Caste by Isabel Wilkerson – Book Review
Caste by Isabel Wilkerson was hands-down the best book I read in 2020. This should be required reading for every American. Wilkerson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her previous book, The Warmth of Other Suns, explores the American caste system – alongside India and Nazi Germany’s own caste systems – in her latest masterpiece.
As Wilkerson explains, she is not the first historian to call attention to the American caste system, but the idea that America is built on caste has been so resisted that it is important to explore it again. The evidence is undeniable, and Wilkerson takes her readers through that evidence patiently and thoroughly.
There is so much information in this book that I had never heard before, and it is both shocking and upsetting to realize how the American school system I was raised in so completely failed to teach fundamental aspects of American history, and instead chose a white-washed, candy-coated version that has left so many Americans ignorant and has contributed to a lot of the problems we still see today.
The most surprising revelation to me in Caste was Wilkerson’s detailed exploration of how the Nazis used the American caste system to create their own. I had no idea their system was based on the many racist laws that America established against Black people. And, that the Nazis thought the American laws so inhumane and unjust, they felt surely these laws weren’t actually ever used.
But unlike Germany, who has reckoned with its terrible history and the massacre of millions of Jews, America has yet to take any meaningful steps toward racial reconciliation or healing for its own centuries-long inhumane treatment of Black people who were subject to an overwhelming number of atrocities, including but not limited to enslavement, abuse, and murder. Wilkerson unflinchingly pulls back the curtain on all of this, and shows how America’s caste system is the cornerstone of it all.
I’ve read a number of books on antiracism, racism, and racial reconciliation over the years, and this is by far the best. Many books on these topics are written by highly qualified academics who are experts in their fields, but are unable to distill their important knowledge into language and concepts that can be understood by a wide audience. That is to say, many academics (in every field) suffer from the inability to string a coherent sentence together, which means the very people who might benefit the most from their knowledge are shut off from it. So, it was refreshing to read Wilkerson’s Caste, where complex and intricate concepts are written in a way that can be understood by most any reader.
Wilkerson’s writing is beautiful, evocative, and accessible. Her books are lengthy but don’t feel long. They deal with painful, heartbreaking topics, but she writes with such attention and care that you can’t help but be drawn in and drawn back again and again to exploring the knowledge she has so expertly bestowed. There were many times I had to put the book down because the information was so overwhelming, and I would have to take a break before coming back later when I could again face the realities she’s shedding light on. But I never had to put the book down because I didn’t understand or because I was confused by the concepts she was sharing or the way she was sharing them. Her writing is clear, concise, and inviting, and this is such a rare and important talent – it is a gift to readers. Both her extensive knowledge on this important topic and her ability to share it in an inclusive, inviting way, are priceless gifts to readers, seekers of truth, and America as a whole.
This review originally appeared on NetGalley. I received a free Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) in exchange for my honest review of this title.
Book cover image courtesy of Random House.