The Man in the Crowd
The book opens with the description of a photograph taken in Hamburg, Germany, in 1936, of shipyard workers saluting the Führer, with one person refusing. It poses the question of what it takes to be that one person who recognizes and takes a stand for what is right.
Part One: Toxins in the Permafrost and Heat Rising All Around
Chapter One: The Afterlife of Pathogens
This chapter discusses the 2016 election in the U.S., the ensuing presidency and the resulting turmoil in America. It concludes by saying that while it seems like a major shift has happened suddenly in the United States, it’s necessary to look deeper to understand “origins of our discontents”.
Wilkerson begins by discussing an outbreak of anthrax in Siberia in summer 2016. Before then, the toxin had been frozen in the land’s permafrost since 1941 when it had killed herds of reindeer. In 2016, a thawed reindeer carcass rises, resulting in the toxin reawakening and spreading. Wilkerson likens the reawakening and spread of the pathogen anthrax to the reawakening and spread of the “human pathogens of hatred and tribalism”.
Meanwhile in America, the election between Trump (though Wilkerson never refers to him by name) and Hillary Clinton approaches. Trump represents the conservative party, which leans white, while Clinton represents the liberal party, which consists of more marginalized voters. The election becomes more than a “political rivalry”, but “an existential fight for primacy” in a country of shifting demographics. It’s fight that has been brewing, spurred on by the election of the first African-American president (Barack Obama). Along with that came the birtherism movement led by the billionaire, who encouraged bolder voices in “dominant caste”, many of whom see him as a source of hope.
Trump wins the 2016 election. Privately, he says that “I remember a time when everybody knew their place. Time we got back to that.” It’s soon followed by a number of violent, racially-based attacks, and 2017 becomes the deadliest year for mass shootings in America’s history. He pulls out of international agreements and stops White House briefings. In 2019, impeachment proceedings begin, but he is acquitted. Soon, the coronavirus pandemic is allowed to take hold as the president dismisses its threat.
The question that remains is, “what happened to America?” Wilkerson argues that while it seems like the United States has had a sudden major shift, it’s necessary to look deeper to “discover the origins of our discontents”. She compares this to the unfelt but still potent “silent earthquakes” that are taking place under our feet.
In Siberia, to deal with anthrax, they end up doing mass vaccinations, incinerating the remaining reindeer carcasses and dousing the surrounding land with bleach. Like the situation in America, it serves as a reminder that some pathogens cannot be killed, only contained. And that for some particularly enduring viruses, foresight and vigilance are needed.
The Vitals of History
Wilkerson equates diagnosing and treating a country to diagnosing and treating a person. Instead of hiding from or avoiding it, you have to identify it, educate yourself and take precautions for the future.
Chapter Two: An Old House and an Infrared Light
This chapter compares inheriting America’s problems to inheriting the problems that come with buying an old house. They cannot fix themselves, even if you aren’t the one that caused them. It also explains how America functionally has a caste system — a ranking of human value according to ancestry and/or immutable traits — which based on race.
Here, Wilkerson compares being an American to owning an old house. Even if you are not the one who did the damage in the past, you are still its current occupant, and therefore everything that is right and wrong with it is yours to deal with. An old house cannot fix itself. You can choose to ignore the problems, and eventually these problems become “normal” to you.
Like the bones of an old house, America has an unseen caste system. A caste system involves a ranking of human value according to ancestry and/or immutable traits. It’s a hierarchy that favors the “dominant caste” and keeps people rigidly in their places. In human history, there are three notable cases of caste systems. First, is that of the Nazis in Germany. Second is the still-extant caste system of India. Lastly, is the race-based system in America.
Wilkerson compares the rules of the caste system to the rules of grammar in language. They are an invisible guide that tells us how to process information, even when we don’t realize it. When you speak a language, you’ve internalized the grammatical rules even if you don’t know how to name all the rules. Similarly, when we talk about “race”, behind each label is an extensive history which involves many “assumptions and values”. Race is a “flash card” that tells others how that person should be treated, where they should live, what positions they should hold or even what level of treatment they deserve at a hospital.
Caste and race are also not the same thing. Caste attaches meanings to things and then reinforces those meanings. While race is fluid and subject to redefinition, caste is rigid and fixed. While what constitutes “white” has changed over history, the fact of that dominant caste has not.
Chapter Three: An American Untouchable
In this chapter, Wilkerson discusses her research and earlier attempts at understanding America’s hierarchy in terms of caste, including MLK’s visit to India where he was deemed an American “untouchable”.
The American caste system began forming over 150 years before the American Revolution with English Protestants at the top. Everyone else ranked based on “their proximity” to the dominant caste, with African captives at the bottom. In 1959, Martin Luther King visits India, whose fight for freedom had inspired his own. Many in India are aware of the struggles of the oppressed in America, but he is still surprised to be introduced to a room of students whose families are deemed “untouchables” as “a fellow untouchable from the United States of America”. King is taken aback, but then realizes the truth of that description.
In 1944, Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal publishes an in-depth study of race in America. In it, Myrdal argues that “caste” rather than “race” is a better descriptor of what’s driving America’s system of human rankings. Anthropologist Ashley Montagu is also among the first to argue that “race” is a human-invented social construct, and in 1942, he writes that “when we speak of the race problem in America, what we really mean is the caste system and the problems which that caste system creates in America.”
Both early white supremacists and social activists acknowledged the similarities in India’s caste system and that of America. In 1916, Eugenicist Madison Grant writes about the common purpose of India’s system and Jim Crow laws. Thomas Pearce Bailey establishes tenets including “Let the lowest white man count for more than the highest negro.” Around the same time, Bhimrao Ambedkar is an “untouchable”, from Bombay but educated in the U.S., who becomes an important Indian social reformer. In 1946, Ambedkar notes the parallels between the “Untouchables in India and of the position of the Negroes in America.”
American caste system began with the arrival of the first captive Africans in Virginia in the summer of 1619. In Caste, Wilkerson seeks to “understand the origins and evolution of classifying and elevating one group of people over another and the consequences of doing so to the presumed beneficiaries and to those targeted as beneath them.” Her book is meant to cover all areas of the American caste system, but has a particular focus on those at the top and bottom. Wilkerson explains that in “Caste” she purposely tries to use terms associated with other cultures (like “Dominant caste” or “ruling majority” instead of “white”, etc.) to cast the American system in a new light.
An Invisible Program
This section is about how the invisibility of the caste system allows it to be so potent. Wilkerson references The Matrix, a movie about how (spoiler alert) a program oppresses people while letting them believe they are living freely, because people who don’t know they are “captive will not resist their bondage”. Those who realize they are captive pose the greatest threat to the system and therefore must be stopped.
Part Two: The Arbitrary Construction of Human Divisions
Chapter Four: A Long-Running Play and the Emergence of Caste in America
This chapter briefly looks at the origins of America’s caste system, beginning from 1619 and extending through the hundreds of years of slavery and after it is abolished. It shows how the colonists established the caste system and then ushered new immigrants into its hierarchy and belief system.
In a caste system, people are cast into roles which they must play. People become their characters and are typecast with whatever stereotypes associated with those roles.
