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Opinion | America’s Caste System Is 400 Years Old. That Doesn’t Change Overnight.

[MUSIC PLAYING] – (SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?

kara swisher

I’m Kara Swisher and you’re listening to Sway. Last week, the Capitol was a crime scene. Now it feels hopeful. As President Joe Biden said in his inaugural address, “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.” It was nice to hear. And as he and Vice President Kamala Harris start their term, it might be tempting to say, let’s put the past behind us. But how can we forget January

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Stop the steal! Stop the steal! Stop the steal!

kara swisher

A mob of pro-Trump extremists clashed with Capitol Police. They ransacked the halls of Congress, stole property, smeared feces on the wall. Some viciously attacked police officers. Five people died. It was an astonishing stew of hatred, arrogance, and stupidity. And let’s be honest. It was mostly white people who did this. When it was all over, shattered glass and broken furniture littered the building. Then the longtime maintenance workers showed up.

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kara swisher

It was mostly Black and brown people cleaning up the mess. It’s the system Pulitzer Prize winning writer and historian Isabel Wilkerson describes in her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. The book is about an invisible system that classifies humanity. It was published last summer to much acclaim. She got a lot of attention then, but now seems to be the best time to talk to her, since we all saw that system so clearly in action just weeks ago. I wanted to know what Wilkerson saw.

isabel wilkerson

So among the many scenes that struck me to my core was after the rampage had been quelled and was later into the night, and the cleaning crew is brought in to clean up after the damage that had been done. It fell to them in order to do that. And there they were, laboring in their uniforms, bent over with mops and brooms and with masks over their faces. And I saw instantly the people assigned to the subordinated caste for 400 years, since before there was the United States, still consigned to their historic role of serving and cleaning up after those who had been programmed to see themselves as dominant and superior and supreme. And we know that, had people who looked like those janitors in that crew that we saw working late into the night, if they had deigned to burst into the Capitol like that, we know what would have come of that. They wouldn’t have lived to tell.

kara swisher

So talk about that difference, because the police handled the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer very differently. Explain what you think would have happened.

isabel wilkerson

We have seen, in so many of the peaceful protests for basic human rights, protesting against police brutality, we have seen tanks rolled out, for example, after Ferguson. We have seen riot police flanked and in position in anticipation of an outbreak. And we saw a situation in which masses of people were able to overrun the officers. They were able to trample the barricades. We saw people climbing walls to get into the Capitol, attacking police officers. We saw this with our very eyes, the complete opposite of how the protesters for basic human rights throughout the entire summer, how people were treated there. This is an indication of the — what I describe, when it comes to caste, caste is essentially this graded ranking of human value. But what it does is it determines one’s standing, respect, benefit of the doubt, access to resources, assumptions of competence and intelligence and worthiness, and then also whether the authorities will protect you or attack you. This is a function of where you are perceived to be, your value and sense of worthiness in the hierarchy.

kara swisher

One of the things that really — part of your book that’s gotten a lot of attention is when you’re having coffee with your friend, historian Taylor Branch. It’s 2018 and two years into the Trump administration. Taylor Branch asks you, if people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness? At the time you didn’t have an answer. Looking at what happened at the Capitol, do you have an answer now?

isabel wilkerson

Well, I left it unanswered because in the work that I do, which is narrative nonfiction, my job is to show— show the history, show what has happened. And it is more powerful to me if those who read it come to the answer themselves. I think the answer is all too obvious. We need to remind ourselves that no Democrat who has run for president has won a majority of the white vote, or you could say, has won the white vote, since 1964.

kara swisher

Which is the Civil Rights Act.

isabel wilkerson

Lyndon Johnson, right. So this has continued to the current day. And so there is something about the connection that one group feels to one party in particular, with this belief that this party will uphold and defend the interests of the dominant. And that is what the outcome of these elections seem to be telling us.

kara swisher

OK, let’s check back a little bit and talk about the term caste. Americans are familiar with race and the concept of systemic racism. But your book argues that America is built on an invisible caste system. You don’t use the word racism much. You prefer to talk about casteism. What’s the difference?

