Isabel Wilkerson Examines America’s Racial Caste System

The award-winning author and journalist discussed the importance of reckoning with history during a discussion of her new book, “Caste.”

Isabel Wilkerson
Author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson discussed some of the themes in her new book, "Caste," during a virtual GW event. (Harrison Jones/GW Today)
February 01, 2021

By Briahnna Brown

Rioters openly bringing a Confederate flag to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol not only resurrects unresolved divisions in this country, but  it also stands as a prime example of the work the country must do to reckon with racism considering that the Civil War ended more than 150 years ago, said author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson.

“This is so long-standing and so enduring that even when there's progress that's made, it is usually followed by some swift and often violent backlash,” Ms. Wilkerson said. “We're in this cycle that we have not recovered from, and so I think it calls upon us to look elsewhere to see what is it that other countries have done [to address these issues].”

Ms. Wilkerson explores those histories in countries such as India and Germany in her new book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” which she discussed during a virtual George Washington University event with Adena Kirstein, executive director of GW Hillel. During the Wednesday discussion, which was also Holocaust Remembrance Day, Ms. Kirstein and Ms. Wilkerson connected over the concept of caste making it easier to understand the way Ms. Kirstein, as a Jewish woman, and Ms. Wilkerson, as a Black woman, are treated in society.

Ms. Wilkerson, the first Black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism who also authored New York Times bestselling “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” also held a virtual meet and greet with several GW students and university leadership, such as M.L. “Cissy” Petty, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, and Colette Coleman, senior associate dean of students, after the event to dig deeper into the themes and lessons from “Caste.” During the meet and greet, students shared the lessons they learned from reading the book and how it helped shape their understanding of race.

One of the biggest lessons is the need for the United States to reckon with its history of slavery and Jim Crow similar to the way people in Germany reckoned with its history of the Holocaust, Ms. Wilkerson said. The first steps include acknowledging the history of what happened and ensuring that everyone learns the real history from a young age, she said. In Berlin, she said, there are a seemingly endless museums and memorials to ensure that people never forget.

“That doesn't mean that everyone gets along, it doesn't mean that everyone is on the same page about the politics of the thing, but they're on the same page about what happened,” Ms. Wilkerson said. “There’s not debate about what happened, this happened, and there was proof everywhere on it.

“There's a debate over what happened in this country still, and the vast majority of Americans really don't know what has happened,” she said.

There was a lost opportunity to create that understanding at the end of the Civil War, Ms. Wilkerson said. The racial caste system in the United States, a hierarchical structure that is determined by birth, has been able to continue because of the country’s failure to come to terms with its history, she said.

The language around caste systems and the language in her book should also make it easier to begin that work, Ms. Wilkerson said. It also helps to open up dialogue to have the tough but necessary conversations around race, she said, especially with rising tensions in recent years.

“It allows us to think about the hierarchy, how you're born into a particular place in the hierarchy,” Ms. Wilkerson said. “It focuses in on the structure and the fact that it's not about blaming and guilt, but it's about understanding the artificial ranking of human value that we have inherited, and that we may, in ways that we may not even be aware of, be enforcing or continuing.”

The goal of “Caste,” Ms. Wilkerson said, is to help the country move away from the system and create a world where people can be truly self-actualized regardless of what they look like. Very few people are able to live out their dreams because of this system, she said, and society loses the opportunity to have happier people contribute in fulfilling ways.

“I just think that this could spread out where we would be a less hierarchical, more egalitarian world,” she said. “Societies that are more egalitarian are happy, and we [as a hierarchical society] are sacrificing one of the most important things that human beings ever wished for: longevity and happiness.”

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