In 1619, when the first slaves arrived, it wasn’t clear if their enslavement was intended to be permanent. However, by 1630, a social order begins to take form when the first colonial census neglects to list most of the African captives. Initially, their non-Christian status is what condemns both indigenous Americans and new captives (before the ideas of race were fully formed). The Europeans had been unable to enslave the Native Americans and had now “solved” their labor problem with African captives, so they began exiling the indigenous people.
When Africans began converting, it threatened the European’s source of cheap labor, and the white population began “hardening into a single caste”. For the next quarter of a millennium, 1619 to 1865, slavery and its horrors continued. Moreover, it was “an extreme form of slavery”, where the slaves were subject to any whim or sadism of the owners, and it was an “economy whose bottom gear was torture”.
Finally, after the Civil War, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and passage of the 13th Amendment, slavery is abolished and 4 million people are liberated. It’s followed by the Reconstruction of the South, which lasts for 12 years. When the federal government withdraws from the South, the “subordinate caste” is left in the hands of their former captors, and the “dominant cate” devises a system of laws to debase them and keep them subordinate.
Meanwhile, new immigrants were arriving from places like Russia or Poland. They were initiated into a hierarchy, one where the treatment of the castes had been established. These had been instilled by the colonists, but were passed onto new immigrants. They entered a hierarchy where the dominate caste controlled all resources, viewed the subordinate caste as dumb (because it had been illegal to teach them how to read or write), and punished the subordinate caste for defending themselves or wanting to break free.
New immigrants established their “whiteness” by distancing themselves from the opposite caste, including through “hostility toward the lowest caste”. For example, Irish immigrants, who would have no reason to have anything against any group, were pitted against black residents when it came to the draft. It resulted in the deadly Draft Riots of 1863, where black men were hung and black businesses were destroyed.
Over time, these castes harden into customs of unearned deference and dehumanizing beliefs about the lower caste. Meanwhile, the middle castes (such as Asians, Latinos and indigenous people) are forced to seek the “favor of the dominant caste” and to separate themselves from the lower caste.
Chapter Five: “The Container We Have Built for You”
This section considers how caste assigns each person to a role or a “container” which may not comport with the reality of who that person is.
In the 1970’s in Texas, a black girl is born and named “Miss”. Her father, a civil rights activist, choose that name because it is customary to never refer to black women as “Mrs.” or “Miss” (or men as “Mister”). He wanted everyone to be forced to call her Miss. Later, Wilkerson interviews Miss, who discusses how “white people are fine with” her, so long as she stays “in her place” and in her “container”. Miss recalls spending a summer with a friend’s family. After Miss refused an invitation to lengthen her stay, the friend’s grandmother reminded her that “there was a time when I could have made you stay”.
These rules of behavior, of showing disrespect to the lowest caste, are considered so “sacrosanct” that Bull Connor, a police chief in 1961, tricks his opponent into being photographed shaking hands with a black man in order to win his election.
In the American caste system, we are each put into containers, even though the “label” often doesn’t match the “contents”. Wilkerson cites her own example from when she was a national correspondent for the New York Times. She showed up to interview a subject, who dismissed her, demanded her identification and then refused to believe it even when he saw it. He simply could not accept the mismatch of the person he’d anticipated and “a container such as [hers]”.
Chapter Six: The Measure of Humanity
In this section, Wilkerson discusses how the concept of race is an arbitrary and relatively new social construct, as proved by both anthropology and genetics. She also discusses the limitations of “the ‘r’ word” (racism) and offers a new term, “casteism”, to help describe actions that maintain or reinforce the existing hierarchy in America.
Wilkerson imagines a world where height had been chosen as the trait for separating people into categories instead of skin color. While it seems illogical, it makes about as much sense as grouping people based on skin pigmentation.
The whole concept of “race” is a fairly new one in human history, dating back to the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade. Instead, Geneticists and anthropologists view race as a “man-made invention”, and not one rooted in science or biology. It’s based on arbitrary divisions of who belongs in one race or another. With DNA mapping of the human genome, we now know that 99.9% of the humans are genetically the same, evolving from a number of African tribes that dispersed outward and eventually populated the world.
The term “Caucasian” was coined by medical professor Johann Friedrich Blumenbach in 1795. Of the skulls he owned, his favorite skull came from Caucasus Mountains of Russia. So, he gave the name “Caucasian” to the group he belonged to, Europeans.
The R Word
Racism is defined by social scientists as some “combination of racial bias and systemic power”. However, the problem with the word “racism” is that it has become radioactive and taken to mean “overt and declared hatred” based on race, often implying a character flaw.
Collectively, we’ve also had a “fixation with smoking out individual racists”, where we let ourselves believe that we are “rooting out injustice” by doing so. The problem with this is that it’s too focused on individual behavior and it actually shields others since they can point to people who are relatively worse than them.
Wilkerson, provides a potentially more useful term, “casteism”, “granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.” This term focuses on structural injustices, preventing caste from remaining invisible.
On a practical level, the term “casteism” helps to describe actions that maintain or reinforce the existing hierarchy, but may not necessarily be borne out of a outright and active hatred of a group or person(s).
Chapter Seven: Through the Fog of Delhi to the Parallels in India and America
This section looks at the caste system of India and compares it to that of the U.S.
India abolished the formal laws governing their caste system in the 1940’s (just as civil rights laws were passed in the U.S. in the 1960’s), but the caste system functionally lives on. In India, the Dalits (Untouchables) are the lowest group, historically involved in farming tea and cotton as enslaved people or for rights to live on that land.
The equivalent of the U.S.’s “affirmative action” policies in India are called “reservations” and similarly have been met with outcries of “reverse discrimination” by those in the upper castes.
In the Indian system, there are thousands of sub-castes (“jatis”) that are location-dependent, split up into regions and villages, but they fall into four main castes (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudr) with the Dalits as a separate, lower category. Surnames are the main indicator of caste (Dalits have names referring to “humble or dirty work” while “Brahmins carry the names of the gods”), but over time things like their manner of speaking, dress and composure can divide them as well.
The Indian caste system is buttressed by the Hindu belief in reincarnation, which says that karma accumulated in previous lives is reflected in the current life and that following the rules of the caste system will help to improve your station in life in the next. It therefore encourages people to accept their lot in life.
However, Indian resistance leaders note that compliance is not the same thing as acceptance of the system. Wilkerson also notes the kinship that Dalits have felt with their African American counterparts in the U.S.
Chapter Eight: The Nazis and the Acceleration of Caste
This section looks at the caste system under the Nazis and how they were inspired by the United States.
From the genocide of the Native Americans to the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 and the lynching of African Americans, the United States served as a template and inspiration to the Nazi regime. The Nazis borrowed the term “Untermensch” (meaning “subhuman”) from well-known American eugenicist, Lothrop Stoddard, and his translated book was part of the Reich’s standard curriculum. Similarly, Madison Grant’s ideas on the sterilization and quarantining of undesirables were commended by Hitler with a personal note to Grant stating “The book is my Bible”.
The Nazi elites were convinced they could hold Hilter in check when he was made the party’s chancellor in 1933. Soon after, the campaign against the Jews began ratcheting up. The Nazi made a study of U.S. race legislation, from school segregation to listing of race on I.D.s to separate facilities and even segregated tax rolls.
In Berlin in June 5, 1934, there was an early discussion among Third Reich thinkers to sort out the legal framework for the Aryan Nation, which would later become the Nuremberg Laws. They began by using their study of the American system of institutionalized racism in order to develop their own plans. American miscegenation laws, for example, served as a reference for Germany’s own intermarriage ban.
