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Cost, not Costume: A Review of Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents”

How else in the midst of a pandemic to think about a sequence of like phenomena other than with an eye toward its etiology? It’s only natural. A pathogen taking a kind of deadly lark around the species for months on end inevitably puts a person in a particular cast of mind; one that is far less inclined to think of things as being merely discrete events, or idiopathic in nature, and instead as indicative of some definite systemic cause.

Suddenly there’s the felt anxiety, the inescapable haunting suspicion of not just the possibility but the likelihood that it is from more profound depths that our present maladies have sprung, and that those maladies will—if not properly diagnosed and addressed at their root—be our end.

And so when we saw how those three yokels in Brunswick quarried Ahmaud Arbery and all but trophied his dead body onto the hood of their truck; when we saw how the Taylor residence in which Breonna lay sleeping was repurposed by LMPD SWAT into a makeshift tactical shooting range; when we saw how the pulse of George Floyd was throttled to a faint, shallow tremor and finally winked out forever by a man who, in carrying out that execution, just stared ahead intractably, placidly, the dead-eyed blank expression of a cow looking out over a wooden fencepost; when we saw these things, we could not but perceive the feverish quality to them. They felt like a kind of rapid onset of symptoms; the alarming manifestations of some end-stage societal sepsis of which we were suddenly and terribly cognizant.

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White Americans did what anyone ill at ease about their well being would do. We began, in a way, compulsively WebMDing ourselves. We ran out and bought White Fragility, feeling around for the apparent lumps in our own psyches and—with each turn of the page—learning that we are in fact walking supercontaminations. Tumor-ridden things. If we didn’t recognize the malignancies inside us, White Fragility assured us it only meant we were that much more of an inoperable, hopeless case. We filled the cube shelving in our children’s nurseries with board books containing messages of tolerance and acceptance; we began, with a solemn resolve, to apply ourselves to the task which it seems our parents had utterly shirked: to mold these blobs of dreadful privilege that we produced into good little empaths.

We needed answers to ourselves, and so we read—devoured—with that special sort of voracity of the newly afflicted, so desperate and anxious to have explained to us what this is that surrounds us.

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Enter Oprah, whose appearance during a time of social upheaval is like low circling buzzards materializing over a dry, sunbaked valley; the presence of each can only mean that something, somewhere, is dying. In this case, the decay is one of possibility—of precisely knowing, of acting, of repairing. In her hands she holds Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, which would seem like the ideal book for our present moment of anxious, binge-y social science consumption. After all, Wilkerson has described her book as “an invitation to understanding; an invitation to seeing ourselves differently than we have before, and the idea that we can have new language to help us see ourselves differently.” Oprah, in her endorsement of the book, affirms these qualities of Caste and promises that it “show[s] us how to rebuild a world in which we all are truly equal and free.”

But Oprah has always been a kind of real life Flannery O’Connor invention, hasn’t she? And it seems that she now sees in a collective desire for racial justice what a character like Hoover Shoats in Wise Blood saw in a people’s authentic religious desire: a new and profitable business venture; a people whose despair and uncertainty is, in essence, the stuff of profit. And in this way, Caste—which ultimately posits a kind of ‘make compassionate decisions’ approach to undoing caste (at one point seriously suggesting that such a thing can be achieved by “search[ing] for that key that opens the door to whatever we may have in common, whether cosplay or Star Trek or the loss of a parent”)—is a book that neatly complements Oprah’s thoroughly apolitical (and always profitable) brand of personally manifesting capital-c Change.

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At its absolute weakest, all Caste is really doing is recounting episodes of discrimination (whether the national or the personal) and swapping out the race-specific terminology of the individuals (“white”, “black”) for Wilkerson’s preferred choice of descriptors (“dominant caste”, “lowest caste”). It is as if, by the mere substitution of these words, the abstractions that have so tightly organized American society over the last 400 years are supposed to be suddenly made known to us in more cogent, actionable terms. Oftentimes, though, the effect is one of bewilderment, a kind of misfire.

