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Isabel Wilkerson’s ‘Caste’ Is an ‘Instant American Classic’ About Our Abiding Sin

“As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance,” Wilkerson writes. She observes that caste “is about respect, authority and assumptions of competence — who is accorded these and who is not.”

Isabel Wilkerson, whose new book is “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.”Credit…Joe Henson

Wilkerson’s usages neatly lift the mind out of old ruts. They enable her to make unsettling comparisons between India’s treatment of its untouchables, or Dalits, Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews and America’s treatment of African-Americans. Each country “relied on stigmatizing those deemed inferior to justify the dehumanization necessary to keep the lowest-ranked people at the bottom and to rationalize the protocols of enforcement.”

Wilkerson does not shy from the brutality that has gone hand in hand with this kind of dehumanization. As if pulling from a deep reservoir, she always has a prime example at hand. It takes resolve and a strong stomach to stare at the particulars, rather than the generalities, of lives under slavery and Jim Crow and recent American experience. To feel the heat of the furnace of individual experience. It’s the kind of resolve Americans will require more of.

“Caste” gets off to an uncertain start. Its first pages summon, in dystopian-novel fashion, the results of the 2016 election alongside anthrax trapped in the permafrost being released into the atmosphere because of global warming. Wilkerson is making a point about old poisons returning to haunt us. But by pulling in global warming (a subject she never returns to in any real fashion) so early in her book, you wonder if “Caste” will be a mere grab bag of nightmare impressions.

It isn’t.

Her consideration of the 2016 election, and American politics in general, is sobering. To anyone who imagined that the election of Barack Obama was a sign that America had begun to enter a post-racial era, she reminds us that the majority of whites did not vote for him.

She poses the question so many intellectuals and pundits on the left have posed, with increasing befuddlement: Why do the white working classes in America vote against their economic interests?

She runs further with the notion of white resentment than many commentators have been willing to, and the juices of her argument follow the course of her knife. What these pundits had not considered, Wilkerson writes, “was that the people voting this way were, in fact, voting their interests. Maintaining the caste system as it had always been was in their interest. And some were willing to accept short-term discomfort, forgo health insurance, risk contamination of the water and air, and even die to protect their long-term interest in the hierarchy as they had known it.”

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