The Origins of Our Discontents

Book - 2020 | First edition.
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""As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power--which groups have it and which do not." In this brilliant book, Isabel Wilkerson gives us a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America as she explores, through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings. Beyond race, class, or other factors, there is a powerful caste system that influences people's lives and behavior and the nation's fate. Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, stigma, and more. Using riveting stories about people--including Martin Luther King, Jr., baseball's Satchel Paige, a single father and his toddler son, Wilkerson herself, and many others--she shows the ways that the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day. She documents how the Nazis studied the racial systems in America to plan their out-cast of the Jews; she discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires that there be a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she writes about the surprising health costs of caste, in depression and life expectancy, and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics. Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity. Beautifully written, original, and revealing, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is an eye-opening story of people and history, and a reexamination of what lies under the surface of ordinary lives and of America life today"-- Provided by publisher.
Publisher: New York : Random House, [2020]
Edition: First edition.
ISBN: 9780593230251
Characteristics: xvii, 476 pages ; 25 cm


From Library Staff

""As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power--which groups have it and which do not... Read More »

Steve is diving into Isabel Wilkerson's follow up to Warmth of Other Suns.

Oprah has said that Caste by Isabel Wilkerson is her most vital Book Club selection yet. "It explains why we are where we are in terms of racial injustice and inequality," Oprah says, "and it shows us how to rebuild a world in which all are truly equal and free."

A magisterial overview of how caste has been implemented in three different places. This is an important look at how the U.S., Nazi Germany, and India implemented caste and how it affects each country. Don't think that this is a dry academic read; Wilkerson is a genius with words and incorporates... Read More »

From the critics

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STPL_JessH Jan 16, 2021

Caste is excellent. Absolutely excellent. Wilkerson writes in clear, accessible language that is both critical and convincing. This book will make it very difficult to "turn away" or ignore the realities of racism: its history, and current influence. I really appreciate the way Wilkerson explores the connections between racism and caste systems. Her explanation makes so much sense that I thought "of course! Why haven't we been talking about society in this way all along?!" I kept reading and Wilkerson answered that question. I thought she provided an excellent mix of public and personal examples and I really respect the privacy she affords the people she describes. I highly recommend this book. If you are reading currently (January 2021), know that there are many, many online opportunities to engage with Wilkerson (and other experts who are impressed by her work). There are webinars, live talks, and other virtual events. If you love the book and want to hear more, follow her on social media.

Jan 11, 2021

Rated the book 4.5/5 because I think more people should read it. But it was a tough read. It is one thing to be "know" there is discrimination today, but something else to be confronted with the descriptions in this book.

Dec 26, 2020

As far as sociological/historical books on racism go, this was not my favorite. I found the stylized narrative to be distracting, and the rhetorical flourishes made me cringe. "The ash rose from the crematorium into the air, carried by karma and breeze" is the kind of sentence you expect to find in an undergrad creative writing class, not in a book by a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. It, like many sentences in this book, is painfully overwritten, and instead of leading the reader to an organic emotional revelation through good writing, it tells us what we should be feeling via its plodding language.

Additionally, Wilkerson's tendency to strip names & identifying details from her real-life examples of caste in action gave them a gauzy, unrealistic air. To be clear, I do not think she made anything up, but the way they were presented made them feel made up, like they'd been manufactured to illustrate a point in the hopes that a parable would have more emotional impact than a bare-bones fact of life. As someone who grew up hearing sermons every Sunday morning in which an evangelical preacher artfully plucked stories from books, movies, and news headlines and whittled them down to their bare-minimum components in order to make his point, I found this style frustrating. It felt like I was being led along a path of pre-labeled emotions, rather than invited into a re-visioning of history that challenged what I've previously learned.

I also wish Wilkerson had been more specific in describing this American caste she spent an entire book talking about. As it is, we have white people on top and Black people on bottom, with other marginalized groups an amorphous jumble in the middle that she remembered to mention when it served her point. It is not one person's job to write the be-all, end-all account of racism in America, but a little more definition would have gone a long way. I was particularly frustrated with the way indigenous people were left pretty completely out of the narrative, save for a couple off-hand mentions of genocide here and there. (This is not a new practice; had I not been reading An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States at the same time, I'm not confident I would have noticed it, so thorough is the colonizing tendency to erase Native history.)

In conclusion, I'm sure many people will find this book helpful; the chapters on Germany and the way the Nazis studied American society to devise a way to make white supremacy legal were eye-opening, and I don't regret the time I spent with it. Overall, though, it's a bit of a disappointment. If you're going to read it, I'd encourage picking up Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong, Good Talk by Mira Jacob, and any book in the Re-Visioning America series to read alongside it

IndyPL_SteveB Dec 25, 2020

If you are trying to understand the racial and class divisions in the United States today, this would be an excellent first book. It is well-organized and researched; but just as importantly, it is readable and interesting. Wilkerson’s first book, *The Warmth of Other Suns*, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction and was a best-seller. *Caste* is one of the best basic books for you to understand not just racism but the many ways in general that human societies set up hierarchies. In a hierarchy, some people are higher and some people are lower. In a *caste* hierarchy, those roles are set up from birth; so no matter how smart or beautiful or successful or rich individuals may be, they can never completely go beyond their caste level.

For most of us, the word “caste” evokes the formal class divisions in the Hindu society of India, where anyone born as a Brahmin takes precedence over all other levels. But it is not just India. The United States clearly has had such a caste system for more than 400 years. The system has been set-up so that the artificial class of “whites” are the upper caste, with various “lower forms” of “near-whites” (Italians, Irish, etc., depending on the time period), Asians, Hispanics, and Jews, fighting for spots in the middle. But always on the bottom are the Native Americans and the African Americans. As much as we try to deny it and as much as many people have tried to reform the system, it continues in mutated form today.

