Others have made the point that America has a caste system, but no one has made it as effectively as Isabel Wilkerson. By a close comparison between the US caste system and those of India and Nazi Germany and weaving the evidence from decades of sociological scholarship with the journalist’s expert feel for the telling example, her own personal experience as a member of the dominated caste, and exceedingly fine writing, this Pulitzer Prize winner shows how a social construct called race, based principally on skin pigmentation–one that has absolutely nothing to do with the capabilities of people–has imprisoned both the dominated and the dominant castes of the United States.
Up until the civil rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the US South was pretty much like a Nazi concentration camp for blacks, one where beatings, torture, murder, and lynching were the routine rewards meted to those who were perceived or framed to have “stepped out of caste.” Moreover, the South may have lost the Civil War, but it won the peace by exporting its caste system to the North. By the 1950s, the lynchings by cheering mobs of southern men, women, and children that inspired Billie Halliday’s song “Strange Fruit” may have faded from the headlines, but legalized lynchings by the police had become an institution throughout the United States. Police killing and mass incarceration became the main weapons of keeping blacks “in their place.”
Whites have been so programmed to their caste behavior towards the dominated caste that much of this gets expressed unconsciously and unreflectively. “No one escapes its tentacles,” she writes. Wilkerson makes the provocative suggestion that the recent rise in deaths among middle-aged white Americans could be related to the sense of existential threat felt at the lower rungs of the dominant caste at the economic and political gains made by blacks in the last few decades, including the election of a black president. They had become psychologically adrift in a society that seemed to be losing its moorings in the inherited caste system.
The election of 2016 that brought the brazenly racist Trump to power was, in her view, a major step forward in a caste counterrevolution that has been mobilized by the sense of impending doom represented by 2042, when the Bureau of Census projects that whites will become a minority. As the US moves towards that date, one historian tells her, “the real question would be, given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many people would choose whiteness?”
Indeed, Wilkerson makes her case for the overwhelming power of caste so effectively that this undercuts her desperate hope expressed at the end of this profoundly disconcerting book, that more people from the dominant cast would be “awakened” to empathy and compassion and escape the “tentacles of caste.” As with climate change, America is running out of time to head off a violent racial upheaval; indeed, this may even take place before the climate cataclysm.