Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

What’s the difference between “Caste” and “Race”? I’ll admit, before this book came out I had never heard of the term Caste before beyond a casual mention online or in a textbook. Caste is an architecture of human hierarchy, a subconscious code of instructions for maintaining the social order — looking at caste is like holding the country’s x-ray to the light, according to Wilkerson. It is also a 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. Wilkerson goes into great detail to point out the differences between Caste and Race, and she uses three distinct examples — the American south, Nazi Germany, and India — to state her case. This was another difficult read, especially the sections on Nazi Germany, which uses concrete and specific examples to point out that their “model” of hierarchy was based on US, the U.S., and what we did to Black people and other non-white races in the states. Wilkerson even points out that the Nazi’s felt we even went TOO far in our discriminatory race separations, which is just impossible to ignore and undeniably painful to read. The truth hurts with this one, but her overall point is that Caste still exists because we allow it to exist, and only if we acknowledge the past and the ruptures that we have created can we fix the problem. It’s a huge, monumental, daunting task — but honestly, what choice do we have?

  • America is an old house — we can’t declare the work over
  • whatever is right or wrong with it, it is our problem to deal with
  • Caste = architecture of human hierarchy, subconscious code of instructions for maintaining the social order; looking at caste is like holding the country’s x ray to the light
  • 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
  • rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep ranked groupings apart
  • Nazi Germany, American south, India
  • endures because it is justified as divine will, originating from sacred text or the presumed laws of nature, reinforced through the culture and passed down through generations
  • about power — which groups have it and which do not
  • resources — which caste is seen as worthy
  • respect, authority and assumptions of competence
  • in america, signal of rank is what we call race — the race they have been assigned to or are perceived to belong to is the visible cue to their caste
  • caste and race are neither synonymous or mutually exclusive — reinforce one another
  • Race = visible agent of the unseen force of caste
  • Caste = bones, race the skin
  • race is what we see, physical traits given arbitrary meaning
  • caste = infrastructure that holds each group in its place
  • Caste is fixed and rigid; race is fluid and superficial
  • whoever fit the definition of white, at whatever point in history, was granted legal rights and privileges of the dominant caste
  • invisibility gives it power and longevity
  • operating system for economic, political, social interactions in the US from its gestation
  • Indian lowest caste called Untouchables/Dalits
  • everything you could and could not do was based upon what you looked like and that manifested itself north and south
  • racism isn’t efficient; caste is more accurate
  • before the US, in Virginia there was caste — being christian generally exempted european workers from lifetime enslavement
  • slavery was the basis for economic and social order — slavery was the country for a quarter millennium
  • slavery was an american innovation, created by and for the benefit of elites of the dominant caste — had existed nowhere in the world
  • human beings were currency, machines who existed solely for the profit of their owners — enslavers richest people in the world
  • new immigrants walked into a preexisting hierarchy — czech or other to ‘white’, set against something not white
  • “no one was white before they came to america” — baldwin
  • immigrants had to separate and distance themselves from the established lowest caste — learn how to be white
  • the making of the new world europeans became white, africans black everyone else yellow, brown, red
  • race/raza — spanish world originally used to refer to the caste or quality of authentic horses
  • race is a manmade invention with no basis in science or biology
  • caucasian — german prof. of medicine — coined it on the basis of a favorite skull — was european
  • human genome project established we are all 99.9 percent the same — all evolved in the last 100K years from a small number of tribes that migrated out of africa
  • race was used to exploit class/color is a fact, race is a social construct
  • caste — portuguese word casta, “race” or “breed”
  • caste predates the notion of race — structure, ranking, boundaries, living, breathing entity, patterns of social order that have been in place for so long they look natural
  • maintain your ranking, advantage, privilege, denigrate others not like you, beneath you — stay in a fixed place
  • caste is a factor in interactions across all lines in our everyday lives — invisibility gives it power and longevity
  • perhaps only Jews have as long a history of suffering from discrimination as the Dalits in India
  • in india, an elaborate framework of a system, thousands of subcastes, jatos, correlated to region and village — surnames most readily convey caste
  • third reich began asking how the americans did it, we were centuries ahead of them
  • germany understood our fixation on race purity and eugenics, pseudoscience of grading humans by presumed group superiority
  • inspired by American eugenics and their authors, Hitler called The Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant as “his bible”
  • Hitler studied america from afar, both envying and admiring it — looked to us for inspiration
  • they actually couldn’t believe we went as far as we did, thought in some cases it was too far, even for them
  • german blood laws, for Jews, based on american laws
  • didn’t go as far as us with the “one drop of blood” law that we had for blacks/too harsh even for them
  • “silence in the face of evil is evil itself”
  • we sold postcards of lynchings/not even the nazi’s sold postcards of auschwitz
  • pillars of caste
  • divine will and laws of nature — Curse of Ham/darkest descendants would be subordinate
  • heritability — new law in america gave children the status of the mother/allowed slave owners to rape black women and not care for the kids because they were black
  • endogamy — restricting marriage to people within the same caste — only those with similar traits can legally mate — controlled breeding
  • purity of dominant caste, fear of pollution from lower castes — separate but equal
  • US created theory that a single drop of blood could taint purity — immigration and marriage laws created restrictions
  • fifth = division of labor based on ones place in the hierarchy
