Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is a compelling fable, told by an expert storyteller. A recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in journalism for her feature writing in the New York Times and author of a previous prize-winning bestseller on the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns (2010), Wilkerson aims to awaken American blacks to the arbitrary caste hierarchy pressing upon them and to open the eyes of white oppressors to their unearned privilege. Forcing whites to acknowledge their bias and compassionately listen to the pain of African Americans, she believes, will free all Americans from the prison of caste once and for all. Wilkerson builds her case with vivid images and anecdotes, interlacing the plight of individuals with her own experiences of racism. She wastes little time on counterarguments.
As literature, Caste is a triumph; as social science, it is a disaster. That Caste was feted in leading publications like the New York Times (“an instant American classic”) and the Washington Post (“powerful, illuminating”), was picked for Oprah’s Book Club (“Magnificent. Profound. Eye-Opening. Sobering. Hopeful”), and is now slated to be turned into a feature film for Netflix tells us more about our cultural elite than about racial stratification. When it comes to race, smart people suspend disbelief to worship idols, dispensing with the usual standards of evidence.
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“Throughout human history,” Wilkerson asserts without a shred of analysis, “three caste systems have stood out”—those of India, the United States, and Nazi Germany. Though nodding to the Indian and Jewish experiences, the lion’s share of the book concentrates on the traumas of African Americans. Caste serves up a veritable Saving Private Ryan of horrors, from slavery through Jim Crow. Describing the Draft Riots of 1863, Wilkerson writes of how Irish immigrants turned their “frustration and rage” against black Americans: “they hung black men from lamp poles and burned to the ground anything associated with black people.” We hear about three runaway slaves who were captured and returned to Robert E. Lee’s plantation where his overseers “la[id] it on well” with 50 lashes before washing the poor slaves’ bloodied backs with brine. Atrocities are described in gory detail, such as the lynching of Will Brown in Omaha in 1919, where 15,000 people watched the mob hang, shoot, beat, and burn him. In another instance, whites mailed “postcards of the severed, half-burned head of Will James” to loved ones. Wilkerson describes a “culture of cruelty” at carnivals and county fairs involving projectiles hurled at African Americans. The indignities of black life in the Jim Crow South are catalogued in detail. The effect is powerful and riveting.
Caste segues from torture and death to the indignities of being black in contemporary America. In a single page we move from the anthropology of lynching to the claim that the struggle for civil rights produced affirmative action, which mainly benefits white women and their families—who go on to reproduce the caste structure. The text intersperses accounts of slights experienced by black professionals with episodes from Wilkerson’s upper-middle class academic life, involving rude white men on airplanes and surly tradesmen. Mass incarceration, Freddie Gray, the wealth gap, and reparations make their appearance.
Black historian Rayford Logan calls the period from Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Act, when African American progress was derailed by Southern segregationists, the Nadir. Wilkerson thinks we’re living in the Second Nadir, “starting roughly with the shooting of Trayvon Martin and other unarmed black people, combined with the rollbacks in voting rights protections.” In this woke eschatology, the Second Dispensation (before the coming Utopia?) is represented by Ferguson, Trump, and voter ID laws, the latter-day incarnation of the post-Civil War attempt by Southern whites to put black people firmly in their place.
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Literature places a premium on evocative, emotion-stirring prose, immersing readers in the experience of others to grant them a deeper understanding of the human condition. But emotional attachments to explanations—like the all-pervasiveness of racism—lead scholars to ignore evidence that contradicts their argument while cherry-picking data that support it. It prompts the analyst to stretch her conceptual goalposts to bag evidence that falls outside what most understand their terms to mean. Effects such as racial income gaps are treated as evidence for causes (caste!), producing circular reasoning. The reverence accorded to the grand theory dissolves all doubt, lending plausibility to numerous sleights of hand which prop up the theory: Barack Obama lost the white vote twice, proving white supremacy; Hillary Clinton lost the white vote by more in 2016, proving white supremacy. The argument is self-confirming and unfalsifiable. As Karl Popper noted, the attempt to ascribe nefarious agency to a complex system of causes is the hallmark of conspiracy theory, and at times Caste comes awfully close to entering this territory.
