Isabel Wilkerson, author of bestselling book The Warmth of Other Suns is now promoting her new book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents and visited the University of Wisconsin-Madison for the annual MLK Symposium to discuss her work.
In a dialogue moderated by The Black Voice’s Chelsea Hylton, Wilkerson discussed the influence of caste in shaping constructs of social interaction in the United States and details its bound relationship with elements of political, racial and social upheaval that have shaped United States history.
Wilkerson describes caste as “an artificial human value assignment which determines one’s value in society.” As a byproduct of presumptions of superiority in countries across the globe, this “caste system,” which society still reckons with today, was entirely shaped by individuals who sought to establish divides that granted them more power and freedom than those residing on the lowest level.
Her book emphasizes that a caste can be either awarded to a person or used as a means to deny access to individuals who desire intelligence, mobility and value within a community or state. Addressing the many ways in which the Black community has dealt with this issue throughout history, Wilkerson describes the experience of being within a lower caste as living in a society where “no one was willing to admit that they lived in an economy whose bottom gear was torture.”
The book, which compares caste systems in the United States, India and Nazi Germany, highlights the critical influence caste has played over several centuries in shaping the world as we know it. People within these systems grow so accustomed to the tortues and inequalities perpetuated in their state that they are often unconscious of the ways in which they actively participate in furthering more discrimination and trauma.
Confronted by the consequences of the global pandemic, a highly polarized electorate and inadequate understandings of the function of privilege and power in society, the U.S. deals with these issues first hand every day and has served as a historic example of how to maintain and establish these oppressive systems.
Wilkerson cites South African apartheid and the establishment of the Nuremberg Laws in Germany are critical examples of the United States’ influence on this system. With these countries developing and generating ideas for separation from a country that enslaved people for having “one-drop of Black blood,” the United States quickly became the blueprint for unreasonable but unwaveringly established hatred and hierarchy.
As racial discrimination, economic inequity and police brutality continue to plague the United States, Wilkerson detailed that our greatest weaknesses arise in our inability to acknowledge and accept our history. This is a country where no adult alive today will live to see a world in which African Americans will have been free from slavery for as long as they had been slaves.
Caste, a system which to Wilkerson has been so foundational and embedded in the structure of our country, takes knowledge and acceptance to overcome. As we continue forward into Black History Month, books like Wilkerson’s are seen as necessary and guided actions to alleviate and overcome these circumstances.
“Just two weeks ago, in 2021, we saw a Confederate flag delivered up to the state capitol farther than Robert E. Lee could have brought himself, because we do not know history,” Wilkerson said. “This came as a consequence of unaddressed voices of Black and brown people sounding the alarm.”
As the work continues to combat the steady hand of division, lessons like those that we can learn from Wilkerson will serve as a guide and means to acknowledge our part in shaping necessary change.
“A world without caste would set everyone free,” Wilkerson said.