isabel wilkerson

Well, first of all, any society, any hierarchical society can use any number of metrics, arbitrary metrics to rank people in a caste system. So you could use ethnicity. You could use religion. You could use language. You could use place of origin. And in our country, the metric that the early colonists used to divide and to rank people to determine who would be a slave or free, just to start with, the metric that was used was what we look like. It became the tool, the signifier, the signal of one’s place in the hierarchy. And it took what would be neutral characteristics otherwise, neutral characteristics that would just be part of the range of human manifestation, and turn that into a new designation, a new way of ranking and categorizing people known as race. And the idea of race is actually quite flexible and fungible. And we know that because many people who are currently identified, who we would all accept as being part of the category now known as white, were in previous centuries not considered white. There was a time where Benjamin Franklin did not view people of German descent as being in the category of his own and felt that there was a threat coming in from people who happen to be German. Now of course, this would be something that people would not even question. Of course the same goes for people who are of Irish descent. So the idea of the hierarchy that was created in our country— and remember, it was created. It was not natural. It was created. And it became a bipolar system of power and control, in which anyone who arrived to this country from outside of the poles of this hierarchy had to find a way of where did they fit in. And it turned out that, when people were coming in from other parts of Europe who might have had nothing in common with each other, who might not have seen themselves as part of the same group, arrived to this country, and it turned out that while they may have thought of themselves as Polish or Hungarian or Irish, it turned out that they were given a new identity, an identity that would have had no meaning or necessity in the old country, but meant everything in the New World because it determined what you could do. It had consequences. The resources — it had everything to do with one’s rights. If you were part of the dominant caste, part of the dominant group, it accorded all the rights and privileges of that dominant group. And that’s how race was created and how underneath that is the infrastructure. I mean, caste is about structure.

kara swisher

It’s a power structure. Caste groupings exist in every country because it can be anything people choose. The randomness is quite —

isabel wilkerson

Yeah, it’s the arbitrary nature of it. I mean, that’s what is so powerful and so enlightening, actually, about the universality of the human will to categorize and apportion power and to determine who can have power on the basis of these arbitrary characteristics that should have no meaning, except that which is accorded meaning. And the issue of class, you could say there are three out of many ways that a society can decide the different aspects of identity. So one of them would be caste, which I would describe as the bones, and race, which is the skin. It’s the visible manifestation of the structure that undergirds whatever we might be able to see. And then class becomes, essentially, the outward — the things that we add to ourselves — clothes, the dictions, the accents, education, all the things that we do have some control over that we can use to try to adjust what we might have been born to in our society. And so I say that, if you can act your way out of it, it’s class. If you cannot act your way out of it, it’s caste. And so we’ve seen so many cases. There was a case of the editor of British Vogue, for example, who was —

kara swisher

Yes, Edward Enninful.

isabel wilkerson

— walking into his own office building, and the security guard told him he needed to use the service elevator to his own office. And that meant that, here you have someone who is the best-dressed, sophisticated person in the world, and it didn’t matter how he was presenting himself. It didn’t matter what his bearing was. It didn’t matter what his education was. It didn’t matter what his diction was. It was determined on the basis solely of what he looked like, what that signifier and cue said to the security guard as to where he belonged. The idea of being out of one’s place is sort of a hallmark of caste.

kara swisher

Why do you think there’s a need for this human classification? And is it subliminal?

isabel wilkerson

Historically, a society needs to get certain things done in order for the society to work. That is what happened when slavery was created. It was an economic system that was created to extract the labor of people, human beings, by first commodifying human beings in order to make sure that the work that they felt needed to be done would be done, in order to convert wilderness into a country, to be able to tend and to grow the crops that were the lifeblood of a growing capitalistic society. And of course in order to maintain this, it requires, you know, dehumanization of those people so that everyone in that society would have to buy into the fiction to justify this brutal institution of slavery. Everyone had to buy into this belief system that the people were worthy, that the people deserved nothing more than that. There’s often, in creating a caste system, there is usually some perceived law of nature or some sense of scriptural divine will that determines that these people were born to be on top and these other people were born to be on the bottom.

