‘This is the country’s karmic moment of truth,’ says author Isabel Wilkerson

In a virtual conversation at Brown, Isabel Wilkerson, author of “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” called on Americans to “defend true democracy” by resisting the divisions of the nation’s centuries-old social hierarchy.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Nearly every American has seen pictures and videos from the afternoon of Jan. 6, 2021, when a crowd of Donald Trump supporters stormed the United States Capitol in an attempt to stop lawmakers from certifying President Joe Biden’s election win. Among the throngs, national media outlets noted, were avowed Nazi sympathizers, white supremacists and white nationalists. 

Fewer people saw the quiet scene in the Capitol’s halls later that evening. A crew of janitors arrived to clean up the shattered glass, tidy the fallen bookshelves and carry away broken furniture. They labored in their uniforms and masks, holding mops and brooms. Every one of them was Black.

This succession of events, as told by author Isabel Wilkerson in a Thursday, April 1, event at Brown, offers a painful example of the American caste system at work.

“I saw instantly the people assigned to the subordinated caste for 400 years, still consigned to their historic role of serving, cleaning up after those programmed to see themselves as dominant, superior, supreme,” Wilkerson said. “What we saw may have looked like a different century, but it is ours.”

In a virtual discussion with University students, faculty and staff, as well as members of the greater community, Wilkerson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” emphasized that recent incidents of racial violence and unrest in the U.S. point to a moment of crisis that has been hundreds of years in the making — a crisis that calls for society’s most powerful to take collective action.

The conversation was part of the Lemley Family Leadership Lecture Series, established this year to invite accomplished scholars, thought leaders, policymakers and practitioners to speak about some of the world’s most challenging issues. Wilkerson was joined by Amanda Anderson, director of Brown’s Cogut Institute for the Humanities and a professor of humanities and English. 

Most associate the term “caste” with India, where for generations people have been sorted into subordinate or dominant social positions at birth, and where upward mobility is next to impossible. But Wilkerson said the U.S., too, has a caste system: Its white citizens are dominant, its Black citizens subordinate, its opportunities for upward mobility slim. 

“Caste, essentially, is an artificial, arbitrary, graded ranking of human value in a society,” she said. “It is what determines one’s standing, respect, benefit of the doubt, access to resources, assumptions of competence, intelligence, worthiness... beauty, even. And [it is] due to no action on the part of the individual who is being accorded or withheld... entitlement in a society. These are the result of having been born to a group that has a location within the hierarchy that… dates back to the origins of that society.”

The American caste system, Wilkerson said, is older than the nation itself: It was established with the beginning of slavery, an institution whose premise was that people of one skin color were superior to people of another. 

“No one was held to account for those 246 years of slavery, or for the rupture of secession and the Civil War,” Wilkerson said. “Instead, there are monuments to these men” — evidence that the caste system remains firmly in place today.

The boundaries we seek to create are false ones. If they were created by human beings, they can be dismantled by human beings.

Isabel Wilkerson Author, 'Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents'

The author explained that thinking about the American social hierarchy in terms of caste, rather than race, is helpful because it “challenges the neurons” to rethink all that Americans think they know about the country’s systems and infrastructures. 

“It allows us to focus on the structure and not the personal,” she said. “These are human-created systems. These are power dynamics that we have inherited. It can be helpful for recognizing how this is harming all of us, so we should come together and recognize what might be possible in terms of fixing it.”

Wilkerson argued that the U.S. now finds itself at a crucial inflection point after a year of racist violence, political tension and among the world’s highest rates of COVID-19 deaths and cases, second only to that of India. Violence, she explained, becomes most acute in a caste system when it appears the social order may be under threat. She offered that a perceived sense of threat to the social order could help explain events at the Capitol on Jan. 6, and perhaps also the recent shootings at Atlanta massage parlors, where six of the eight who were killed were of Asian descent.

“This is the country’s karmic moment of truth,” she said. “Will it follow the path of darkness and division, of hate and hierarchy, that have riven it for centuries, or will it rise to what [Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] called a ‘height of the majestic,’ and live up to its creed — become and defend true democracy, with liberty and justice for every single one of us?” 

She emphasized that it is up to “all of us” — but particularly the prime beneficiaries of the American caste system —  to dismantle a social order whose enforcement by those in power has brought centuries of death and destruction. She likened caste in the U.S. to an old house with major structural issues: While it’s true that Americans who are alive today had no part in building the uneven pillars, joists and beams, they have taken possession of the house and thus must make the repairs. 

The author did not offer specific solutions, stipulating that she was only the “building inspector” there to report the centuries of damage. But she said she suspects that healing divisions can only begin when Americans topple the structures within which they have lived since the 18th century.

“The pandemic has reminded us that... the borders that have been created are manmade; a pathogen doesn’t recognize them,” Wilkerson said. “This has been a reminder of our global connection to one another. We are interdependent. The boundaries we seek to create are false ones. If they were created by human beings, they can be dismantled by human beings.”

A Q&A with members of the Brown community followed Wilkerson’s talk, with questions focused on her past writings, the recent violent incidents against Asian Americans, and the role caste plays in perpetuating discrimination in the workplace.

The author’s appearance marked the second Lemley Family Lecture at Brown, following a March 5 virtual visit by pioneering biochemist Jennifer Doudna. Leading American economist Rebecca Henderson will join the University community as part of the series next fall.