American definitions of race served as a guide for how to create these artificial divisions between people, and there was interest in the “American habit of assigning humans to categories by fractions of perceived ancestry”. Though more moderate members disagreed, the radicals in the group argued for policies like adopting “one-sixteenth” as the fraction of ancestry to be considered the “undesirable” race, citing American policies as an example. Still, they shied away from adopting America’s “one-drop rule” (where “even a drop of Negro blood” was sufficient to be considered black), viewing it as overly harsh.
In September 1935, Hitler announced the new Blood Laws, including rules on the amount of ancestry to be considered Jewish and miscegenation laws. It also borrowed from “association rules” seen in the U.S., where being married to or known to associate with the disfavored race could help decide ambiguous cases of racial categorization.
Chapter Nine: The Evil of Silence
In Sachsenhausen, Germany, mothers pull their children inside as the ashes of Jews cover the houses of German townspeople living near the crematorium.
In America, a lynching tree serves as a reminder and warning to black citizens and a symbol of reassurance to the dominant caste. In Leesburg, Texas, Wylie McNeely is chained to a stake after being accused of assaulting a white girl. 500 people gather to watch him burn.
On July 19, 1935 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Rubin Stacy has been shot and lynched for “frightening a white woman”. People, including grade school-aged girls pose for a photo with the hanging corpse (image, warning: sensitive content), later sent around as a postcard. Lynching postcards served as a souvenirs to be sent to loved ones, a practice widespread enough to be banned by the postmaster general (and circumvented by placing them in envelopes).
In Omaha in September 1919, thousands gather for the burning of Will Brown, accused of molesting a white woman. Brown is arrested and the courthouse is mobbed. He is stripped, beaten, tied to a lamppost, shot, burned in a bonfire and dragged through the streets. Photographs of the event and a smiling faces around the corpse are distributed as postcards. Seeing the events, Henry Fonda later describes it as “the most horrendous sight I’ve ever seen”.
Part Three: The Eight Pillars of Caste
The Foundations of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
Wilkerson explains that the next section looks at the “pillars of caste”, as seen through the parallels between the three major caste systems (Nazi Germany, India and America) discussed previously.
Pillar Number One: Divine Will and the Laws of Nature
The first Pillar of Caste is the organizing principle of “Divine Will and the Laws of Nature”.
In India, an ancient Hindu text explains that Manu (“the all-knowing”) dictated the proper order of all the social classes and named the Brahmin the “lord of this whole creation”. The Untouchables are unmentioned, existing as outcasts subordinate to the caste system.
In the West, the Old Testament tells of a great flood and how all humans are descendants of the three sons of Noah (Shem, Ham, and Japheth). When Ham crosses Noah, Noah curses Ham’s son Canaan to be “lowest of slaves” among his brothers. The story is later used to justify slavery, and in the Middle Ages, Ham is described as having dark skin.
In Levitius, there is further encouragement: “Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids.”
Pillar Number Two: Heritability
The second Pillar of Caste is “Heritability”, meaning that rank is ascribed permanently at birth, lasts throughout your life and passes down to your descendants.
In India, the father typically passes his rank to his children.
In America beginning with colonial Virginia, children took on the rank of their mother or the lower ranked parent if there was a dispute about it. This deviation from the English custom of children being given the status of their fathers meant that slaveowners could impregnate their black slaves to bear children to further enrich themselves.
Wilkerson notes that the fixed nature of caste is what differentiates it from class. Class can be acquired or lost (through hard work and whatnot), but caste is fixed. Neither “wealth nor celebrity” can overcome it, as seen in how police brutality still affects famous and wealthy black celebrities.
Pillar Number Three: Endogamy and the Control of Marriage and Mating
The third Pillar of Caste is “Endogamy”, which means “restricting marriage to people within the same caste”.
Endogamy is seen in all three caste systems (Indian, American, Nazi Germany) and works to reinforce the caste boundaries.
In 1630, a white man named Hugh Davis is sentenced to a public whipping for sexual relations with a black woman. While white men bedding black women was a widespread practice, sexual exploitation was not what concerned the governing powers. Instead, interacting as equals is what would have aroused their ire.
In 1691, Virgina outlaws marriage between blacks and whites. At various points, 41 out of the 50 states have had some type of laws against intermarriage. The Supreme Court eventually overturns these laws, but not until 1967. Alabama was the last state to rid itself of its endogamy law in 2000, with 40% voting against removal. By 1967, 94% of white Americans still disapproved of interracial marriage.
Throughout America’s history, breaches in endogamy have resulted in highly publicized lynchings. In Jim Crow-era Florida, a 15-year-old boy was hog-tied and drowned while his father was forced to watch because he sent a Christmas card to a white girl he liked and then followed it up with a note. His attackers were never indicted or prosecuted.
Pillar Number Four: Purity Versus Pollution
The fourth Pillar of Caste is “Purity Versus Pollution”. In the caste system, there is “a fundamental belief in the purity of the dominant caste and the fear of pollution” from lower castes.
In parts of India, lower castes are required to walk certain distances behind those belonging to higher castes, to wear a bell to warn others of their pollutive presence, or to wipe out their footprints behind them, etc. In Germany, Nazis restricted Jews from beaches and public pools.
In the United State, there was the separation of facilities, separate textbooks for children, separate water fountains, separate hospital wards and separate cemeteries and so forth. In 1860, Plessy vs. Ferguson declared the “separate but equal” rule in law, which legally established this pillar in the U.S.
The Sanctity of Water
Restrictions on access to water have been seen in all three major caste systems. For example, fear of African Americans in public pools and policies against that have been widespread. It was commonly cited that there was a need to thoroughly cleansepools after use by the disfavored caste. In 1949, when St. Louis changed the rules to allow black people in public pools, it resulted in a mob chasing down black people approaching the vicinity of the pool.
The Hierarchy of Trace Amounts: Griffes, Marabons, and Sangmelees
The American caste system was unique in its insistence on “racial absolutism”, where even one drop of African blood could relegate you to the lower caste. Wilkerson characterizes this as a “punitive model of racial superiority” model. It effectively combines “two pillars of caste — divine will and pollution” into a single idea. This resulted in a Louisiana dividing up people into sub-castes such as griffes (three-fourths black), marabons (five-eighths black), and sangmelees (one-sixty-fourth).
Wilkerson compares the American system of racial categorization to the South African system. There, they had incentives (“to grow its power and numbers”) to increase the number admitted into the elite racial minority. In America, no such incentives existed, and instead the focus has been on exclusion. Efforts to limit immigration were seen in two of the most stringent immigration bans: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the 1924 Immigration Act.
The Trials of the Middle Castes: The Race to Get Under the White Tent
For those in the Middle Castes, there have been numerous attempts to be admitted into the upper caste.
A lawsuit by a Japanese immigrant claiming that his pale skin should qualify him as “white” resulted in a unanimous 1922 Supreme Court ruling which held that “white” meant “Caucasian”. Wilkerson adds that this ruling was despite “the fact that few white Americans had origins in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia either and that those who did were at that very moment being kept out, too.”
