Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky, you’ll come across a book that will change your perspective on everything: everything you’ve seen, everything you’ve heard, everything that’s happened before, everything that’s happening now, everything that’ll happen in the future. Once in a lifetime, you’ll come across a book that doesn’t tell you about something you haven’t already seen, or experienced, or at the very least suspected, but puts into a context that’s like a massive strobe light firing off inside your head.

Once in a lifetime, you’ll finish a book that compels you to sit in a dark room for a few hours with a bottle of something strong and NWA playing on a loop, just to make sure you have fully understood what you’ve just read.

For me, Caste is that book.

Being black, I’ve experienced a fair share of overt racism over the years: more than some, certainly a lot less than others, probably an average amount now I think on it; so when a book or article comes along that explores racism, then I’ll take a look (know your enemy and all that). The thing is, Wilkerson isn’t actually talking about racism, she’s talking about caste: a system deliberately created to elevate one group of people while keeping a knee on the neck of another, usually by ascribing an imaginary inferiority of the subordinate group through nothing more than a trait they were born with and cannot change (the colour of their skin, their parentage, their sexual orientation). On the surface, this looks a lot like like common-or-garden racism (or homophobia), so Wilkerson dives straight in and explains the difference:

Racism is an explicit expression of hatred. Racism is someone shouting nigger at a black person from a speeding car (very popular pastime after the Brexit referendum), or telling a group of black people they’re about to be sent home (like the fella who got his lights punched out on the underground the other day). Racism is right there, in your face.

The caste system Wilkerson is talking about is much more implicit, much much more endemic, because it’s been in operation since the days of slavery. The caste system boxes people according to an unchangeable trait then educates everyone in the system to know their place and work (often against their own best interests) to maintain the system, keeping the subordinate castes from climbing higher, leaving them to fight for scraps of attainment amongst themselves. The caste system is the foundation of racism, and it’s so insidious that the people within it cannot see it. It’s the caste system that guides employers to take a white person over a black one, even if the black person is better qualified and more experienced. The caste system causes people to smile at you, then subtly move their bags to a safer place when you sit opposite them on a train. It’s the caste system that tells normally pleasant white folk that it’s okay to follow black people and call the police on them when they just happen to be strolling through their neighbourhood. It’s the caste system that tells people that it’s okay to tell black writers that they should focus on writing about ‘the struggles of their people’ rather than romantic historical fiction.

Wilkerson compares the American caste system with others, finding disturbing similarities with the Indian system which discriminates using your family of birth to decide whether you’re going to be a leader, or a whether you, your children and your children’s children will spend their lives in servitude. She even notes that the Nazis persecuted Jews by borrowing heavily from the less severe elements of American law used to keep Blacks under the heel. Controversial stuff indeed, so she backs it up with facts and references dotted regularly throughout the text. In fact, there are so many elements of this book that beggar belief that I think it’s best read as an eBook; that way you can check the references quickly just to satisfy yourself that some of this crap actually happened, and is still happening. She uses real-life stories dating back to the days of slavery, as well as her own personal experiences, to explain how the US arrived at a position where it felt desperate enough to elect someone like Donald Trump to be their president.

It’s difficult not to compare this book with another of my recent reads, How to Argue with a Racist, in which Adam Rutherford uses a dense array of facts, figures and genetics to demonstrate how racists’ arguments generally fall flat. I found Caste much easier to get along with as it felt a more grounded and relatable. And though I found Rutherford’s book fascinating, I wasn’t sure you can argue with a racist by presenting them with the facts. To begin with, most racists don’t believe they are racists, and even if they do accept that, they’re rarely concerned with the truth.

Anyway, Caste has opened my eyes by explaining things that I suspected were happening, but wasn’t sure why. It explained why the Black Lives Matter movement is happening now, and it explains something that has bothered me since George Floyd was killed by a white police officer during an arrest.

The officer who killed him. What is that look on his face: it’s not hatred, it’s not racism. He doesn’t look panicked, in fear of his life or even that concerned.

To me, this is an expression of the caste system Wilkerson is talking about.

I mean, he looks pretty comfortable there, kneeling on another human being’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while the man’s crying for his mother and his children. Why? Because years after a black man had the audacity to rise above his station and run the the country, things are finally getting back to normal.

The look on the officer’s face says, This is how it should be …

I’m not going to score this book as I don’t think there’s any need. I think it’s the most important piece of non-fiction I’ve read in ten years. It’s brilliantly written, emotional, well-researched and … I think I’ll nip off for a while to read it again.

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