“OUR DISCONTENT”- A Book Review by Richard Jewell

The Racial Justice Initiative invites you to read this review, written by Plymouth member Richard Jewell, of Caste, The Origins of Our Discontent, written by Isabel Wilkerson.

Pulitzer Prizewinning author Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent explodes the myth that we are a classless society. The American Prospect calls this book “the missing puzzle piece of our country’s history.”

        Caste argues that the United States has a clear and uniquely defined caste system: Blacks here serve as Nazi Germany’s Jews and India’s Untouchables. She acknowledges terrible treatment of Native Americans and, in the past, Latinx, but she presents her fascinating stories, histories, and statistics primarily about African Americans. Her writing is not intellectually difficult to follow, especially with notes, bibliography, and index consigned to the last ninety pages. However, reading Caste can be an emotionally fraught journey.


In its first part, Wilkerson reveals the construction of caste in America, its eight “pillars,” and its thoroughly embedded “tentacles.” In doing so, she productively compares the U.S. system to those of the Nazis and India. The Nazis copied U.S. Jim Crow policies to implement their extermination of Jews and others. And Blacks and India’s Untouchables historically have much in common, as she found by traveling there. Wilkerson, never sensationalist, also lays out stories of Black hangings, burnings (sometimes alive), whippings (commonly followed by salt washes), mutilations, rapes, and murders, some continuing now.

The latter part of Caste is about the present. Wilkerson recalls a few of the more severe indignities she has experienced as a well-dressed reporter-scholar navigating the white professional world. She summarizes how the Obama presidency and Blacks’ economic rise have created an existential panic among some whites threatened by not having a Black caste below them. She contrasts the mindsets of upper-caste controlling whites and economically rising Blacks by quoting Patricia Hill Collins: “Knowledge without wisdom is adequate for the powerful, but wisdom is essential to the survival of the subordinate.” Wilkerson adds statistics showing how middle-class Blacks have the poorest health among whites and BIPOCs (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), simply from daring to rise: the result, she says, of caste-related stress.

Will the United States, she asks, have an identity crisis as it moves, by the 2040s, toward an inversion of white vs. BIPOC demographics? Will white elites redefine “whiteness”—as they once did for lower-caste Irish, Italians, and other immigrant groups—to maintain Blacks as the bottom caste? She ends on a hopeful note by exploring a personal example in her final chapter, “The Heart Is the Last Frontier.” She says that someday a caste-free world may be possible. However, she adds, severe growing pains lie ahead for all.

More: IsabelWilkerson.comTime Magazine, and National Endowment for the Humanities