The war on supremacy and hierarchy of power has been dominant from time immemorial, stemming its roots from the biblical theories of ancient past to the present-day world, modernity. The quest for control has influenced the rapid increase in humanitarian crises and oppressions witnessed in today’s generations. In the caste book, “The Origin Of our Discontents,” the author, Wilkerson, reframes the dialogue and examines past and present supremacy through the lens of a caste system. In defending her assertion that a caste system still exists in America, she compares America to the Nazi Germany and India of prehistoric times. Examining this in the broader scope makes the current activities witnessed in the United States come into a more explicit focus. For instance, the events of the political double speaks, dog whistles, white supremacists, and vote suppression shed light on the current racism and caste system in the U.S. Wilkerson, therefore, uses the traditional supremacy and the heritable hierarchy to describe racism in America.
Isabel Wilkerson is an American journalist and author, born in 1961 in Washington DC. She has been celebrated for her previous work, known as “The Warmth of Other Suns,” which details the epic migration of African Americans from the south, escaping the brunt of Jim Crow. The work contains quotes that gives the story its original and unique taste. For instance, “They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left.” (Wilkerson 73). She is the first Negro to win the Pulitzer Prize along with the national humanities medal. Wilkerson served as editor-in-chief of the Howard university college newspaper and was a Los Angeles Times and Washington post intern, who later became the Chicago bureau chief of the New York Times. Wilkerson served as a lecturer at Northwestern and Boston University.
The author used various methods to collect data, including ethnographic interviews, TV shows, surveys, and historical analogies. These research methods helped her to make conclusions and shape the contents of her work. For instance, in caste, she sets out to understand and explain the American hierarchy concerning the two best-known caste systems to have existed in the human history. The two systems include, the Indian caste, which is considered the birthplace of the caste system, and the Nazi Germany, where the caste as a contemporary test in barbarism was eventually overwhelmed. The comparison enables the audience to see the innate system espoused in the book through an exceptional analytic lens. Wilkerson points out the false perception of entitlement and superiority in the comparisons. This brings out the theme of supremacy and racism that permeates the book. The themes are embodied on eight critical pillars, including the Divine Will and Laws of Nature, occupational hierarchy, dehumanization and stigma, heritability among others. The author uses biblical characters like the abandoned son of Noah, African Americans, and the US leaders, among others, to build her work.
In the book’s first chapter, the author outline that most people were surprised by the 2016 American presidential election. However, the outcome was rooted in long-buried issues, and Wilkerson, therefore, agitates for deep scrutiny into the structures of American life (Wilkerson 22). She contends that the way to understanding America is its caste system and a devotion to the structures that value some lives more than others. In the United States, the value is based on skin color.
In chapter two, Wilkerson explains how race was erected as a scheme of inequality to validate some economic needs. Enslaved Africans were taken as a labor force for the American colonies, and a sociopolitical system emerged to validate their subjugation. Race is a created sort of color, and Wilkerson, in some aspects, finds caste more advanced and useful as it primarily rests on hierarchies rather than emotions. Additionally, she posits that thinking of Nazi Germany as the most extreme example of prejudice might be overrated, as she claims that even the Nazis rejected some racial thinking of Jim Crow in the south claiming their harshness to human race.
In the third chapter, Wilkerson elucidates the cornerstones that anchor the caste system and explains her encounters with some of these principles, including inheritability, divine origins of inequality, and fears of pollution by inferiors, assumption status based employment, among others. Violation of these principles is often associated with horrendous consequences. The author herself explains that she, at some point, lost job opportunities in journalism because of white supremacy.
In part four, Wilkerson records a unique behavior among the white men, to have been developing since 1970s. The belief to occupy a more precarious position has led them to fall back on racism. This has gradually turned the supremacists away from democracy and pulled them out of their democratic party (Wilkerson 295). The Africans often experience police brutality or threats whenever they appear in white dominated areas. Additionally, Wilkerson examines the cases of individuals whose professional lives were ruined by the caste system.
In chapter five, Wilkerson expounds on the dominant behavior of the whites, citing how they define themselves as the lineage of the European ancestry. She posits that the caste system relies on the subordinate caste that extends empathy and forgiveness to its members in grief situations. For instance, Wilkerson narrates that she was nearly assaulted in a plane by the white men defending Charleston shooting at Mother Emmanuel in 2015. These indignities, she claims, have physical consequences: the trauma from racism has been associated with the accelerated aging among Africans.
Wilkerson then examines the 2008 American presidential election, and views Obama’s victory as a caste story. Obama’s achievement made him a remarkable individual, and his presidency evoked a white backlash, commonly known as the formation of the tea party (Wilkerson 315). Consequently, the case system elucidates the 2016 election, as most white people voted for Trump to reassert the primacy of the caste system.
In the final chapter, Wilkerson considers sharing the story of her white friend who was irritated by the racial treatment of Wilkerson at a restaurant, and Indians who abandoned their dominant caste and took on a different trajectory. She offers these stories to bring hope to the Americans that reclaiming humanity beyond the caste system is possible. She even draws evidence from modern Germany to support her argument.
The book takes a unique way of presenting the subject of racism and the caste system that has been imposed in American society. Through a new narrative approach, which focuses on many individual stories and parallels to create a broader picture, this work contributes to building a clearer understanding of the vastness and depth of the caste system. While on the contrary, despite distinguishing caste and race, Wilkerson uses them interchangeably and virtually indistinguishably throughout the text. She argues that the status is about power, not feelings or morals. However, as the book draws from her own experience as an African professional in America, she associates judgments, perceptions, and feelings with caste.
Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. New York, NY: Random House, 2010.
The Origins of our Discontents. New York, NY: Random House, 2020.