kara swisher

Right, you can bring it up around COVID, too, in terms of essential workers actually being sacrificial workers, Black patients being denied painkillers because of stereotypes about their pain tolerance, COVID disproportionately affecting African-Americans. You describe a Black tax on caste. What price do Black Americans pay for being part of a subordinate caste in America?

isabel wilkerson

Well, I’d like to say that I prefer to use the term subordinated.

kara swisher

That’s — you’re right.

isabel wilkerson

I just thought I would mention that. Yeah, the fact of the matter is that at every systemic part of our society, we see it manifested. And then one of the places that we see it manifesting is, of course, longevity and health itself. What is more important than one’s very life? And we, of course, have seen over the summer that this is a matter of life and death for people who are descended from this originally historically subordinated group. And we have seen that, from Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, that this is a matter of life and death, what can happen to people in the current day. And in everyday ways, the idea that there’s this belief that people in the medical establishment still hold study after study after study, shows that medical professionals still believe the fallacy that Black and brown people do not experience pain in the same way that their white counterparts do. It’s shocking —

kara swisher

It is.

isabel wilkerson

— that in the current day anyone would believe that. So this affects how people are treated when they get into the system. There was a heartbreaking case over the holidays in which a Black woman, who was a physician, who had COVID was in the hospital. This happened in Indiana. And she was not given the pain medications that she required. She was not getting the treatment that she required. She was compelled to go on to Facebook to record what was happening to her. Here’s someone who had every single, one would presume, advantage and understanding of the medical system, of the treatment, of how she should have been treated, of the standards and the medications. She knew the language. She spoke the code. Whatever it was, she had all of it. And she still was not getting the care that she deserved. She was not getting the care that she knew was standard for this disease. And she was reduced to having to go on to record herself. And we know that after that, she passed away. I mean, this is the way that we see caste playing out in our current era. Right now we can see it.

kara swisher

Can you talk a little bit about how it’s affected you?

isabel wilkerson

Well, you know what? It has affected me in the sense that, as I go through the world, I can never know when this will rear itself. You go through the world, everyone wakes up, starts their day, with the hope that the day will be good, with the hope that you will move through the world and get the things that you need to get done done. And yet in the hierarchy in which we live, it cannot be assumed that you will just move about your day and there will not be some intrusion of caste, as I describe it. And one of the examples that stands out to me, of course, is when I was a national correspondent for The New York Times, and just going about my work of interviewing people. And I had made a call with several people in order to interview them for a story that was a pretty standard story and had no trouble all day with all the people I’d interviewed, until I got to the last interview. I got to the location a little early. The person I was supposed to interview was not there yet. I was told to sit and wait for him. That was fine, no trouble. And then moments later, a man comes in rushing. He’s clearly in a hurry. It seems as if he’s flustered. The clerk tells me that that’s the man I’m supposed to interview. That’s the manager that I’m there to interview. And I go up to him and he says, oh, I can’t talk to you right now. I’m very, very busy. And I said, well, I’m here to interview you. I’m The New York Times here to interview you. And he said, well, how do I know that? And I said, well, I made the arrangement and we talked on the phone and we made the arrangement for a 4:30 appointment, and here I am. I had my notebook. I had my pen. I was all ready to interview him. And he said, well, do you have a business card to prove that you’re with The New York Times? And it had been all day — now we don’t even use business cards, you know? But it had been all day —

kara swisher

No, we don’t, yeah.

isabel wilkerson

— and I was out of business cards. And I said, I happen not to have any business cards. But obviously, we have the appointment. I’m ready here to interview you. He said, do you have some ID? I’ll need to see some ID. And so I said I shouldn’t have to show you ID. We made the appointment. I’m here. I shouldn’t have to show you ID. And I pulled out my driver’s license anyway so that he could see it, just to be able to move on so I could get the interview done. And he said, you don’t have anything with The New York Times on it? And I said, now it’s well past the time. We should have been interviewing right now instead of standing here. No one else has come. We’re well past into the time we were supposed to be interviewing. I’m Isabel Wilkerson with The New York Times. And he said, I’m going to have to ask you to leave because The New York Times will be here any minute. So I had to write the piece without him. But the reason that I mention that example is also to show how this affects so much more than just the prime targets of it, who obviously suffer on so many levels. It impedes your ability to do your work. It throws you off your course. You are forced to have to think about, what is it that just happened. You’re using brain power that could be put toward much better things, toward the writing of the work that you’re doing or whatever it is that your job is. And instead you have to process and wonder —

kara swisher

Sure, it’s a tax.