For me, the biggest surprise from Wilkerson’s book is that the early planners of Nazi dominance in Germany before World War II modeled their own caste system – where Jews were placed in the outcaste roll – on their visits to the United States to study the Jim Crow system of the 1920s and 1930s. Apparently the German leadership was later mystified about why Americans called the Germans prejudiced and actually joined the Allies.

This book will make you look at yourself and our country in a very different way.

Dec 16, 2020

The title, an argument lack of objective persuasion.
A weak aspect: resource scarcity is not perceived, it’s a reality. We live in a society/system that rewards competition, our lives are achieved. Caste won’t end, relying on human conscience. Human nature allows caste persists (e.g. we may change it from skin color to mental attributes etc...)
The book presents remarkable, extensive materials, but overwhelms readers with compassion without a concrete solution (if any) or a hope brighter than anguish inflamed candles.

I wonder,
why India's caste last,
when dynasties went under;
why Nazis caste blast
the world quick in shudder.

Chapters swell,
narration structures overlap to tell;
time and again, points made well,
salvo and burst, emotions not to quell.

Rhetoric from/for bottom rung.
empathy choked my lung:
pro justice though, align with the dominant,
my shame unsung.

I ponder,
resource scarcity is not perceived;
compete is believed, life is achieved.
Caste is always yonder,
not by divine will, is human ill.
When no one to conquer, no country with border,
but a planet to fill,
communism would be a magic pill.

Dec 11, 2020

Very helpful in providing context for the present deep divisions in American society.

mko123 Dec 11, 2020

This sweeping history of caste, or ranking people by traits they have no control over, goes back to Roman times, and has warped relationships and lives in Africa, India, Hitler’s Germany and continues on, alive and well in his country. The author gives a multitude of heinous examples, including the many micro- aggressions she has experienced. This is a must-read if you are trying to to educate yourself about what we can do to end racism.

Dec 07, 2020

I was a bit disappointed in this but for purely personal reasons and I would still encourage others to read it. After reading and admiring The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration a few years ago, I was really looking forward to this new book and thought the idea of looking at caste was an interesting approach with a broader scope than just focusing on race inequality. This is where the book failed for me. It was filled with dozens of examples, often one right after another, of blatant injustices that the author referred to as caste, but appeared to me as racial injustice. I think the examples are important but the whole book began to feel like a racial rant at some point. I was specifically looking for an explanation of how caste is different from, but equally as damaging as racial discrimination but the book really reduced itself to a book about race and the political implications of that. Now this is a worthy read for that alone, but it fell short of addressing the ideas I was interested in. I also thought the book was a bit of a structural mess. I didn't find that it progressed with any purpose toward a conclusion. I would still recommend it because it has a lot to offer, but unfortunately it didn't offer what I was looking for.

Dec 05, 2020

Did you know: ⁣⁣
That the Nazis referred to the structure of the American society when they built their regime? ⁣⁣
That the American society shares eerie similarities with its Indian counterpart? ⁣⁣
That the idea of “race” does not exist as it does outside of America?⁣⁣
The idea that racism is not the real culprit of America’s fragmentation should not be news. I had long suspected it to be class, dressed by the wealthiest as race to redirect conflict, but Wilkerson’s theory is even more dire, for while one may rise to a different class, one cannot escape from one’s caste. Especially when America has made skin color its corresponding symbol.⁣⁣
The author does a thorough dissection of the American caste system. Mixed with personal and historical anecdotes as well as scientific studies and statistics, Wilkerson makes a compelling case for caste’s existence and consequences on all strata of the society. ⁣⁣
What I admire most is Wilkerson’s refusal to dehumanize populations who desire to maintain the caste system. For some people, the idea of true equality and meritocracy upheavals everything they have been taught, while others see the world as a zero-sum game in which being white is their safety net. However, rather than denouncing these populations as “evil” or “inhuman,” Wilkerson describes them only as the products of natural fears and societal inculcation. ⁣⁣
While reading the book, I was alternatively amazed at how much and how little America has improved. It is so easy to forget that this country was young and founded in bloodshed and developed through oppression. ⁣⁣
However, Wilkerson remains hopeful: now that we have unveiled the depth of these problems, the silent majority might be forced to open its eyes. I am less optimistic, but one can always hope. After all, humans have come so far precisely because we can fight our intuitions and overcome our biases and fears. It is a painful process, but once achieved, our world will be changed for the better.

Dec 05, 2020

An important message, but the second half of the book reads as filler. I would have liked to see more contrast in the different castes in the world, less antidotes, especially the personal ones.

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Sep 25, 2020

“The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly. And the least that a person in the dominant caste can do is not make the pain any worse.” - p. 386

Sep 25, 2020

“As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources—which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence—who is accorded these and who is not.” - pp. 17-18

Sep 25, 2020

“America is an old house. We can never declare the work over. Wind, flood, drought, and human upheavals batter a structure that is already fighting whatever flaws were left unattended in the original foundation. When you live in an old house, you may not want to go into the basement after a storm to see what the rains have wrought. Choose not to look, however, at your own peril. The owner of an old house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away. Whatever is lurking will fester whether you choose to look or not. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction. Whatever you are wishing away will gnaw at you until you gather the courage to face what you would rather not see.” - pp. 15-16


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