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

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."

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

""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 »

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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Mar 01, 2021

A mix of research and personal info about the concept of "Caste." While reading, I thought about my background - I come from a "sundown" town (a small number of blacks can enter to go fishing in the rivers, but must exit the city limits by sundown) and can only recall having conversed with one black person prior to college and then only having talked to two more black people even after attended a metropolitan university with a student body of 10,000 (later found that the university had only 4 black students). My early life was a perfect example of the why the great novel "Invisible Man" is aptly titled.

Feb 27, 2021

Another stunningly stupid book written by an undereducated author who fancies herself highly erudite --- hardly!
Instead of seriously researching --- and studying (a nasty obscene word to the brazenly uninformed) --- voter demographics, the author chooses to express her OPINION of those who voted Trump instead of for the communists and their Maoist agenda!
Hmmmmm . . . the two Wall Street--designated choices: Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was the beneficiary of multiple fundraisers hosted for her at Martha's Vineyard by Lady de Rothschild and Jeb Bush, paid $1 million per year as a consultant to Barclays Bank, no doubt for Jeb's extensive nonexistent banking experience --- or because his brother, Neil Bush, is a nonexecutive (?) chairman of the PLA--financed Singhaiyi Group?!
Caste systems are, and have always, been the mainstay of human existence --- PERIOD!
Doesn't matter that many of us find this distasteful; water is wet and caste will exist, creating false narratives changes nothing! Equality derives from merit and meritocratic systems being attempted, however feebly. The purpose of "social equity" is to introduce communist systems, always leading --- and consciously so --- to neofeudalism -- what the planners are desiring!
The closest I have ever experienced of a merit-based system was the US military, but not really all that meritocratic. In Japan and South Korea, more homogenous cultures, academia or their school systems are somewhat more merit-based, but even then there are many discrepancies. Any who claim merit (or "math" like the Gates Foundation) is "racist" is stridently pushing the communist agenda, which both the CCP and Wall Street seek to make real!

Feb 25, 2021

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.

Feb 14, 2021

Disappointing. The writing was disjointed, redundant, and simplistic. I was expecting a more nuanced and in-depth treatment of caste. Instead, she seems to be simply reframing race discrimination as a caste issue. I also hoped for more about the subject of caste in India, but the treatment was mostly anecdotal and superficial. The book as a whole relied far too much on anecdotal evidence; there was far too much focus on "what" instead of "why."

Feb 06, 2021

Find it a struggle to stay engaged in some segments in this book about the "American caste system, the signal of rank is what we call race, the division of humans on the basis of their appearance." Wish there are more on global social inequalities throughout human history. While it is an excellent history lesson and that many analogies are insightful but many are mediocre if not overstated.

Anyway, Isabel's musing in Chapter Thirty: The Radicalization of the Dominant Caste: “Imagine going through something like this almost every day, not knowing when or how it might happen. You wouldn’t last very long. ... and still get through the day.”

Her thought reminds me of Obama's "Beer Summit", and a black DC comic character Ben Turner scolds Bruce Wayne:

"You think we're supposed to give you a break because Mommy and Daddy got killed in front of you? Huh? Happens every day in my neighborhood, only it don't make the paper. You only get what you earn. And from where I'm standing, you ain't earned nothing, turkey."

Jan 24, 2021

I was so looking forward to this book, and yet ended up so disappointed. Looking forward because we do not have enough works exploring the socio-economic caste system in our regulated capitalist economy ("the rich get richer while the poor get poorer," for the ways that is true, why is it true?). Disappointed because:
1. The book is so wordy in the worst way. Incredibly repetitive. Even the "acknowledgements" section is seven pages long!
2. Author Wilkerson opened the book with an insanely biased political propaganda recap of the 2016 election. If the author was so repetitive because she was hoping to convince those who might disagree with a flurry of opinion (can't call this book evidence, it is opinion), then opening with such political propaganda is the surest way to fail.
3. She completely misunderstands the reality of race in America, both past and present. Example, "There developed a caste system, based upon what people looked like, an internalizing ranking, unspoken, unnamed, unacknowledged by everyday citizens even as they go about their lives adhering to it and acting upon it subconsciously to this day." Let there be no mistake, this caste system based on race that Wilkerson envisions was not "unspoken, unnamed, unacknowledged." There was an African boy on exhibit in the Bronx Zoo in 1906! Without question the "Untouchable" ranking of African-Americans in the United States was spoken, named and acknowledged by most. The reason Wilkerson needs to rewrite history is because she wants to claim that "unspoken" caste system still exists today in almost full strength and zeal as it did 150 years ago. And that simply is not true.
There is no question African-Americans have been treated as a lower caste in the United States. There is no question families of African-Americans stuck in the cycle of poverty in this country are largely there because they were assigned that ranking by a very clearly spoken and deliberately planned ranking system in our culture (slavery, then freedom with no civil rights, then legal civil rights but often unenforced in reality, then job discrimination and redlining by the banks, and so on - these things were not unspoken!). To pretend we are living out today the same kind of caste system we lived out 50 years ago... is to not understand what has changed in America and what is still facing Americans in poverty today. It is clear author Wilkerson wanted to push an agenda - and she has written in a way that only those who already buy into her agenda could agree with her. She clearly misrepresents the past, as a result, I learned more about Ms. Wilkerson's agenda than I did the state of race/caste in the United States today.
This was a disappointing read for me.

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.

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Feb 06, 2021

601 quotes posted in goodreads. Likely all my favorites are included:

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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