It’s not that ‘caste’ as a descriptor, or conceptual framework, doesn’t have the potential to vastly improve upon the very real limitations of a discourse grounded in race. There can be no question as to the inadequacy of the increasingly diluted social construct that has heretofore governed our understanding of how America has long (mis)allocated access to opportunity. We very much need an alternative and more tailored vocabulary to better assess and remedy that injustice, and ‘caste’ really does appear to best capture the unique, multi-generational exclusion that has so brutally defined the experience of a people in the U.S. But it is precisely the author’s inability (or unwillingness) to imbue caste with a necessary specificity—to identify the nature of our bottom caste as the accrued and heritable cost of one particular group’s lineage through chattel slavery onward—that contributes to her project’s abortive attempt to truly alter our understanding of what conditions our “discontents” and to help us, as she says, “reach that place of healing.”

Which is to say that while Wilkerson tries to outfit the most basic and efficient sorting mechanism of American society with a kind of new, bespoke language, there’s nonetheless still a loose, baggy quality to the finished product.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the book’s insistence upon the Barack Obama presidency having been the “greatest departure from the script of the American caste system.” On one hand, Wilkerson argues that Obama’s political ascension was so remarkable because he belongs to the “lowest caste”, and—as an African-American—is someone “against whom the caste system had directed its full powers of dehumanization”. On the other hand, though, she also notes how his “unusual upbringing” (his father being an immigrant from Kenya and his mother a white woman from Kansas) had spared him from “the heaviness of slavery and Jim Crow and the hard histories of regular African-Americans.” It’s difficult, in reading Wilkerson’s words, to not hear ‘heaviness’ functioning almost euphemistically for the very group-specific material cost of those ‘hard histories’, which, as she points out, include the New Deal reforms that “excluded the vast majority of black workers” and the FHA practices that “encourag[ed] or even requir[ed] restrictive covenants that barred black citizens from buying homes in white neighborhoods.”

And so there is, in other words, by Wilkerson’s own admission, a long, well-defined continuum of targeted exclusion—a kind of survey line of one group’s generational lockout from wealth in America—that has, from the beginning, uniquely and distinctly bound the experience of its lowest caste: the American Descendants of Slavery, the ‘regular African Americans’.

So how, then, can we realistically ascribe to someone like Obama the same basic station in national life when his ancestors did not bear that profound cost of what it really means to belong to that bottom caste in America? We can’t. But arguably Wilkerson sees no inconsistency in doing so because Caste is one-hundred percent uninterested in the sort of transformative redistribution of all the stolen wealth that would be required to actually begin undoing the foundation of our caste system.

Indeed, for all of its appeals to Germany as a kind of star by which to steer in terms of how we can begin to dismantle caste (Wilkerson notes how “restitution has rightly been paid, and continues to be paid, to survivors of the Holocaust”), there is strangely no push whatsoever in Caste for the U.S. government to pay reparations to the descendants of American slavery and Jim Crow. Rather, the reader is encouraged to do things like “educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective”, to “value their shared commonality”, and to try to see that the caste positions we inhabit are merely the “costumes of [our] predecessors” and that—in continuing the theatre analogy—we are “performing based on our place in the production, not necessarily on who we are inside.”

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There is exactly one way to read a book like Caste, because there is exactly one way to write a book like Caste without going wide of the mark, and that is through the lens of the American Descendants of Slavery experience. And to the extent that a person is able to control their emotions long enough to recognize the obvious fact that that group’s political advocacy is meant solely to defend the singularity of that experience—to not allow the ‘full dehumanization’ of it to be folded into a dilutive framework of sameness that absolves the U.S. government from paying the invoice for the economic violence it used to create and sustain its caste system—then it is simply impossible to read a book like Wilkerson’s and not come away with a sense of the sheer inadequacy of her analysis. It is impossible, in the end, not to feel like it is a four-hundred plus page argument that goes directly against the grain of justice. And the biggest achievement of Caste is that it confirms what many have already known, and what many more will no doubt come to learn: that ADOS has already developed the necessary language for a proper diagnosis of—and antidote to—our symptoms of societal instability. All we need to do is follow their lead.

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