In Chris Rock's 2008 comedy special, "Kill the Messenger," he discusses the limited diversity in his affluent neighborhood in Alpine, N.J. At the time, the high-profile actor and comedian lived near a handful of Black celebrities — including Jay-Z and Eddie Murphy — who had also achieved great success in their careers. But Rock's punchline highlighted a condition that money and status could not erase.
"Do you know what the white man that lives next door to me does for a living?" Rock asks. "He's a ... dentist."
While Rock offered this example with a humorous tone, the statistical rarity of his rise, the weight of inequity and the limitations of ascribing our challenges according to race and class are detailed in Isabel Wilkerson's illuminating book "Caste," the first book for the Mary Ann Key Book Club, a partnership with the Hennepin County Library, Friends of the Hennepin County Library and the Star Tribune. More than anything, the book details the threat of violence that lingers for those in America who are not white, the greatest penalty of this nation's caste system. It also clarifies the most impactful element of the doctrine of whiteness: the racism it upholds and employs to maintain power.
"Race does the heavy lifting for a caste system that demands a means of human division," the award-winning author states in her follow-up to "The Warmth of Other Suns." "If we have been trained to see humans in the language of race, then caste is the underlying grammar that we encode as children, as when learning our mother tongue."
Wilkerson is an incredible author who diagnoses America's — and the world's — structural engine like an auto mechanic. African Americans do not sit on the side of this nation's highway in a stalled vehicle because of an empty gas tank or a dead battery, she argues, but because the act of slashing our tires is the accepted norm.
Caste is the "bones" and race is the "skin," Wilkerson says.
"I think it is an amazing and incredible book," said Lissa Jones-Lofgren, a panelist for our virtual book club event and discussion on Tuesday, radio host of "Urban Agenda" on KMOJ-FM and podcast host of "Black Market Reads." "What I find beautiful is [Wilkerson] is an historian and a researcher who is a storyteller."
"Caste" is an essential book that not only details the history of hierarchy in America, Nazi Germany and India but also stamps the distinct caste system in the United States, one orchestrated by destruction, economic exploitation and racism.
Two startling scenes provide the book's most vivid impressions of the caste systems around the world. On a trip to India, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was startled when he was introduced to a group as an "untouchable," one of the country's lowest castes, before he acknowledged "every Negro in the United States of America is an untouchable."
She also discusses Adolf Hitler's use of America's race-based hierarchy to aid the destruction manufactured by the Nazis against the Jewish people. As they consulted with scholars to study an American system that had realized the terror they would soon duplicate and use to slaughter 6 million Jewish people, the Nazis even questioned, according to Wilkerson, some of this country's methods, including laws against interracial marriage and legalized segregation in schools.
To some of Hitler's loyalists, the Americans were extreme.
"As cataclysmic as the Nuremberg Laws were, the Nazis had not gone as far with the legislation as their research into America had taken them," Wilkerson writes.
But race and caste are different. Those concepts, as described throughout the book, are easily conflated. It is not a simple book to digest and it is probably not appropriate as the first book to consider for an exploration of America's attachment to racial inequity.
Dr. Artika Tyner, founding director of the Center on Race, Leadership and Social Justice at the University of St. Thomas, said she would assign her students "10 other books" to read simultaneously with "Caste," which she said "brings people together" to understand societal hierarchy.
"You can't give one person all of that responsibility," said Tyner, one of the panelists for Tuesday's event. "The book does its job."
We launched the book club — named in honor of my great-great-great grandmother who was a slave in the 1840s and 1850s — two months ago, and more than 1,200 people have already signed up. At 6 p.m. Tuesday, we'll discuss the book at our first (virtual) panel, which will feature scholars and leaders in the local community: Mahmoud El-Kati, Shannon Gibney, Jones-Lofgren, Ramona Kitto Stately, Terri Thao and Tyner. You can register through the Hennepin County Library.
I'm inspired by Minnesota's active interest to read and learn. And I think "Caste" prescribes the urgency necessary to address these matters, but only after we understand them.
"The friction of 'Caste' is killing people," Wilkerson writes. "Societal inequity is killing people."
As Chris Rock paces across the stage in "Kill the Messenger," he squeezes the truth in between his joke about the rich dentist who lives next door and his homogenous community, as the crowd continues to laugh.
"See, the Black man gotta fly," Rock says in his comedy special, "to get something that the white man can walk to."
In "Caste," Wilkerson asks this country if it is willing to acknowledge the clipped wings that continue to stifle our push toward equality.
Myron Medcalf is a local columnist for the Star Tribune and a national writer and radio host for ESPN. His column appears in print on Sundays twice a month and also online.
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