If you plan to read one book this year, I recommend Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020) by Isabel Wilkerson: a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, a Howard University graduate, writer for major American newspapers, journalism professor, and Chicago Bureau Chief for The New York Times.
Caste is well-written, scrupulously researched, meticulously edited. It leads logically through a progression of ideas, each thoughtfully explained and illustrated by example. Some examples are historic, others personal to Wilkerson.
Most are deeply disturbing. For example, there were decades when African-Americans were being lynched every three to four days.
The word lynch conceals its barbaric truth: widely accepted mob-torture and murder of innocent African-Americans.
Wilkerson describes the American caste system. She differentiates between caste and class. While we can be born into both, there is no mobility between castes, regardless of our effort, successes, wealth, wit, or friends.
From birth to death, we are locked into a caste. If that caste is the lowest, our opportunities are grossly limited, our life expectancy plummets, justice and joy are meaningless.
As Wilkerson explains, lower castes are dehumanized and stigmatized on the basis of a wilful corruption of divine and natural law. Deliberate cruelty and terror ruthlessly enforce castes.
Wilkerson examines the American caste system based on skin colour. As she explains, scientifically, the concept of human races is nonsense, but since 1619, skin colour has rigidly defined life in America.
She quotes Alexander H. Stephens, vice-president of the American Confederacy: “The negro is not equal to the white man.” Negro slavery, said Stephens, is natural and normal. He proudly proclaimed the Confederate government as the first in history based on this great moral truth.
Confederate general Robert E. Lee said, “blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa …the painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race” and “slavery is a greater burden to slave owners than to the enslaved.”
Following the Civil War, amnesty allowed Confederate president Jefferson Davis to retire comfortably to a Mississippi plantation. Robert E. Lee was never summoned to account for his treasonous acts nor his abuses to slaves.
He served no prison time, but became a college president. Scores of memorials and statues to Davis, Lee, Stephens, and the Confederate leadership were erected while former slaves continued impoverished, miserable, fear-filled lives to this day.
Wilkerson contrasts post-US Civil War romanticizing of the Confederacy, its heroes and symbols with post WWII German prosecution and execution of Nazis and the criminalization of Nazi symbols.
Wilkerson’s analysis of the presidential election of Donald Trump is insightful. Data shows his base was poor, white, unemployed or under-employed men.
All they had to give themselves dignity was their white skin.
Trump, argues Wilkerson, reassured his base of their special white status without any additional promises for a better life. His base, in turn, elected Trump. Such is the strength of America’s caste system.
Complementary to Wilkerson’s book is Between the World and Me (2015) by Ta-Neshi Coates. It’s a letter by the author to his son describing the persistent, stressful fear that all African-Americans endure 24/7.
African-Americans justifiably fear that police or white-skinned people may at any moment, groundlessly stop them, and in an instant, end or completely overturn their life without consequence.
Coates writes in a rapping cadence, capturing the endless fear, grief, and pain that erodes the souls and shortens the lives of African-Americans.
I’m deeply concerned for the need to protect the environment. After reading these books, I realize the need not just for environmental protection, but for social justice.
Without social justice, environmental protection is pointless. Paraphrasing, Dr. Martin Luther King, I wonder if one day will we ever live on a planet where we will not be judged by the colour of our skin but by the content of our character?
To which King might reply, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”