By Isabel Wilkerson,

Book cover of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Book description


"Powerful and timely ... I cannot recommend it strongly enough" - Barack Obama

From one of America's most celebrated and insightful writers, the moving, eye-opening bestseller about what lies hidden under the surface of ordinary lives


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Why read it?

13 authors picked Caste as one of their favorite books. Why do they recommend it?

I found this book to be a well-researched and convincing account of the racial hierarchy in the United States, which Wilkerson identifies as a caste system. In part, Wilkerson justifies this label through comparisons with India’s caste system, and the caste system which was in place in Nazi Germany.

This book opened my eyes in many ways. Especially shocking was the degree to which Nazi leaders and academics studied the U.S policies before enacting their own laws. Wilkerson effectively argues that these racial hierarchies are not haphazard or coincidental but were/are constructed with purpose and malice.

This is one of the most important books that I have ever read.

I think that it was particularly meaningful to me because it helped me to understand my own childhood experiences in the South, where I attended a racially segregated high school. Because the author is a talented writer and journalist, it was also a very engaging read. 

With respect and without any finger pointing, the author describes in a very informative and captivating style where the world went wrong in confusing racism with caste. The book illuminated my thoughts about the topic in an enriching manner. A must read for humanity and a call to action in a non-violent way. 

This book reorients the concept of racism from the idea of race to assumptions of caste, familiar from India but relevant to the essential cultural definition of an entire people. 

It also engages Nazi definitions of Jews as a race (though omitting Native Amerindians). It is very readable but well-researched and powerful in its indictments of overlaps between caste and class, defining an underclass in restrictive, racial terms, through cultural norms of group dehumanization. 

All Americans should read this book and rethink how they were raised and how their hometown society operated.

Wilkerson’s scholarship on race and injustice is certainly not a secret, but I still find some colleagues who have not yet read this book.

To convince people to pick it up, I promise that its language is poetic and imminently accessible, and I share the two pieces that have remained top of mind for years: first, Wilkerson’s research about the lessons Nazi Germany took from the racial caste system of Jim Crow United States, and second, the way she crafts an analogy of a crumbling house to make the case for reparations for racist harm, which—like cracks in the foundation…

Reading Caste: The Origins of our Discontents was one of the most enlightening, affirming, and motivating experiences of my life. Caste is one of the first books in which the contrast in my experience growing up as the daughter of a white, Jewish American father versus my experience as the brown-skinned, biological mother of a son presumed to be white was reflected. Caste allowed me to understand why. Wilkerson never uses the terms “white supremacy,” “anti-blackness,” or “systemic racism” in her book. Rather, she uses the terms “dominant and subordinate caste”, and “casteism.” She illuminates for the reader that…

I wish this book was required reading for every American. This book helped me reframe my understanding of racism in the U.S. by contextualizing it in terms of caste systems. It explains and compares three different caste systems—in India, in the U.S., and in the Third Reich in Germany. I had never heard the idea of caste applied to America before, and after reading this, I can’t think of America except in terms of caste. I now realize there are parts of American history and culture where the word ‘racism’ doesn’t quite communicate what’s happening. But understanding and using ‘caste’…

This book challenges all of us to think about race in America and confront how racism has shaped the United States and had an impact globally. It also uses personal anecdotes to emphasize the academic discussion. I find this book particularly compelling as we all confront racism, sexism, and intersectionality. It made me question my views and how I would have responded in a particular situation. It also gave me a better understanding of the author’s experiences as a Black woman facing the world, and how those experiences are different from mine.

From Stephenie's list on advocates and activists.

Masterful, profoundly humane, and impeccably researched. Wilkerson creates a light-bulb moment, by taking the Indian caste system and overlaying it onto the generational subjugation of Black Americans. This book doesn’t preach – it presents: gripping our hearts with real-life stories; haunting us with the unjust laws and social practices which have ensured inequality and poverty, no matter how hard black Americans worked. A poisonous system weakening and dividing the nation. Caste profoundly changes our personal understanding of American racism. 

From Ravinder's list on by writers of colour.

We tend to associate the idea of caste with faraway or traditional cultures such as that of India, or more hideously as during the Nazi era in Germany. Wilkerson reveals the presence and persistence of caste across American society, and poignantly distinguishes it from racism, though both fueled by intolerance. For Wilkerson, caste is “in the bones” of a society, less visible but intrinsic, while race is reflected in things like the color of skin, at once superficial but supportive of the unseen yet intrinsic nature of caste. So, the lesson, as the book makes it clear, is that it…

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