Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is a commentary on race in America. It minces no words in accusing the American social structure of being a caste system on par with the Indian castes and even comparable to the totalitarian anti-Jewish racism of Nazi Germany. In this time of racial unrest, the book has become a nationwide bestseller and a 2020 Oprah’s Book Club selection. Many hope to find in it an explanation that will help them understand what is happening in America today.
Author Isabel Wilkerson develops a narrative that is meant to shock readers—and there is much to shock. She writes intimately of her own experiences as an African-American. She relates the hardships of the African-American community throughout American history.
To readers who are not African American, the impact of the author’s passionate style might convince them that they cannot have a valid opinion about race since they have not personally experienced the facts, feelings and emotions related in the text.
Making the Case for Caste
However, the point of the book is merely to convey facts, emotions and experiences. Based on these elements, the author builds her case for caste. Her relationships with members of the Hindu “untouchable” Dalit caste in India provide her with a parallel narrative that allows her to make analogies to America. She puts together a theory about the existence of a rigid caste of oppression in America that self-perpetuates antagonism between the races. She details how both sides sense and play their role inside this caste system.
Like it or not, everyone appears doomed to play a role. “Just as DNA is the code of instructions for cell development,” she explains, “caste is the operating system for economic, political, and social interaction in the United States from the time of its gestation.”
The Problem with Systems
And that is the problem with books that propose rigid systems. Things don’t always fit together.
Caste is a system that transcends personal relationships. Based on her dramatic descriptions, Ms. Wilkerson invites readers to put aside their impressions and life experiences regarding race. Readers of all races are asked to discount the evidence of their good interracial relationships over the past decades. All must embrace the caste system as the only possible explanation that explains what is happening in America today.
Systems cannot know the interior of the hearts of every American. However, the author plumbs the depths of the “dominant caste,” outlining all their negative feelings, resentments and emotions as indisputable facts. And yet many readers of the “dominant caste” might feel her characterizations about them are not part of their experience. They do not harbor the resentments they are said to harbor. They do not possess the hatred that they are told they have. They do not fit inside the boxes constructed inside the system.
Such protestations are in vain. Throughout the book, exasperated readers are told that there is nothing they can do to rid themselves of their supposed attitudes. It is an invisible and “subconscious code of instructions,” which determines their behavior even when they want to do the contrary. Caste “embeds into our bones an unconscious ranking of human characteristics and sets forth the rules, expectations, and stereotypes that have been used to justify brutalities against entire groups inside our species.”
The “dominant caste” is informed of its “unconscious bias” that is “so automatic that it kicks in before a person can process it.” Indeed, even a person’s biological system is involved since caste teaches an “autonomic, unconscious, reflective response to expectations from a thousand image inputs and neurological societal downloads that affix people to certain roles based on what they look like…”
Such analysis suffers from the defect that affects all those who insist upon seeing everything through a particular prism. The prism becomes the obsessive key by which all things are explained. It comes to determine behavior and thus deny the role of the free will. This is the stuff that gives birth to totalizing ideologies.
A Larger Narrative
The telltale sign of postmodern thinking is found in citations from all over academia scattered throughout the text that support identity politics. Had the author maintained her focus on race, it would be more convincing. However, Ms. Wilkerson could not resist the temptation to include all “oppressed minorities” inside the same prism and watering down her message. Thus, Native Americans, indigenous peoples, immigrants, minorities of any kind and (curiously) women of any race find themselves in the lowest caste inside the narrative, albeit with less emphasis.
This inclusion introduces a class struggle dialectic that seamlessly enters into the broad spectrum of issues on the liberal agenda. The book soon inserts itself (perhaps inadvertently) into the middle of the Culture War. For example, moral issues like abortion and homosexuality are presented as concerns to “white evangelicals.”
The final message is that the system must be changed to a more open and egalitarian society, but little about how it might be done. The author hopes for an awakening wherein each person would overcome his or her unconscious bias and imagine a world without caste.
God Is Absent
In justice to Ms. Wilkerson, given humanity’s fallen nature, the evil that can be done to others is unlimited. The examples of Communist China, North Korea and totalitarian Islamic regimes (not mentioned in the book) are testimonies of man’s never-ending inhumanity to fellow men. Because people have given in to unbridled passions, a universal moral crisis is breaking up and destroying millions of families of all nations and races. The “origins of our discontents” are not caste but sin.
Unfortunately, Caste is a secular book that will not admit such a possibility. God is tragically absent from its perspective. It is lamentable since God’s Grace is a much needed and powerful force to overcome human cruelty and change hearts and minds.
To deal with the evils of human fallen nature, the Church went forth and baptized all nations, races and peoples, instructing them how to live lives of Christian virtue and attain salvation. The Church held that everyone is created with an immortal soul redeemed by Our Lord Jesus Christ. Hence, all souls matter, regardless of race.
The solution to the racial strife is to be found much more in Christian charity and harmony than in class struggle division. Strong families and virtuous living are the means by which all Americans might face the moral crisis that is destroying all communities regardless of race. What is missing is a return to God. This is the missing message that needs to be heard in the ongoing debate.
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