Caste: The Lies That Divide Us by Isabel Wilkerson – review

In the late 1960s, in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King and the subsequent social unrest, a white school teacher in the farm town of Riceville, Iowa, undertook a now famous experiment on her all-white class of third graders.

She separated the blue-eyed kids from those with brown eyes, telling them that the brown-eyed kids were not as good as the blue-eyed kids; that they were slower, not as smart, would not be allowed to drink from the water fountain and could not play with the blue-eyed ones. She wanted them, like so many African American children, to experience, if only for a moment, prejudice based on an arbitrary physical trait.

By break-time, “brown eyes” had been adopted as a playground insult. Soon after, the brown-eyed children “looked downcast and defeated” and by the end of the day the impact on their academic performance was apparent as brown-eyed children were taking twice as long as normal to finish their phonics exercises.

Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and acclaimed author Isabel Wilkerson recounts this story in Caste: The Lies That Divide Us as a key illustration of the way that, beyond the specific categorisations of race or class, this process of creating artificial hierarchies can work to subjugate people in any culture.

Wilkerson invites us to see this as the deeper psychological process that defines 400 years of racism – what she calls America’s caste system – drawing a comparison with two other such structures –the tragically accelerated, chilling and officially vanquished caste system of Nazi Germany” and “the lingering, millennia-long caste system of India”. In each of these cases, one group sets out to stigmatise and dehumanise another to justify a state of lasting domination.

Laying bare the roots and machinations of that process in a style that combines history, personal testimony and analysis, Wilkerson itemises “eight pillars of caste”, which range from assertions of divine will and natural law to strategies of “terror as enforcement” and “cruelty as a means of control”. If race is the language in which Americans have been trained to see humans, she argues, then caste is its grammar and enduring structure.

Wilkerson was the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer, for her feature reporting of the midwestern floods in 1993, when she worked for the New York Times. Since then, she has taught at Emory, Princeton and Boston universities and lectured at more than 200 colleges around the world. Caste is the follow-up to her acclaimed bestselling debut in 2010, The Warmth of Other Suns.


Isabel Wilkerson: ‘inspiring and hopeful’

Isabel Wilkerson: ‘inspiring and hopeful’. Photograph: Joe Henson

As research for that book, she interviewed more than a thousand African Americans who, between 1915 and 1970, had made “the great migration” in search of jobs and freedom from the entrenched racial hierarchies of the American south, towards the perceived promised land of the country’s northern and western cities.

When she started working on The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson initially thought she was writing about “geography and relocation”. Only later did she realise that she was uncovering the story of “a stigmatised people, 6 million of them, who were seeking freedom … only to discover that the hierarchy followed them wherever they went”. It was these thoughts that led her to explore the history of American racism within the context of other, global systems of exploitation; a “desire to reach out across the oceans to better understand how all of this began”.

The approach she takes is both persuasive and unsettling. In Caste, she demonstrates, for example, how architects of the Third Reich, “in debating how to institutionalise racism [in Germany], began by asking how the Americans did it” and found, in the US, the “classic example” of a “racist jurisdiction”, leaving us to consider how far this legacy persists, whether in modern America today or elsewhere.

In the everyday acts of subtle racism – at the airport, in a restaurant, at an academic conference – Wilkerson finds that this “unseen hierarchy” repeatedly undermines her self-image as a middle-class professional, and even a member of the cultural elite. It suggests that beneath the veneer of meritocratic idealism lie deeper layers of the American psyche where white supremacy still reigns.

But the case Wilkerson puts forward is inspiring and hopeful. Her writing incorporates and reflects the anti-racist traditions embodied by figures such as African American liberationist WEB Du Bois and the trailblazer of India’s Dalit movement, Bhimrao Ambedkar, who wrote: “Caste is [just] a notion; it is a state of mind.” Like him, Wilkerson wants us to recognise that caste can be dismantled, setting everyone free.

Caste: The Lies That Divide Us by Isabel Wilkerson is published by Allen Lane (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15

The Guardian

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