In 1923, the Supreme Court rejected a bid for citizenship from an upper caste Indian man who argued that he was white because the upper caste of India is understood by many to be originally descended from Aryans. The push in this time period to legally restrict Asians from the definition of “white” resulted in the rescission of naturalized citizenship rights from many Asians.
Defining Purity and the Constancy of the Bottom Rung
This section discusses restrictions that have been placed on the lowest castes, the Dalits in India and African Americans in America, to prevent their “pollution”. For example, in India, Dalits were not permitted to drink from the same cups as others or walk through the front doors of upper-caste homes. In America, there were sundown laws where black Americans were not permitted in white towns after dark.
Wilkerson notes how black Americans were conditioned to adjust their behavior to suit the dominant caste. They knew things like adverts for the circus coming into town or political rallies were not meant for them, and they knew not to shake the hands of white folks. Meanwhile, a young white man who moved north in the mid-twentieth century recalls how his conditioning caused him to feel automatic revulsion each time he later had to shake hands with black men.
Pillar Number Five: Occupational Hierarchy: The Jatis and the Mudsill
The fifth Pillar of Caste is “Occupational Hierarchy”, meaning there must be a “bottom caste that everything else rests upon” which performs menial tasks that support the other castes.
This is compared to the “mudsill” of a house, which serves as its foundation, by Senator James Henry Hammond of South Carolina in March 1858 (“In all social systems, there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have…It constitutes the very mud-sill of society.”)
In the Indian caste system, your jati (subcaste) determines the work you perform, with “dirty” jobs reserved for the lowest castes. Similarly, African Americans have long performed the unwanted tasks of society. South Carolina even explicitly limited black people to “farm or domestic work” by requiring cost prohibitive ($100, equivalent to $1500 in 2018) licenses to do otherwise, a limitation not placed on white people.
In addition to the “association between menial labor and blackness”, subservience was required, too. A common role for black people was entertainment, which is a type of “servitude” as well. Being ordered to sing and dance further oppresses them, since gave them the appearance of “good cheer” even as they were being mistreated.
The “Black caricature” as a simple jester resulted in the minstrel-ization of black people, as seen in the popularization of black-face actors mocking them during Jim Crow-era America.
The role of African Americans as performers has continued and even now the wealthiest American Americans (“from Oprah Winfrey to Jay-Z to Michael Jordan”) have all made their names in sports or entertainment. Furthermore, there seems to be a comfort in seeing black people in caste-reinforcing roles, like as slaves or maids or “Mammy” characters, as reflected in the Oscars handed out to black people in these roles. Wilkerson additionally notes how Nazis used Jewish prisons for entertainment, forcing them to jump and dance for their amusement.
Pillar Number Six: Dehumanization and Stigma
The sixth Pillar of Caste is “Dehumanization”.
Dehumanization distances the lower caste and allows their treatment to be “outside of the norms of humanity”. Dehumanization can be achieved by methods such as attaching stigmas to them, for example by turning them into scapegoats.
The Nazi’s dehumanization of Jews were seen in the way they were shaved, stripped and assigned numbers instead of names at concentration camps. Similarly, India’s untouchables were long ago named according to their lowly work. In America, African were treated as property for auction and given new names to disassociate them from their past. At slave auctions, women were often undressed and prodded by bidders, forced to smile (or else be whipped) in the process.
Other common practices included withholding of food and providing ill-fitting and uncomfortable uniforms. In Nazi Germany, required calories were meticulously calculated and then systematically reduced, so Jews were kept weak to prevent them from fighting back. In America, Africans were starved of nutrients despite doing the hardest labor. And in all three caste systems, the very natural reactions of stealing food to stave off starvation was punished severely. And Wilkerson further describes the legal double standards that have existed in American law, whereby the same offenses are punishable by death for black Americans but by incarceration for whites.
Dehumanization has also lead to horrors like medical experimentation for the lower caste. Nazi Germany is known for its experimentation on Jews. Similarly, in America many cases of experimentation on African American populations have been identified, such as allowing syphillus to go untreated (the Tuskegee Study) to document its affects or injecting test subjects with plutonium without their consent. Enslaved women were also used as test subjects for doctors such as James Marion Sims (credited as the father of modern gynaecology, experiments which resulting in “disfigurement or death”) and for experiments on c-sections, ovary removal or dealing with bladder stones.
Wilkerson makes the point that dehumanization lowers the bar for acceptable treatment of humans. She cites an experiment where test subjects were instructed to administer shocks to another person. Beforehand, some test subjects heard dehumanizing comments about the person, some heard nothing, and some heard humanizing remarks (like they were “nice”). As a result, “participants gave the dehumanized people twice the punishment of the humanized ones and significantly more than those they knew absolutely nothing about”.
Pillar Number Seven: Terror as Enforcement, Cruelty as a Means of Control
The seventh Pillar of Caste is Terror and Cruelty.
Violence and terror have long been used as methods to keep people in their place. For bystanders, their “silent complicity” allows these evils to continue, and those who choose to join in are typically rewarded.
Inhumane whippings were a constant feature of slavery, and crimes we think of as unquestionably wrong (homicide, rape, assault) were permitted when the target was a black person. In North Carolina, in tracking down a runaway slave, a directive was issued permitting anyone to KILL OR DESTROY” the slave, pointing to a “casual disregard for black life” that is still seen today as police and vigilantes continue to gun down black people.
In Nazi Germany, public hangings were used to inspire terror, just as lynchings were common in the American south. In both systems, torture was used for minor infractions to reinforce the dominant caste’s authority over the other. Wilkerson discusses the perpetual horrors, including a variety of methods of torture.
To further their control, the dominant caste also used “psychological degradation”. For example, in Nazi Germany, a “head Jew” was selected to discipline the others and given rewards for their complicity. On plantations, a slave driver was selected from among the black slaves to keep order. By forcing them to disciple their own people, it reinforced the power of the dominant caste and created dissention among the lower caste.
Other methods of psychological terror included leaving lynched bodies to be taken down and disposed of by other black people or the family members of the victim or the Nazis having their prisoners pick up dead bodies.
Pillar Number Eight: Inherent Superiority Versus Inherent Inferiority
The seventh Pillar of Caste is “Inherent Superiority Versus Inherent Inferiority”, which refers to the continually reinforced message about the inherent superiority of the dominant caste and the inferiority of the lower castes.
The idea of “inherent superiority” helps to convey that the dominant caste is deserving of their spoils. In each of America, India and Nazi Germany, there have existed rules that members of the lower caste could not display signs or indications “of success and status”, such as in via their clothing or cars or homes. For example, in India, the styling of their saris and the jewelry the Dalits could wear were limited. In South Carolina in 1735, slaves were limited to wearing clothes made of coarse materials. Similarly, any display of Jewish success risked enraging Nazis.
Wilkerson further discusses the terror of black people being forced to submit unquestioningly to illiterate people, drunkards, sadists and others “unfit for absolute power over the life and death of another”. Furthermore, there was the constant fear that any interaction seen as showing “insolence” could lead to violence or death.
Part Four: The Tentacles of Caste
Brown Eyes Versus Blue Eyes
Wilkson discusses a class experiment conducted in the late 1960’s in Riceville, Iowa. A group of third-graders were split into two castes, as determined by their blue or brown eye colors. The teacher arbitrarily assigned being blue-eyed as superior, with them being told they were smarter and faster. Brown-eyed people were given restriction like not being allowed to drink from the water fountain and shorter recess.