isabel wilkerson

It is a form of the tax. But also, there is a cost for those who buy into this hierarchy, who buy into what I would say his assumptions about caste. What does a New York Times national correspondent look like? I did not look like what he thought that should be. I did not fit the, quote, unquote, “role” that he had in his mind. And so he lost out on the opportunity to get in the story, to be in The New York Times. He asked me to leave because The New York Times would be there any minute. And if you multiply this times, you know, tens of thousands of times a day, when some assumptions about another individual impedes the ability for something to happen in our society, impedes a transaction, impedes an interview, impedes something that really truly needs to happen and it doesn’t happen, how do you even begin to measure the cost, not just to the individual who is suffering, but also to the entire society, all the things that don’t get done, all the missed opportunities because of these assumptions and stereotypes that are all an inheritance of the original caste system that predated our country.

kara swisher

It’s an enormous waste of time.

isabel wilkerson

Enormous. [MUSIC PLAYING]

kara swisher

We’ll be back in a minute. If you like this interview and want to hear others, hit Subscribe. You’ll be able to catch up on Sway episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with Nobel Prize-winning scientist Dr. Jennifer Doudna, and you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Isabel Wilkerson after the break.

So now, caste is a term that American scholars have been using for years to describe how power operates in America. Why hasn’t the term, though, caught on?

isabel wilkerson

I think one reason it hasn’t caught on is because it has generally remained in the purview of the academy. It’s kind of a conversation that I think scholars have primarily been having with one another. It just hasn’t made it into the mainstream of dialogue. It’s not something that people would generally think about. Anyone who read The Warmth of Other Suns, however, has been exposed to the idea, at least from my role as a writer, because I use the term caste. I was having to describe an entire region where it was against the law, for example, in one of the states, for a Black person and a white person to merely play checkers together in Birmingham. It was a world where there was a Black Bible and altogether separate white Bible to swear to tell the truth on in court. The very word of God was segregated. It could not be touched by hands of different races, which speaks to one of the pillars of caste that I identified and described, which is purity versus pollution, where the untouchables, what were formerly known as untouchables, now known as Dalits, were policed and carefully watched and punished for any breach of what’s viewed as purity pollution. They could not drink from the same wells. They could not drink from the same cups. They could not even be, some of them, within 96 paces of a dominant caste person.

kara swisher

This is in India. The Dalits you’re talking about are in the Indian caste system.

isabel wilkerson

Yes.

kara swisher

And your book focuses on three major caste systems in human history— ancient Indian one, thousands of years, Nazi Germany, which was a very short time, and America’s caste system. Talk about how you make that connection between those three caste systems.

isabel wilkerson

Well obviously, we know that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an adherent to the nonviolent protest philosophy of Mohandas K. Gandhi. And he had always wished to go to India. And so he had the chance to do so in the winter of 1959. He and his wife, Coretta Scott King, went to India. And they were received as visiting dignitaries. But while they were there, they made a visit to the southern part of the country to Kerala. And there he visited a school where the students were then known as untouchables, now known as dalits. And so he went to visit that school. And when the principal introduced him, the principal said to the students, he said, young people, I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America. And when Dr. King heard those words, he bristled at first hearing it, because he didn’t perceive himself that way. He was a learned man who had led the Montgomery bus boycott and was a visiting dignitary, had had dinner with the prime minister. So he didn’t perceive himself in that way. He didn’t see how it was that the people there who were then known as untouchables could see him as one of them. And then of course, he had to think about it. He had to think about the fact that there were, at that very moment, Black people in the United States who he was advocating for, at that very moment, the majority of them were not being permitted to vote. The majority of them were not being permitted to use public accommodations. In every way, they were being held the lowest rung of the American hierarchy. And they were at the very bottom. And he said to himself, I am an untouchable. And he said, every Negro in the United States is an untouchable. And so what that meant is that the people who knew what a caste system— who knew best what a caste system is instantly recognized caste when they saw it. And they connected their system of hierarchy to our own. And he made this realization at that time. And he later gave a sermon in which he spoke about what he had experienced and learned there. And so it was through that experience that we can see the connection made by the people who knew caste best. Those who were at the bottom of it recognized the parallel condition of subjugation.

