In 2010, New York Times journalist Isabel Wilkerson published “The Warmth of Other Suns,” her revelatory and fiercely imagined account of the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South, its achievement comparable to painter Jacob Lawrence’s canvases on the same history. Critics lavished praise on the book, which jumped onto the New York Times bestseller list and garnered numerous literary accolades.
Wilkerson has used the intervening decade well. “Caste,” her new searching, gorgeously crafted book, draws on “The Warmth of Other Suns” but moves along a more essayistic arc as Wilkerson deftly compares systemic racism in the United States to the caste networks in India and the Otherization of Jews in Nazi Germany.
She widens her aperture, illuminating the eight pillars of enduring bigotry, rulers determined to remain on top.
“Caste becomes a factor, to whatever infinitesimal degree, in interactions and decisions across gender, ethnicity, race, immigrant status, sexual orientation, age or religion that have consequences in our everyday lives and in policies that affect our country and beyond,” she writes. “It may not be as all-consuming as its targets may perceive it to be but neither is it the ancient relic, the long-ago anachronism, that post-racialists, post-haters of everything, keep wishing away. Its invisibility is what gives it power and longevity.” (Strikingly, Wilkerson omits the disabled from her list of caste-inflected communities.)
Wilkerson shifts back and forth between these three narrative lines, building her arguments with nuance and meticulous research. Her reporting is nimble and her sentences exquisite. But the real power of “Caste” lies tucked within the stories she strings together like pearls.
Hitler and his team studied American racism as they developed their genocidal strategies, stunned by the Yanks’ efficacy and brutality. The Dalits endured centuries of abuse and stigma only to birth a potent political movement that transformed India’s civil-rights laws before the denouement of Jim Crow. And Wilkerson brings the same rapier-sharp insight to race in America: horrific accounts of police violence against African Americans; young Black men lynched on the basis of mere rumors about glances at white women; white supremacists waving torches in Charlottesville; swimming pools drained and scrubbed after a single Black body dove in on a sweltering summer afternoon.
As with “The Warmth of Other Suns,” “Caste” roams wide and deep, lives and deaths vividly captured, haloed with piercing cultural critique. At a turning point in race relations — fueled by a runaway global pandemic, gasoline on a dumpster fire — Wilkerson coolly makes her case, no longer content to ask for change, preferring instead to demand it. “Caste” is a luminous read, bearing its own torch of righteous wrath in a diamond-hard prose that will be admired and studied by future generations of journalists.
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing” and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
By: Isabel Wilkerson.
Publisher: Random House, 496 pages, $32.