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The Origins of Our Discontents

By Isabel Wilkerson
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Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

Caste (2020) takes a revealing look at the caste system that continues to exist in American society, and its disturbing similarities to caste systems in India and WWII-era Germany. It explains how the attitudes of the dominant castes have become ingrained, on conscious and subconscious levels, through generations of subjugation. You’ll find out what it takes to maintain a caste system as well as what can be done to break free from it.

Key idea 1 of 10

The longer structural problems persist, the harder they are to fix.

Imagine you’ve inherited an old house. You give it a new roof and a new coat of paint, but you soon notice that something’s wrong with the ceiling. At first, it’s just a small spot where the plaster is cracking. Maybe it’s nothing important, you think. But then it grows worse. 

When a specialist shows up, you’re given the diagnosis: stress cracks in the foundation are causing the walls and ceilings to bend and warp.

It’s fair to say that these problems aren’t your fault. You didn’t build the house. You may not even know the person who did. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t your responsibility. It’s your house now. And until it’s fixed, it’s a hazard that puts everyone in danger. 

The key message here is: The longer structural problems persist, the harder they are to fix.

America is over three hundred years old. And these days, the stress fractures are readily apparent – drastic income gaps, ongoing police violence, and a pandemic that threw the problem of health care access into stark relief.

To answer such questions as how we got here and why the symptoms of systemic racism have been so resistant to change, we need to look at things from the perspective of caste. Caste is a system of social hierarchy in which people enjoy varying degrees of superiority or are subject to subjugation based on the caste to which they belong.

When you hear the word “caste,” you may think of India first. This makes sense, since India’s caste system is thousands of years old. But American society also meets the criteria for a caste system, and the author isn’t the only one to have noticed this. Many writers and other bright minds have suggested that America has indeed been living under a caste system since day one.

Removing a society’s caste system is difficult, to say the least. India has attempted to pass legislation to reduce discrimination. But the Dalit people, who make up the lowest caste, and are regarded as “Untouchables,” continue to be subjected to acts of violence and treated as outcasts in their own country.

In America, African-Americans were long ago relegated to the lowest caste. When a group of people has spent hundreds of years in such a position, change is hard to come by – especially when the dominant caste of white Americans have repeatedly fought to maintain a status quo within the system.

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