  • dehumanize the group, and you have completed the world of dehumanizing any single person within it
  • individuals are no longer individuals — single mass of undifferentiated bodies, no longer humans, not needing empathy, objects for total control
  • James Marion Sims would make incisions into a baby’s head to test a theory for curing seizures — opened up babies skulls with cobbler’s tools, puncturing the scalp — was later heralded as founding father of gynecology
  • cruelty as a means of control, terror as enforcement
  • native americans occasionally skinned and made into bridle reins which Andrew Jackson used when he went horseback riding
  • hierarchy amongst concentration camp captives — kappa — captives were forced to put prisoners into ovens
  • inborn superiority of the dominant caste, inherent inferiority of the subordinate
  • Indians also fixated on skin color, hatred of darker indians
  • dominant group status threat — no negro can attain that of whites
  • unease, displacement, fear of survival
  • unconscious bias — behaviors based on subconscious prejudgments by people who professed and believed in equality — 70 to 80 percent of whites
  • crack is a black problem — opioids is a white crisis
  • scapegoat — finding the one or ones who can e identified with evil and wrongdoing, blamed for it and cast out of the community in order to leave the remaining members with a feeling of guiltlessness, atoned
  • post civil war, they blamed blacks for the loss of the war
  • white women are the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action
  • dominant caste will step in and assert itself wherever it chooses, to monitor or dismiss those deemed beneath them as they see fit
  • in WWI, French soldiers treated black american soldiers with respect — white american soldiers were offended, so they told french soldiers the way it was supposed to be, and they complied
  • idea of vaccinations first suggested by Cotton Mather’s slave Onesimus during a smallpox outbreak in 1721
  • range of color of blacks in america is due in a large part to slave owners raping their slaves, dominant caste over the course of centuries
  • caste thrives on dissension and inequality, envy and false rivalries
  • what happens when a big enough majority is persuaded and is open to being persuaded
  • humans — insecure, suseptible to propaganda that gave them an identity to believe in, feel chosen and important
  • group narcism leads to fascism — extreme form of group narcissism leads to malignant narcissism, which gives rise to a fanatical fasicst politics, extreme radicalism — working class whites feeling superior to blacks
  • narcissism of leader who is convinced of his greatness, and who has no doubts, is precisely what attracts the narcissism of those who submit to him
  • Charleston church shooting — forgiveness to the unrepentant white killer, but also in line with society’s expectation the the subordinate caste bear its suffering and absolve its transgressors
  • blacks have to be twice as good in trauma, in order to be seen as half as worthy
  • black peole have to forgive to survive/white people want absolution from racism
  • middle class black men and women are more likely to suffer from hypertension and stress than those with lower incomes — higher expectations, troubles, higher levels of discrimination in some senses
  • they press against the boundaries of caste/out of place socially
  • Obama’s story freed people in the dominant caste from having to think about the unsavory corners of american history
  • he won despite the bulk of the white electorate
  • Johnson predicted post civil rights act of 1964 that dems would lose the american south for a generation — since then no democrat has ever won the majority of the white vote
  • tea party “take our country back” birthers, “food stamp” president (obama), “Death to Obama”
  • hate groups surged during his tenure, 16M people deleted from voting registration lists
  • undercut of anxiety about our changing nation
  • 2042 — whites no longer the majority
  • Trump wins = caste endures, maintain, survive
  • blacks taking jobs from whites, perceived — radicalized economics
  • racial attitudes reflected white partisanship during Obama’s presidency
  • people with overlapping self interests will often gravitate toward the personal characteristic that across them the most status
  • Trump was ushered into office by whites concerned about their status
  • dems expend energy and weekend their power pining for die hard voters of their opponents while taking for granted the majority that they already have
  • that majority’s wishes (clean water, affordable housing, police brutality, etc) most often put on back burner
  • what distinguishes white evangelicals from other christians and others is not theology but politics
  • Trumps win goes well beyond the initial theories of economic insecurity as the driver of the white vote
  • more than 1700 confederate monuments in the US
  • 230 memorials to Robert E Lee
  • Erwin Rommel was a great general, but there are not statues of him in Germany — in germany, they are ashamed — why aren’t we?
  • fictionalized, sanitized confederacy, ignoring the death, enslavement, terror
  • created as political weapons, effort to hide the truth that they were on the wrong side of history and humanity
  • memorials to Jews all over Germany — Hitler’s body was dragged to a nearby lot and set afire after he killed himself/burial site was plowed over
  • crime to display a swastika in germany — in the US until recently, the rebel flag was in Mississippi
  • civil war reenactments, more people sign up for the confederacy
  • restitution for holocaust survivors — in the US, slaveholders got the restitution
  • Einstein spoke out for the NAACP, wanted to end lynching, hosted Marian Anderson, taught at Lincoln (black) university
  • caste persists because we allow it to persist
  • each of us, to correct the ruptures we have inherited
  • everyone benefits when society meets the needs of the disadvantaged — civil rights era benefited all women and their peers
  • the nazi’s were just ordinary human beings — can be created and dismantled, like they did in germany
  • before 1965 voting act, we were not a true democracy
  • empathy = seeing yourself in someone else shoes and imagining how you would feel
  • radical empathy — putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel
  • kindred connection from a place of deep knowledge that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it
  • we are not personally responsible for what people who look like us did centuries ago — we are responsible for what good or ill we do to people alive with us today

I love books, I have a ton of them, and I take notes on all of them. I wanted to share all that I have learned and will continue to learn. I hope you enjoy.

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