Quickly, the kids settle in their castes, resulting in name-calling and whatnot. Later, the teacher switched the castes, with brown eyes being superior. Afterwards, kids in the lower caste reported feeling demoralized and the teacher found that the kids performed worse while they were slotted into the lower caste. The teacher is later quoted as saying that “I watched my students become what I told them they were.”
Chapter Ten: Central Miscasting
Wilkerson discusses attending a conference on caste. She meets a slight, gentle Indian man, Tushar, who informs her that he belongs to the warrior caste in India (Kshatriya), and Wilkerson thinks to herself that caste seems to involve “miscasting” people into roles.
Tushar tells her about upper caste teachers refusing to grade Dalit (Untouchables) papers, since they didn’t want to come into contact with them. He also recounts how his darker-skinned sister was instructed to boil milk to spread on her face each night to lighten her skin (since upper castes are associated with lighter skin color).
Chapter Eleven: Dominant Group Status Threat and the Precarity of the Highest Rung
This section discusses the threats to the caste system and the subsequent psychological effects of those threats for the dominant caste, both in terms of feeling like they must protect their status (“dominant group status threat”) and the burden of having expectations of superiority.
Wilkerson discusses how the dominant caste is given an advantage in terms of “psychological security” due to their heightened status. However, “dominant group status threat” can occur when the dominant group senses that the marginalized classes are overperforming and therefore threatening its status.
Social economists theorize that “working-class whites” are more likely to rely on the psychological comfort afforded by caste than upper class whites. In America, worsening prospects for blue-collar, working class whites since the 1970’s have left them vulnerable and insecure. With “downward mobility” as a real fear, whiteness is something they can cling to and never lose.
With the civil rights legislation of the 1960’s and the eventual ascension of members of the lowest caste into high-ranking positions, dominant caste members are suddenly on the same rung as those they’ve deemed inherently inferior to themselves, which effectively lowers their status. Wilkerson writes that in the “zero-sum stakes of a caste system upheld by perceived scarcity”, “equality feels like a demotion” and the result is a “spiritual, psychological, emotional” unease caused by a feeling of displacement.
As such, Wilkerson makes the point that the caste system actually creates a burden for higher caste members, too, since their “unsustainable expectations” of superiority means that they feel they must “preserve” their caste. Wilkerson compares this to how a firstborn child may feel the burden of being expected to take over a family business (and the feeling of failure if they are not up to the task).
In the 1930s, The New Deal reforms helped to create social safety nets — but many of these programs excluded black Americans when they were initially passed. These include the Federal Housing Administration’s redlining policies (passing laws to make home ownership easier for whites), social security and labor reform laws (the Wagner Act). These programs created wealth and opportunity for white Americans. When these social safety nets were later expanded to include black Americans, many whites could feel their position slipping, not understanding that it was always based on inequities in their favor, which even now continue to give them a leg up.
Unconscious Bias: A Mutation in the Software
This section looks at the transformation of overt racism into unconscious bias, and it considers the implications of that unconscious bias, especially in the area of healthcare.
Due to pervasive negative messaging, researchers find that by adulthood 80% of whites and roughly 1/3rd of blacks hold unconscious, automatic negative biases against black people. These automatic thoughts are deeply ingrained so people may not realize how their behavior is being shaped.
The implications of this unconscious bias results in disparities in areas such as hiring, housing, education, and medical treatment. In terms of care, African-Americans receive poor health-care, as documented in having less procedures performed on them, and as seen in doctors’ tendency to undertreat complaints of pain by African-Americans and Latinos. Conversely, white Americans are likely overtreated for pain, which has contributed to the opioid crisis (where many white Americans are addicted to pain medication).
Wilkerson also notes that if substance abuse had been treated as a systemic and social issue (as opposed to a crime problem) when the subordinate classes were having drug problems in the 1990s, there would likely be a better framework now to handle the current opioid problem.
Chapter Twelve: A Scapegoat to Bear the Sins of the World
This section is about the lowest caste’s role as a scapegoat for the society as a while, both in terms of societal ills and individual crimes. Wilkerson then recounts examples of how this scapegoating makes us all less safe and worse off.
The lowest or scapegoat caste serves to “absorb the sins” of the society by taking on its misfortunes. For example, in the American South, the lowest caste was blamed for bad harvests on the plantations, and the Confederates blamed them for losing the war. In modern day, black Americans are associated with drug problems (even though there are many parties that contribute to drug trade in the U.S.) and consequently incarcerated 6x as often for it compared to whites for the same crimes. Lower castes are blamed for rejections in college admissions and lack of jobs or career advancement or opportunities. Wilkerson notes that while the lowest castes fought for affirmative action, white women have been the prime beneficiaries of it.
Wilkerson recounts the 1989 story of Charles Stuart, who planned a plot to murder his pregnant wife, pretending it was a black mugger. A black man with a record was the main suspect until Charles’s brother confessed knowing about the plot. Wilkerson notes that the caste system became the murder’s “unwitting accomplice”. She equates this with our history of accepting black men as being guilty of anything someone in the dominant caste accused them of. Wilkerson points out that this means the caste system makes us less safe, by allowing guilty parties to go free.
In 2016, Anthony Stephan House, a 39-year-old black man, was a victim of a package bomb. Texas Police dismissed it as possibly his own fault (making it and accidentally detonating it) or linked to drugs. Over the following ten days, there were more black victims of package bombs. Finally, when a two white men were injured and a bomb was set off at a FedEx warehouse, the police ramped up their efforts and the suspect was apprehended less than 24 hours later. Naturally, questions arose about the police’s feeble initial efforts or why they chose to start by assuming House was to blame, and the result was more death and a less safe world.
Finally, Wilkerson discusses the Ebola outbreak which began in West Africa in late 2013. It wasn’t until summer 2014 that the United States really began sending aid, after American aid workers were infected. In September, the first case was transmitted to the U.S., and soon after America finally began research into an Ebola antivirus. Wilkerson makes the point that we are all interconnected and interdependent on each other, so trying to rely on distance or race to inoculate us makes us worse off.
Chapter Thirteen: The Insecure Alpha and the Purpose of an Underdog
Wilkerson talks about her dog, who began exhibiting behavioral issues after her divorce because of the absence of the “pack leader” (the ex-husband) in their social hierarchy. Wilkerson notes how the social hierarchy of canines differ from that of humans. Instead of being based upon superficial qualities, the hierarchy is established based on the dog’s personality traits. The incorrect placement of people in human society in roles that aren’t suited for their personalities is ultimately bad for everyone involved.
Chapter Fourteen: The Intrusion of Caste in Everyday Life
In this section, Wilkerson discusses modern-day examples of everyday, casual casteism.
In Oakland, a (lower caste) father at a restaurant tells his son to eat his vegetables. When the boy cries, an older woman from the dominant caste overhears, comes over and comforts the boy, ignoring his father and telling the boy it’s okay not to eat his vegetables. The scene that played out is consistent is the tradition of upper caste people feeling entitled to override the lower caste as it pertains to their children, such as the case when slave owners sold off the children of their slaves.
Elsewhere, in a wealthy suburb an upper caste man mistakes his well-to-do (lower caste) neighbor for the dry cleaners. In Chicago, a (lower caste) college professor getting off a bike is chided for opening his own mail, having been mistaken for a postal worker. In an engineering office, a white contractor sidesteps the lower-caste engineer in charge of a project and directs questions at her white colleague instead.