kara swisher

So when you make the connection with the Indian caste system and then the German one, one of the most surprising parts of your research is that the Nazis studied and admired U.S. segregation laws. What did they learn from Americans?

isabel wilkerson

Yes, that’s true. I only came to looking at Germany after Charlottesville, because it was there that we saw the conflation of, the merging of these symbols from across time and across the ocean of the Confederacy and of Nazi Germany. The people protesting the possible removal of the Statue of Robert E. Lee, they brought those symbols together, those belief systems together. And that sparked my interest to look and see what had Germany done in the years since the war. And I was just stunned to discover that, in the years leading up to the war, that German eugenicists were actually turning to and consulting with American eugenicists to build upon their brewing sense of Aryan superiority. It turned out that American eugenicists were writing books that were huge bestsellers in Germany, and in fact were used in the school curriculum that the Nazis created for themselves and for the students in that world.

kara swisher

What was the most important of these U.S. segregation efforts that moved there from your perspective? What was the most striking?

isabel wilkerson

Well, as you said, they actually sent people to study the United States, to study what Americans had done to separate and to identify who would be and what race. And so they were fascinated by this apportioning of fractions of, quote, unquote, “blood” to make up or to determine what a person’s race, quote, unquote, “race,” would be. And they were looking at the various ways of enforcement, the lynchings and others. They were also looking at antimiscegenation laws, the laws that prevented people from marrying across race. They adjusted some of these things to make up what would ultimately become the Nuremberg laws, one of them having the idea of the one drop rule, which was part of some Southern jurisprudence that would say that, in defining who was Black, all it took was one drop of Black blood to make that person Black. And among the Nazis, that was more than they were willing to do in defining who could be Jewish.

kara swisher

And what’s interesting is, that was their classification system.

isabel wilkerson

They created their own classification system.

kara swisher

Still a caste system invisibly underneath, just with their classifications.

isabel wilkerson

Well, caste meaning the artificial, arbitrary graded ranking of human value in a society, an infrastructure of division, they did create that.

kara swisher

So when you look at when the Nazis were defeated, something very different happened in that case than it happened here. I lived in Germany for a long time. And East Germany did not have the changes. You could see sort of the difference of doing nothing and doing something — education, removing of Nazi monuments, et cetera. They made things illegal, using the ability to do the Heil, for example, all kinds of things. Here, we have Confederate monuments. There continues to be displaying Confederate flags. Why is there a different American experience? Is it lack of memory? They paid reparations for the Holocaust, the Germans did. Why does that not happen here, from your perspective?

isabel wilkerson

Well, it goes back to the end of the Civil War and how was that major psychic break in our country’s history managed after the war was over? And we had a brief time known as Reconstruction, in which there was an attempt at helping to bring some equity to those who had been held in a fixed place again under enslavement for 246 years. And then that, of course, we know, in the compromise, that signaled the end of Reconstruction, and thus, there was never a true reconciliation. There was never a true addressing of what had happened. There was a sense of rushing to move on and move beyond what had happened without truly addressing the deep, deep wounds and the tragic exploitation of an entire group of people for 246 years, nor was there an incorporation of the true history into our curriculum. And I realized this because after I wrote The Warmth of Other Suns, which is about the 20th century Jim Crow system — which most people just simply didn’t know. I didn’t know when I started it. And most people don’t know because we don’t learn this in school. The thing I would hear from people time and time again after they read the book was, I had no idea. I heard that all the time. I heard from people wherever in the country they might have been, different backgrounds, I had no idea. Well, not having an idea has consequences. It has consequences in how people vote, what policies they support, who people hire, who is granted mortgages, who can be assaulted by authorities with impunity, all of the things that we’ve talked about. And so if we don’t know the history, we don’t know what’s gone before us. And that is why knowing the history is a huge part of it. And of course in Germany, the history is front and center in understanding what happened in World War II. You go to Berlin, as you know so well, right in the middle of a major world city is this massive, massive installation, the memorial to those who perished in the Holocaust. It is unmissable. It is right there, and it doesn’t even need to have a sign because people know what it’s there. They learn the history and they know why it’s there. It’s there for anyone to see. You’re going about your day and you’re reminded. There are markers and reminders everywhere in that city, in addition to the stumbling stones, which beckon in front of the last known residence of the individuals who perished in the Holocaust. I mean, there are reminders everywhere, as they should be.

