 election alongside anthrax trapped in the permafrost being released into the atmosphere because of global warming. Wilkerson is making a point about old poisons returning to haunt us. But by pulling in global warming (a subject she never returns to in any real fashion) so early in her book, you wonder if “Caste” will be a mere grab bag of nightmare impressions.
Her consideration of the 2016 election, and American politics in general, is sobering. To anyone who imagined that the election of Barack Obama was a sign that America had begun to enter a post-racial era, she reminds us that the majority of whites did not vote for him.
She poses the question so many intellectuals and pundits on the left have posed, with increasing befuddlement: Why do the white working classes in America vote against their economic interests?
She runs further with the notion of white resentment than many commentators have been willing to, and the juices of her argument follow the course of her knife. What these pundits had not considered, Wilkerson writes, “was that the people voting this way were, in fact, voting their interests. Maintaining the caste system as it had always been was in their interest. And some were willing to accept short-term discomfort, forgo health insurance, risk contamination of the water and air, and even die to protect their long-term interest in the hierarchy as they had known it.”
In her novel “Americanah,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie suggested that “maybe it’s time to just scrap the word ‘racist.’ Find something new. Like Racial Disorder Syndrome. And we could have different categories for sufferers of this syndrome: mild, medium and acute.”
Wilkerson has written a closely-argued book that largely avoids the word “racism,” yet stares it down with more humanity and rigor than nearly all but a few books in our literature.
“Caste” deepens our tragic sense of American history. It reads like watching the slow passing of a long and demented cortege. In its suggestion that we need something akin to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, her book points the way toward an alleviation of alienation. It’s a book that seeks to shatter a paralysis of will. It’s a book that changes the weather inside a reader.
While reading “Caste,” I thought often of a pair of sentences from Colson Whitehead’s novel “The Underground Railroad.” “The Declaration [of Independence] is like a map,” he wrote. “You trust that it’s right, but you only know by going out and testing it for yourself.”