Meanwhile, all around America, videotaped incidents of upper caste members intruding upon the lives of lower caste members continue to go viral. From lower caste members asleep in the common areas of their dormitories or trying to get into their condos or babysitting for children, lower caste members have been harassed for doing very everyday activities, with potentially fatal results as police are called. Wilkerson also recounts her own experience and terror in being questioned by DEA officers while walking through the airport as boarding a shuttle full of white business travelers.
Chapter Fifteen: The Urgent Necessity of a Bottom Rung
This section is about how “lower-caste success” is the greatest threat to the caste system. As such, rising above your station results in retribution. Instead, the caste system rewards lower caste members who in ways that reinforce their caste. Caste is also reinforced by playing up stereotypes about inferiority, for example with “black as a synonym for poor”.
“Lower-caste success” presents the greatest threat to the caste system, since it threatens the identity of everyone within the system. After the Civil War, while America was allied with the French during WWI, white soldiers were rankled by the equal treatment of black soldiers by the French. Consequently, French officers were directed not to praise or commend black soldiers too much, lest they offend the white soldiers.
Wilkerson recounts of number of examples of lower caste members seen as rising “beyond their station” and facing retribution as a result. Wilkerson notes how violence is commonly directed at the most successful members of the lower caste. For example, the 1921 riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma involved a mob burning to the ground a section of town where prosperous black business owners and finance professionals lived (known as Black Wall Street).
Similarly, in the 1890’s a dispute between one white and one black child resulted in the white child’s father beating the black child. It escalated into an excuse for a mob to attack the successful black-owned grocery store whose clerks defended the black boy. In the end, the store owner and two clerks were lynched, and the grocery’s store less-successful white competitor purchased it on the cheap.
Wilkerson also notes how lower caste members have not been denied credit “for their ideas and innovations”. For example, an enslaved African man named Onesimus described the process for inoculating from disease using fluids from an infected person (precursor to immunization) to Cotton Mather, a Puritan leader. It eventually contributed to the eradication of smallpox, but Onesimus was not even able to fully gain his freedom despite his crucial contribution.
Instead, in order for a lower caste member to reap rewards, one must act in ways that reinforce caste. For example, the single exception to Jim Crow rules was for black maids. They could ride in the whites-only section with the white children they were entrusted with if they proved sufficiently reliable. It meant their rewards were tied to servitude to the upper caste.
The reinforcement of caste was seen in Nazi Germany as well, where Jews were prohibited from holding roles if it could result in them outshining their Aryan counterparts. In modern day, we see this in emphasis of urban city crime rates or are over-represented as being poor people on the news. Though “white families make up 2/3rds of America’s poor”, many see “black as a synonym for poor”.
Chapter Sixteen: Last Place Anxiety: Packed in a Flooding Basement
This section is about social stratification within the lowest caste and what those within it may or must do to try not to end up at the very bottom of the barrel.
There is a tendency from those in the lower caste to try to stratify themselves to prevent being in “last place”, typically via “proximity to the random traits associated with the dominant caste”. Historically, “snitches and sellouts” within the lowest caste (such as Nazi enforcers and salve drivers) have also been rewarded by the caste system. There is also a “crabs in a barrel” phenomenon, where others in the lower caste prevent others within their caste from rising above it. Meanwhile, sometimes the perpetrators of mistreatment of the lower castes can be others within that group, out of the desire to prove themselves to those around them or to higher caste members (such as with black cops participating in police brutality).
Within the lowest caste, recent African immigrants are often better educated and better off than African Americans who are descended from slaves. Unlike European immigrants who try to shake off their culture and assimilate in order to be accepted into the dominant caste, recent African immigrants may try to hold on to their ethnic differences in order to avoid confusion with their counterparts who are descended from slaves.
The book also adds that the American criminal justice system tells us a lot about what lives we value in the United States. When it comes to the death penalty, the race of the victim (not the perpetrator) is the “’the greatest predictor of who gets the death penalty in the United States’” (quoting Bryan Stevenson).
Chapter Seventeen: On the Early Front Lines of Caste
This section discusses the Davis study, conducted in Jim Crow Mississippi from 1933 to 1941, which is an important, in-depth academic work on race and caste in America.
Ihe Davis study was conducted by two well-educated couples, one black and one white who are all anthropologists, and one additional person. They travelled from the North down to Natchez, Mississippi in 1933 to conduct a study about race and class in the Jim Crow South, reporting back their findings to a Cambridge professor.
The complications of their ambitious study was compounded by the difficulty of masking their status as colleagues and friends in order to prevent the upsetting the rules of decorum and caste. The result was the publication of Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class in 1941, which discussed race in America in terms of a two-tiered caste system.
Unfortunately, two white anthropologists began similar, but less in-depth studies while their work was being completed and published their findings in 1937 and 1939. Those two studies, and not the Davis study, became considered the “landmark studies” on the topic. However, the Davis study inspired others and continues to be an important work in understanding race and caste in America.
Chapter Eighteen: Satchel Paige and the Illogic of Caste
This section discusses Satchel Paige, one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history, who was not allowed in the majors until he was past his prime.
Under the “distorting lens of caste”, the dominant caste may be willing to deprive itself of talent in order to uphold their ideas of white dominance. Wilkerson uses Satchel Paige, a talented baseball player who could throw a very precise fastball, as an example, who was excluded from the major league until it opened up to African Americans in 1946. By that time Satchel Paige was 42 and well past his prime.
Part Five: The Consequences of Caste
Wilkerson discusses a video of Hilter being greeted in a triumphant German parade after the surrender of Paris in 1940. She notes that the German people knew exactly what they were celebrating, and she notes an “uncomfortable truth—that evil is not one person but can be easily activated in more people than we would like to believe when the right conditions congeal”.
Chapter Twenty: The Inevitable Narcissism of Caste
This section looks at the narcissism that is inherent in caste, which is reflected in how the caste sees itself and the leaders they are drawn to. It also considers caste behavior and the tendency to place people based on their origins.
There is a narcissism to caste, since the dominant caste becomes the goalpost and standard against which other castes are measured, and everyone else “is trained to covet proximity to the dominant caste”.
Part of this narcissism means that people within the dominant caste are able to draw self-esteem, even if misplaced, from it, and therefore they are willing to sacrifice in order to preserve this group and their source of self-esteem. That need to preserve the group can give rise to radicalism or fascism. Social psychologist Erich Fromm theorizes that those seeking to preserve the dominant caste can be drawn to narcissistic leaders, since they see their “fortunes and fates as their own” and the are attracted to the lack of doubts in their leader.
Wilkerson notes her own ability to distinguish between high and lower caste members within the Indian caste system (which is roughly based on people’s area of origin in India) based on their appearances, actions, manner of speaking and demeanor.
She compares conversations she has heard in America where people attempt to place each other based on where their families emigrated from in Europe. She recalls one group of white women who were discussing their origins and how one woman being identified as “Nordic” automatically seems to trump the other two women (with Irish and German origins). “Nordics and Anglo-Saxons were the two groups that had always been welcome in America” and it continues to rest comfortably atop the social hierarchy now.
