by Isabel Wilkerson
This book is amazing. I listened to it on audiobook while also reading it at the same time so I could fully digest it and highlight sections. It’s the type of book that I may need to read again. The premise is that America has had, and continues to have, a caste system, similar to India and Nazi Germany in the Third Reich during World War II. And that caste system is the slavery of African Americans for hundreds of years before and after the formal creation of the United States as a nation, Jim Crow laws, and continued policies and effect into present day.
The book examines the sociological, political, legal, religious, cultural, and biological aspects of these caste systems. It weaves into this journalistic approach a narrative that is accessible and gripping. It often reads like a story even though it is research based. There are anecdotes, news stories, quotes, etc.
The author also uses metaphors for caste to show how arbitrary these caste systems truly are. For example, she follows a thread of a fictionalized society that separates people based on height. She covers a study conducted with children where they were separated into a hierarchy based on eyecolor. The results are profound and revealing.
While some may take offense or think it’s a stretch to compare the caste systems of India and Nazi Germany to the US slavery of African Americans, the author’s research is striking and revelatory in outlining the similarities. The eugenics movement in America learned from other earlier caste systems, and then, in turn, was studied and used as a model for later caste systems. Thus, her premise is that caste systems in general tend to feed off each other.
Her most profound point in my opinion is when she covers how America has been able to brand itself externally throughout the world as such a leader in human rights, freedom, and equality despite its early, long-lasting, and ongoing caste system. Her research and book attempt to shed light on the American caste system so that it can no longer hide in the shadows and can be eradicated once and for all. Her analogy is a house with a weak and damaged foundation. Instead of tearing down the house, you need to unearth the damage, and then repair and strengthen the foundation, so that the house can remain standing, and is stronger and can hold up to the future.