kara swisher

And beyond that, they also do things like leave bullet holes in certain buildings, which I think is important, you talked about in your book. One of the things that was really interesting is they had Potsdamer Platz. They had a whole issue around Hitler’s bunker, which was near there. And they did not want people going there, acolytes of Hitler’s. And so they either hid it or you cannot find it or you can’t figure out where it is. But they resolved not to allow that to continue there, not keeping the history, because you need to keep the history. But it was a real big debate in Germany at the time. And it was fascinating to watch, compared to the Confederate monuments debate.

isabel wilkerson

That is such a great point you make. I actually was taken to that site by a friend who wanted to make sure I could see it. And what they’ve done is they’ve paved over it. It’s a parking lot. It’s just the most mundane feature of an urban landscape that you could ever imagine. And there’s a small sign that just says, this is what was there. But other than that, there are just cars parked over what had been a bunker.

kara swisher

And there’s no way to celebrate it if you were possibly — if you were an acolyte of Hitler. There’s no way to celebrate, as opposed to the Confederate monuments, which is, of course, where a lot of those protests went on several years ago. And what’s interesting about it is, I have a lot of Southern relatives, and they keep saying, Kara, well, it’s history. And I said, well, put it in a museum then. Like fine, no one’s — you know what I mean? Study it, whatever you want. It doesn’t need to be out in the public space. So why is that a debate?

isabel wilkerson

Well, there’s a difference between remembering something and celebrating something. And I think that is where the disconnect when it comes to, what do we do with our history? We want people to know the history. It’s necessary to know the history. We do not want to forget. We’re not on the same page with our history. That is why you can have, in a country such as Germany, all of the markers that — like you said, the bullet holes that have been kept for a reason to remind people, to not forget what happened. And we’ve not done that. We have simply not done that because we’re not on the same page about basic facts and basic aspects of our own history.

kara swisher

So let’s talk about how to dismantle caste then. Because you have said that Germany had dismantled, officially vanquished caste. There were signs when white Trump supporters, who say they voted for Barack Obama, this is pushing against the self-interest of their dominant caste status, and then in this election, more Black Americans who voted for Trump. Let’s talk a little bit about how you demolish the idea of caste. As we’re moving into the next year, and now we have a Black female vice President with Kamala Harris, some people used to say that America, we’re post-racial and doesn’t have a caste system. How do you respond?

isabel wilkerson

Well, I mean, I don’t know how anyone can say that after Jan. 6. I literally don’t know how anyone can say that. [LAUGHTER]

I’m not saying you did. I just — I sort of throw up my hands. But I’d like to say the conversation has been going toward the idea of moving quickly toward healing, which is the same thing that happened after the Civil War and Reconstruction. There’s the same natural reaction to want to move on. But the issue is that these wounds are 400 years in the making. There’s no single pill that you can take for something that is this longstanding. It’s on the systems level at multiple systems levels. It’s economic. It’s social. It’s political. It’s labor. And it’s employment. It’s health care system, criminal justice, education, law enforcement. It’s everything. And these are system level issues that require so much more than just a single answer. I have written this book as — I present myself as a building inspector who is presenting the report to the current owners of the building, the house we all call America. And it took all that I could do just to present the report. It’s like holding up an X-ray of our country. And the radiologist presents the X-ray and talks about what’s going on in the X-ray. It’s the surgeon and all the other people who come in, the other physicians who come in and actually look more closely at it to look at all the things that need to be done in order to fix what is gone wrong. We would never expect that there would be a single pill for a cancer diagnosis. You don’t expect that. And it’s the same thing here. It requires a closer examination, first recognizing our history, how did we get here. And then and only then can you begin to even think about crafting a plan for moving forward.