Chapter Twenty-one: The German Girl with the Dark, Wavy Hair
In this short chapter, Wilkerson describes an anecdote about a “German girl with dark, wavy hair” who is questioned about her ethnicity during WWII after the Jews had almost entirely been eliminated from German life. Her family is concerned and looks into their background, but doesn’t find anything. Many years later, the girl’s granddaughter finds a photograph — “a relic of the paranoia of the dominant caste” — of the girl holding a measuring tape to her face to try measure herself against the Aryan standards of what her facial features should be.
Chapter Twenty-two: The Stockholm Syndrome and the Survival of the Subordinate Caste
This section discusses the “Stockholm Syndrome” effect that’s seen in dominant-subordinate race relations, considers what the subordinate caste must do to survive, and it takes a hard look at the context around a few recent feel-good moments involving race that have gone viral on social media.
Within the caste system, lower castes must be mindful and “watchful of the needs” of those at the top. Wilkerson compares the need for lower caste members to see the world through the eyes of the dominant caste, including extending “compassion even when none is forthcoming in exchange”, as a type of Stockholm Syndrome (a phenomenon where people bond with their abusers or captors).
In 2019, a white former policewoman murders a man who is sitting in his own apartment because she mistakenly thought it was her own. She is given a light sentence (10 years) and afterwards, as she cried, the black bailiff gives her a hug. The black judge then steps down to hug and comfort the woman as well. Images and video of these hugs go viral (as feel-good content), but some question whether it really is a “demeaning fetishization of a dominant-caste woman who was being extended comfort and leniency that are denied African-Americans”.
To compare, in another sentencing around the same time, a young black man is sent to jail for 10 days for arriving late to jury duty. The white judge excoriates him, saying that it’s his responsibility as a black man to ensure that black people are represented on the jury.
In 2014 in Portland, a picture emerges of a black boy, Devonte Hart, with a sign offering “free hugs” being hugged by a police officer. While many found it touching, on it’s face, there’s the discomfort of why parents would allow their child to offer hugs to strangers. Furthermore, there’s the question of why the boy’s face seems so anguished.
Years later, it’s revealed that two white women had adopted Devonte along with a number of black kids and were being paid by the state to raise them. However, they were holding them captive, abusing and withholding food from them and using them as social media props. When authorities finally close in on the women in 2018, the women kill the boys in a murder-suicide by driving off a cliff.
In 2015 in Charleston, nine black churchgoers are massacred in a church and “families of the victims almost immediately extended forgiveness to the unrepentant white killer”. Some found this moving, but it’s another example of being subordinate means having “to be twice as good”, but still only “seen as half as worthy”. Wilkerson quotes essayist Roxanne Gay who wrote that “what white people are really asking for when they demand forgiveness from a traumatized community is absolution”.
Finally, Wilkerson recounts the experiences of a Dalit man who explains the lengths he goes to in order to shield himself from further attacks on his dignity like getting kicked out of a store. In the struggle to maintain his sense of dignity, he feels pressure to buy something if he’s in a store longer than 30 minutes and doesn’t feel at ease to take up a waiter’s time.
Chapter Twenty-three: Shock Troops on the Borders of Hierarchy
This section deals with incidents of people rising above their caste and how they’ve served as the “shock troops” in dealing with the consequences of our rigid caste system.
Group transport and public spaces have often been the “test tubes” of caste interaction since they create confrontations that test the rules of caste.
In the Antebellum South, free black passengers on a ship end up presenting a problem with regards to dining order. Their class was technically the same as whites, but caste dictated that black passengers eat after any white people on the ship. Instead, the freed black passengers end up having to eat in a pantry after everyone else.
In modern day, on a 2015 Napa wine tour, a book club consisting of black women ride a wine train, but is deemed “too loud” by the maître d’. They are ejected and police are summoned. In 2018, black golfers are kicked off a Pennsylvania Court and the police are called because they are not playing fast enough.
Wilkerson recounts a few of her own examples of personal encounters in first or business class flights. On a flight to Denver, a flight attendant refuses to assist her after assuming she is not in first class, despite evidence to the contrary such as her boarding with other first class passengers. On another flight, another passenger keeps shoving into her seat, unhappy about her putting her seat back, and the flight attendant declines to intervene. On a different flight, another passenger wordlessly shoves up against her while getting his baggage, despite her vocal protests, and everyone watching on declines to intervene.
Wilkerson ends the section by adding two more examples of interactions from flights. In 2013, a white man slaps a black baby as it cries during descent. In 2017, a Vietnamese-American man is part of a group of passengers randomly selected to be pulled from an overbooked United Flight. When he refuses, on account of being a doctor who must return to his patients who is in a seat he booked and paid for, he is forcibly dragged off the plane by police, suffering injuries including the loss of teeth, as onlookers watch.
Chapter Twenty-four: Cortisol, Telomeres, and the Lethality of Caste
This section discusses the deleterious health (physiological) implications of caste.
African-Americans living in America exhibit higher than average rates of health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease, an occurrence not seen in Africans living in sub-Saharan Africa. These finding indicate that the stress and friction of racial prejudice is deadly and has real health implications.
A “key indicator of health and longevity” are telomeres (a “repeating sequence of double-stranded DNA at the end of a chromosome”). The longer these are, the healthier you are since frequent cell divisions shorten these and indicate premature aging, generally due to chronic stress.
This type of cell damage is seen in anyone with “exposure to social inequity and difficult life conditions”, so the average low-income white person has a shorter telomere than a wealthy white person. However, among African Americans (and Mexicans), the average middle-class person exhibits more cell damage than a lower-income person. Wilkerson posits this to be because a middle-class marginalized person is exposed to greater discrimination because they are rising above their caste (see Chapter 15).
Other physiological effects of discrimination researcher have seen include a build-up of unhealthy (“visceral”) fat and inflammation, all of which are seen in all types of marginalized groups, including white women who experience discrimination. Life expectancies are also shorter for lower-caste people relative to their higher-caste counterparts at every level of education.
In the 1990’s, a social scientist asks a group of white college students how much they’d need to be paid to be black for the next 50 years. They determine the price is $50 million ($1 million per year), indicating a recognition of the toll required to be paid to protect oneself from discrimination and the dangers of marginalization.
Part Six: Backlash
Chapter Twenty-five: A Change in the Script
This section discusses the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States and his presidency.
Wilkerson makes the point that Barack Obama was always pristine (Harvard educated, photogenic, talented orator, scandal-free, etc.) candidate running against a beloved man (McCain), but McCain had made missteps, including the notable one of choosing a flawed running-mate. Additionally, Obama’s backstory was one that naturally made him a more acceptable African-American candidate, given that he is mixed-race and was born in Kenya (free from direct connections to slavery which might make the dominant caste queasy).
With the election of Obama, some in the dominant caste proudly proclaimed that “racism was a thing of the past”, despite the fact that the majority of white voters still voted against him in both 2008 and 2012. Wilkerson notes that the United States still remains divided in essentially the same way it was during the Civil War. Since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (giving citizenship rights to African Americans), “no Democrat running for president has ever won a majority of the white vote”.
The Obama presidency additionally triggered a crisis for the dominant caste, given that it disrupted the centrality of white dominance. As such, it kicked off an era of obstruction and disrespect from the opposing party. Meanwhile, the Tea Party emerged with promises to “take our country back”, Republicans began focusing on changing election laws to increase barriers to voting and hate groups proliferated.
