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Author Isabel Wilkerson offers new framework for understanding race in America  

November 20, 2020

Isabel Wilkerson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and critically acclaimed author, presented a talk over Zoom on the evening of November 12 about her newest book, titled “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” The event, sponsored by the Bowdoin Office of Events and Summer Programs and the Donald M. Zuckert ’56 fund, was moderated by President Clayton Rose and consisted of both a lecture and a question-and-answer period.

Published in August of this year, “Caste” explores the systemic oppression of Black people in the United States through the lens of global caste systems. In her book, Wilkerson draws from research about social stratification in India and Nazi Germany and compares these examples to the history of racial hierarchy in the United States.

Wilkerson began the talk by explaining why she chose to discard the word racism in favor of the concept of caste.

“I came to the realization that that word [racism] was not sufficient to capture the all-encompassing graded ranking and hierarchy that was enforced to such a degree that people would make distinctions at every single level of daily existence,” she said.

Wilkerson defines caste as “artificial, arbitrary graded rankings in a society that can determine one’s standing.” She argues that, because these categories are arbitrary, they look different in each culture, with race being the mechanism of a caste in the United States.

“Caste is the bones, the underlying infrastructure of any society, and then race, or whatever the metric is that determines who can fit where, is the skin of that infrastructure,” she said.

During her talk, she told the story about a time when Martin Luther King Jr. visited India in 1959. King was initially uncomfortable when the principal of a school there referred to him as “a fellow Untouchable [the lowest position in the Indian caste system] from America.” After further consideration, however, King recognized the similarities between the United States and India, and he came to the conclusion that he himself and the 20 million other Black people in America at that time had been born into non-privileged positions in an American caste system.

“His realization is something that can help us to see the points of intersection between our society and the societies that are more commonly viewed as being caste systems,” Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson added that applying the term to the United States may offer a more productive way of understanding structural inequality.

“The word ‘caste’ allows us to see ourselves differently,” Wilkerson said. “It liberates us, in some ways, from the often restrictive and calcifying emotions of guilt and shame and blame that can sometimes obstruct our ability to really see what is underneath.”

Rose began the question-and-answer following the discussion by asking Wilkerson why she chose to write “Caste.”

Wilkerson explained that the work emerged from her previous book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” which follows the history of The Great Migration, a time period when African Americans fled persecution in the Jim Crow South for cities in the North, Midwest and West United States.

“I came to the recognition that what I was really writing about was not just the people relocating and fleeing one thing for another, but that their actions showed that there was actually a hierarchy that was at work,” she said.

Wilkerson also answered questions from the audience about the origins of caste, recent movements to challenge structural oppression and the role of radical empathy in transforming our society.

One audience member asked about cultures that have avoided forming a caste system.

“The places that have less hierarchy, the places where people feel more of an investment in their fellow citizenry also end up having higher levels of happiness,” Wilkerson said. “Americans may not see how much they have in common with fellow citizens and so are less generous in apportioning things that would be for the common good.”

The final question asked about the power of individual action to create change.

“If we sit in despair and think of, ‘there’s nothing that an individual can do,’ then we do nothing,” Wilkerson said. “I mean, I have to believe in the power of the individual decision, because that’s what the Great Migration was. [It] is the reason why I even exist. My parents wouldn’t have met if there hadn’t been a Great Migration. And the Great Migration is an indication of the decision [to look for something better].”

Wilkerson ended the talk by calling on all sectors of society to identify and address structural oppression.

“It takes everything—it takes absolutely everything—to create a fairer, more just world,” she said.


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