kara swisher

Sure, certainly. Now, I get you don’t want to be the surgeon. You’re the building inspector, and the building’s a mess. But do you see signs of it, as the building inspector of the house of America, which is pretty creaky right now, do you see signs that there is an ability to push back this system? I don’t. I don’t, so — I’ll say. And I don’t know how to fix it. Not to give prescriptions, but I’d like you to give predictions.

isabel wilkerson

I would never, ever give predictions. I’ll tell you right now. [LAUGHTER] I take the position of someone who is deeply steeped in the history that I have studied. And I see echoes of what I have studied in the past. And I can see and visualize some of the same out of control, almost primordial, existential response to existential threat that I see in the rampage that we saw on Jan. 6. I have —

kara swisher

And the response in Congress by the Republicans — let’s move on.

isabel wilkerson

Yeah. This is a reminder that history is still with us. And the really foundational structure of our country was slavery. We still live with the after effects of it, how it is not this ancient, long ago single chapter in our country’s history. And so I have two numbers, two years that I want to speak about. One is next year, 2022. The United States will not have been a free and independent nation for as long as slavery lasted on its soil until the year 2022. That is a massive reminder of how slavery lasted, which is, again, the foundation of the inequities that we live with to this day, the upside-down power structure of the country that was established in the time of slavery. But then also, no adult alive today will be alive at the point at which African-Americans will have been free for as long as they were enslaved. That will not happen until the year 2111, 2111. So the fact that our country will not even have been a free and independent nation for as long as slavery lasted, that’s how long it lasted, that it won’t be till next year, in our lifetimes. So that is connecting us to the longstanding history. And we can see it resurrected before our very eyes because this has not been addressed. It has not been fully known, thus not fully addressed. And so we still live out the ancient struggles and tensions of previous generations because we have never truly dealt with them in the ways that they really need to be. We have had laws, which are necessary, absolutely necessary. We’ve had a civil rights movement that was absolutely necessary. But we can also see how fragile all of that is and how it doesn’t take much to resurrect those longstanding unaddressed wounds that are still with us.

kara swisher

Its structure. So a lot of people have said this week, this is not our country. But it is.

isabel wilkerson

Well, I feel as if this is the country’s karmic moment of truth. And we are here alive to see it playing out before our eyes. What we saw last week on January 6 may have looked like another country, but it is our country. It may have looked like a different century, but it is our century. It may have looked like a long ago battle over justice, waged and presumably won back in another era. But it is ours. We are living this right now. And I think that that moment has forced us into a karmic reckoning that is long overdue.

kara swisher

This is a phenomena. Your book is a phenomena. But once it’s over, is there a topic you really want to delve into?

isabel wilkerson

That’s one of the things that I retain from my years at The Times, is I never talk about what I’m working on. [LAUGHTER] [MUSIC PLAYING] Ever.

kara swisher

All right, then. Ever — well, keep that policy then. Don’t let me drag it out of you. Anyway, your book is wonderful. It really is.

isabel wilkerson

Thank you so much for having me.

kara swisher

All right, thank you.

Sway is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Heba Elorbany, Matt Kwong, and Vishakha Darbha, edited by Paula Szuchman, with original music by Isaac Jones, mixing by Erick Gomez, and fact-checking by Kate Sinclair. Special thanks to Shannon Busta, Liriel Higa, and Kathy Tu.

If you’re in a podcast app already, you know how to subscribe to a podcast. So subscribe to this one. If you’re listening on The Times website and want to get each new episode of Sway in your podcast hierarchy, download a podcast app Like Stitcher or Google Podcasts. Then search for Sway and hit subscribe. We release every Monday and Thursday. Thanks for listening.

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