Obama’s accomplishments in moving forward “race-neutral goals” helped his approval ratings, but it “masked an undercurrent of anxiety” (quoting Ashley Jardina) over the changing demographics of our nation.
Chapter Twenty-six: Turning Point and the Resurgence of Caste
This section looks at the election of Donald Trump and what that tells us about caste in America.
According to Wilkerson, in 2016 people were taken by surprise partially because they failed to understand how powerful and entrenched caste and the maintenance of that social order can be. She rejects the idea (commonly put forth by liberals) that white voters were “voting against their interests”, but instead argues that they assessed the situation and understood the longer-term goal of dominance (a status that has historically afforded them land, advantage, self-esteem, etc.) was entirely in their interest, even if it was a sub-conscious calculation.
Wilkerson also asserts that the political parties have come to be treated according to their association with their proximate castes. Democratic candidates have faced more scrutiny and double standards, while Republicans have gotten more automatic white support. She also suggests that Hillary may have experienced the “Bradley Effect” (named after Tom Bradley) whereby voters tell pollsters socially acceptable answers instead of their true voting intentions.
Similarly, Wilkerson notes that the parties treat their bases in ways consistent with caste as well. Republicans proudly and unapologetically rally their white base, while Democrats are less enthusiastic about their base, possibly taking them for granted, and instead expend much effort reinforcing the centrality of the dominant caste by trying to appeal to white voters at the margins.
Wilkerson cites political scientist Diana Mutz in explaining how the 2016 election results were a reaction to ““dominant group status threat”, which is a “much tougher opponent than an economic downturn”, because to overcome it requires changing a “psychological mindset”.
Chapter Twenty-seven: The Symbols of Caste
This section is about confederate monuments, statues and other “symbols of caste”. It also considers how Germany has managed their past compared to the United States.
In August of 2017, a white supremacist rally takes place in Charlottesville, Virginia amidst rising tensions over a statue of Robert E. Lee, and a counter-protestor is killed by a car that is driven intentionally into the crowd. The statue is one of 1,700 confederate statues in the United States. Even after the abolishment of slavery in 1865, there remains in many places a glorification of the enslavement of the lower caste through these monuments, the names of streets and schools, plaques and stamps etc.
In New Orleans the process of removing four Confederate statues, a decision from the mayor, became complicated when potential contractors were sent threats and one even had his car fire-bombed. When the first one was finally removed in April 2017, a team of SWAT personnel oversaw the location and the crew wore masks to protect their identities for their own safety. The mayor later explained that these statues “were created as political weapons” to “celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy”. Meanwhile, in staunchly Republican Alabama, legislation was passed to ensure no confederate statues could be removed.
To compare, Germany has no monuments that celebrate their Nazi past. Wilkerson notes how displaying swastikas is illegal in Germany, but the confederate flag remains the state flag of Mississippi. In Germany, people must privately mourn their ancestors who died for the Nazi cause, but in America, the South still regularly conducts Civil War reenactments. Similarly, Nazi leaders were tracked down and punished for their crimes and Germany continues to pay reparations. Meanwhile, slave masters in America faced no penalties for their actions and of course no reparations have ever been paid. Finally, Germany continues to educate their youth about and promote having a sense of responsibility about their past.
Chapter Twenty-eight: Democracy on the Ballot
In this section, Wilkerson recounts a conversation in 2015 (amidst the backlash against Obama’s presidency and the specter of Trump), about how much and to what era the country has backtracked or regressed in terms of social justice.
Chapter Twenty-nine: The Price We Pay for a Caste System
This section is about what Americans are willing to give up in order to keep the lower caste
Wilkerson opens by describing how a Nobel Prize-winning physicist ended up with mounting medical bills as he grew older and ended up having to auction off his Nobel medal for funds before his death. She then notes how the United States is unique among peer nations in its unwillingness to provide healthcare. She credits writer Jonathan Chait for pointing out that this “hard-heartedness” is likely due to the “hierarchy that arose from slavery”. In short, Americans don’t see the lower caste as similar to themselves and therefore are against policies that may provide benefits to the people within it, even if it means giving up those benefits for themselves.
Moreover, Wilkerson argues that the caste system builds rivalry and distrust that is bad for everyone. The United States has one of the highest rates of gun deaths, one of the highest incarceration rates, one of the poorest life expectancies for a high-income country, poor childbirth and infant mortality rates, is lagging in terms of math and reading skills and continues to drop in terms of the happiness of its citizens relative to other countries.
In 2020, the onset of the coronavirus pandemic put on display the shortcomings and flaws of the American “social ecosystem” — from denying that the virus could take hold here, to scapegoating Asian-Americans, to watching as lower caste members became the essential workers put at risk.
Part Seven: Awakening
Chapter Thirty: Shedding the Sacred Thread
This section discusses the experiences of a Brahmin (highest caste) man who decides to remove his sacred thread (a symbol of his status, worn since he was a boy) after seeing the inequities and untruths of the caste system. He describes the sacred thread as a “fake crown that we wear”.
The Radicalization of the Dominant Caste
Here, Wilkerson recounts an experience with a friend from the dominant caste who got very upset when they went to a restaurant and received poor service compared to all the tables around them. The friend blew up and accused the restaurant of being racist. Wilkerson comments that she’s glad her friend gained that insight into the treatment of black America, but also considers how if she (Wilkerson) blew up like that at each instance of racism she experienced, she’d be screaming every day.
Chapter Thirty-one: The Heart Is the Last Frontier
Wilkerson describes an anecdote from 2016 about a plumber coming to address a water leak in the basement of her house. The man seems apathetic about helping her, offering what appears to be a superficial, incorrect solution. Despite her annoyance Wilkerson tries to build a rapport with him talking about their respective families, and it works. Once she gets him talking, he ends up digging into the problem and getting to the source of the issue.
Epilogue: A World Without Caste
In 1932, Einstein arrived in the United States, surprised to find that, as a Jew escaping Nazi Germany, “he had landed in yet another caste system”, noting that in his new home the “worst disease is the treatment of the Negro”. He continued to be an ally in the fight against discrimination and support civil rights activists through his life.
Wilkerson notes that the caste system will not be ended “by a single law or any one person, no matter how powerful”, but notes the how everyone in the system can contribute to its demise by refusing to adhere to the dictates of caste. She likens her work to a housing inspector who has come to identify the problems in a house (see the old house metaphor in Chapter Two), but reminds the reader that the onus is still on everyone, especially the dominant caste, to do the work it takes to dismantle the system. Ultimately, “everyone benefits when society meets the needs of the disadvantaged”, and Nazi Germany serves as evidence that a caste system can be dismantled. Wilkerson also brings up the changing demographics of the U.S. populace and wonders whether America will continue to hold fast to its stated belief in majority rule once the majority is no longer white.
In closing, Wilkerson considers how much talent and ingenuity from millions of people has been wasted, stunted or lost due to caste and division. She suggests a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to assess the full costs of what the caste system has cost us. She also advocates for people to employ a “radical empathy” towards others — which requires edifying oneself, listening and then trying to understand someone else’s perspective. She also says that tolerance is not enough (“Every spiritual tradition says love your neighbor as yourself, not tolerate them”).
Wilkerson ends the book with a reminder that “a world without caste would set everyone free”.