Friday, July 8, 2022

Review of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes 

Book can be found in:
Genre = Sociology
Book Club Event = Book List (08/06/2022)
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“Though Aryan himself, his openness to the humanity of the people who had been deemed beneath him gave him a stake in their wellbeing, their fates tied to his.  He could see what his countrymen chose not to see.” [Source Italics] – Isabel Wilkerson, The Man in the Crowd, Page 11

“As we fill out the pages of our medical past and our current complaints, what our bodies have been exposed to and what they have survived, it does no good to pretend that certain ailment shave not beset us, to deny he full truth of what brought us to this moment.  Few problems have ever been solved by ignoring them.” [Source Italics] – Isabel Wilkerson, The Vitals of History, Page 24

“A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it.” – Isabel Wilkerson, Chapter Two: An Old House and an Infrared Light, Page 28

A caste system creates divisions and hierarchy.  Caste ranks human values.  Pits the presumed supremacy of one group, against the presumed inferiority of another.  Caste systems are socially constructed.  They are a social infrastructure that maintains itself by giving people subconscious instructions.  Members keep to arbitrary boundaries, and keep to their assigned roles.  Unlike class which is a malleable social standing depending on socioeconomic status.  Caste is usually immutable and based on ancestry.  Caste assigns meaning to people, and the roles they are permitted or required to perform.  Caste systems determine power, resource allocation, and many psychological attributes.

The social problems of caste cannot be resolved by avoiding them.  Ignoring the past does not reduce its impact on the present.  Social problems have historic precedents, which need to be understood to consider how to resolve them.  Even though the inheritors of the caste system might not have created the problem or participated in persecution, they are still responsible for the problems, to prevent further deterioration, and find resolutions.    

Hierarchy, and its Maintenance:
Caste can take on many forms.  Assigning power based on where the individual is from, the individual’s religion, or even race.  The focus of this book is on race.  Human hierarchies are older than race divisions.  Race hierarchies are relatively new. Race was proven a fiction by DNA.  Race is a social construct, that is held as a sacred truth.  

The meaning of racism has been eroded.  Racism is seen as an overt expression of hatred against another group based on race.  The problem caused by having this narrow view of racism, prevents considering the toxic behaviors that form racism.  Racism are the experienced toxic behaviors and social instruction gathered over life.  Exposing individual racist acts or people distracts from considering the system that created the individual.  

Within a racial caste, purity determines status.  Depending on the classification of how pure the ancestry should be, determines admittance to the dominant caste.  With the Unites States, even a little bit of impurity would disqualify someone from the dominant caste.

Rather than give negative characteristics to individuals, it is much easer to stigmatize a group.  Group stigmatization results in loss of individuality.  To continue stigmatization, all it takes is silence by those who disagree.  Rewarding those who participate in providing terror.

A stigma used against lower caste members is to make them appear polluted.  That contact with the lower caste can pollute the upper caste.  Much of the pollution or dirtiness came from the type of work that ancestors did.  

When the lower caste starts to succeed, it creates a violent backlash.  Success is not an assigned role of the lower caste.  Myths of superiority are given to upper caste members.  Who will do not permit lower caste member achievements, to prevent appearance of equality. 

To survive, the lower caste members need to become experts in understanding the behavior and thoughts of the upper caste members.  They must learn to adjust themselves to the upper caste expectations.  

Even without physical violence, the caste system can still hurt lower caste members.  Psychological attacks, such as prejudice, can cause many physical reactions that increases the risk of premature death. 

India, Nazi Germany, and United States are three caste systems that are provided and compared with.  Focusing mainly on United States caste systems.

Race is how American caste system assigns power.  Before race, religion defined power.  Christianity defined status, privileging those coming from Europeans.  The native population formed the lower caste and forced to work, while the Europeans were exempt.  As the native population proved difficult to enslave, the colonists imported Africans.  When slavery was ending, laws were created to keep the lower caste members in their status.  Breaching the caste system meant danger, and even death.  An American paradox of proclaiming liberty for all, while holding subsets of citizens in subjugation.

India’s caste system is based on surnames.  Bound to a belief in reincarnation that the one’s circumstance is based on prior life’s deeds.  

Nazis looked to the United States for guidance on racial separation and purity.  

Difficulty of Resolutions:
Within caste systems, there are consequences to belonging to different groups.  Understanding the humanity of the lower caste, means not being able to avoid recognizing the harm done to them.  This recognition is seen as a defect by the upper caste members.  Upper caste members can persecute their member who shows sympathy with the lower caste members.  

It is very difficult to stand against the group that is persecuting others.  Standing against injustice has consequences, such as scorn from society.  

Identifying offenders will not actually stop the underlying problem.  Need to address the causes of the underlying behavior.

Forgiveness can be seen as absolution for problems.  Even though the problems keep continuing, forgiveness is being asked of.

The book is polarizing.  Historic events and institutions are simplified.  The details left out would have provided a more complex understanding of the situation.  The details that are kept, are those that make the argument against the upper caste appear stronger.  Making nearly all upper caste members appear to be persecuting others with hatred, while the lower caste members appear mostly innocent. 

The focus on negative reinforcement of caste, perpetuates negative values.  The author makes the case that creating an understanding that lower caste members have value is a resolution to the caste system, but there are not many positive values provided.   The showcased experiences of lower caste individuals, are all negative.  But, lower caste individuals have a lot of diverse experiences, not all of which are negative.

To end the caste system, the main solution appears to be enlightenment.  For the upper caste people to become enlightened, they need an understanding that difference caste individuals have value.  This is problematic because it appears that only the upper caste individuals need enlightenment.  Every individual, no matter the caste, can become enlightened and understand that others have value.  Each individual can do a lot to improve social situations.

Communication is needed for the different caste members to understand each other’s values.  And the author asks to listen to other caste members.  The problem is that this is not simple.  As the author points out, that given the sensitivity of the topic, many will pretend that there is no need to discuss the topic because they are not part of the problem.  But there is more to the reason why it is difficult to talk about topic, as often it is neither side which wants to allow the other side to speak.  In many contexts, the discussions stop when complexity is introduced.  When the other side expresses experiences or history that the other side denies.  Ending discussions with more prejudice.  Discussion and communication are needed to resolve the divisions and conflicts that exist, but that require a willingness of each side to listen and engage with the other side, rather than just dismiss their views.  

Within the book, everything is seen through a racial perspective.  There are other reasons than just race.  Which the author recognizes, but does not provide the other reasons.  From politics, to individual behaviors, everything appears to be just about race.  Alternative explanations are not really considered.

There are many groups that faced racial discrimination in the United States, but the focus is mainly on Black experiences.  There is a lack of information about how other groups handled the discrimination.  Considering how other groups overcame or did not overcome racial discrimination, can provide guidance as to how Black individuals can overcome racial discrimination.  

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•What is a caste system?
•What is the difference between caste and class?
•How does a caste system sustain itself?
•What are the difference types of caste systems?
•What is race?
•What is racism?
•How to resolve the social problems created by caste?
•How does effective stigmatization work?
•What happens to those who disagree with the caste system?
•What happens to those who step outside their roles with the caste system?
•What does it mean to become enlightened? 
•What impact does identifying offenders have?
•How to forgive? 
•Why does caste create scapegoats?
•What is the significance of statues? 

Book Details
Publisher:         Random House [Penguin Group]
Edition ISBN:  9780593230268
Pages to read:   371
Publication:     2020
1st Edition:      2020
Format:            eBook

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall           4