Science, by contrast, is wary of the passions, viewing them as an impediment to knowledge. It requires measurement with representative data to avoid bias. To explain a disease outbreak you can’t just focus on the ill, but must study a random sample, including the healthy. Likewise, to understand racism you can’t just fixate on victims and perpetrators as Wilkerson does, but should think carefully about the less evocative non-victims and non-perpetrators. Only then can you arrive at a rounded view of how big a problem racial caste is in relation to other concerns, what causes it, and whether it is rising or declining.
For instance, there were 4,743 recorded lynchings in America between 1882 and 1968, of which around 3,500 were black and 1,300 white. Each incident is appalling, but it is important to place these figures in context. In a black population of 9 million, these were rare events. This would suggest that, despite the undoubted caste system of the time, the severity of violence did not reach the level of, for example, the Russian pogroms. And lynching, like slavery, continues to this day. In Kenya in 2011, 543 people were lynched, often over a burglary or traffic accident. Three years later in Uganda, 582 were lynched. This is not to indulge in “whataboutism,” but to point out that lynching is not some uniquely American pastime. The vast majority of whites, moreover, were not involved (Wilkerson presents no data from opinion surveys or sales of gruesome postcards to indicate otherwise). Did most American whites support lynching? Why did the number of lynchings drop so sharply after 1935? We hear nothing about these nuances, and so can’t form a picture of the full range of white opinion or why it changed. Instead, the book gives an impression of a relatively undifferentiated and bloodthirsty white population, whose zeal to dominate persists.
The same holds for slavery. Only someone beholden to confirmation bias could dub slavery “an American innovation” while brushing away its ubiquity in world history and ignoring the fact that just a tiny fraction (3%) of African slaves were shipped to America. The vast bulk met an even harsher fate in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Arab world. Moreover, as scholar Sunil Khilnani writes, Wilkerson skates over the fact that white slaveowners were often aligned against poor whites, who they viewed less charitably than blacks. Again, reality’s messy shades-of-grey are collapsed into a simple black-and-white picture.
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If Wilkerson’s narrow sketch of American history occupied a tiny corner of academia, it would be of little concern. Unfortunately, her writing perpetuates the myth of white depravity and black victimhood which has conquered the hive mind of today’s cultural elite. No wonder that the share of white liberals saying racism is “a big problem” jumped, after 2014, from 40%, where it had long been, to over 80%, where it stands today. This Great Awokening, based on the myth of the Second Nadir, fuels political division and harms black Americans.
Am I exaggerating? Nearly half of “very liberal” Americans think that over 1,000 unarmed black people were killed by police in 2019—compared to the actual figure of 13 to 27. Eight in 10 black Biden voters and 7 in 10 whites who say “white Republicans are racist” think a young black man is more likely to be shot by the police than to die in a traffic accident—in fact they are around ten times more likely to be killed by a car than a police bullet. Not only does the selective narrative peddled by Wilkerson annoy whites and police who resent being smeared with the misdeeds of a few bad apples, it actively harms black people by heightening their threat perceptions. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which drinks heavily from the same wellsprings, advocated defunding the police—leading to a major loss of black life. One study found that in places where BLM marches took place during 2014-19, there was a 10% higher murder rate than in places without BLM marches, costing thousands of black lives. Cities like Chicago and Minneapolis are suffering a wave of violence since the killing of George Floyd which has set their crime rates soaring to 1990s levels.
The defeatist outlook which Wilkerson’s book embodies disempowers blacks. In one study I conducted, black respondents who read a passage from Ta-Nehisi Coates, a leading purveyor of Wilkerson’s worldview, were 15 points less likely to say they could make their life plans work out than blacks who were not exposed to his hyperbolic narrative of white threats to black bodies.
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The United States today is not a racist country by world-historical standards. Compared with its past, and other nations, the reverse is true. What is particularly unusual about America is the decontextualized animus directed by much of its cultural elite against its ethnic majority. Caste talks a lot about empathy, but, as psychologist Paul Bloom has observed, empathy is a poor guide for morality because it tends to be applied selectively and leads to the demonization of supposed perpetrator groups. Advocates of lynching drew on empathy for white women to demonize black men. Wilkerson calls for empathy for black people while demonizing white men and conservatives, especially the working class, whom she portrays in cartoonish fashion: “He smelled of beer and tobacco. He was wearing a cap like the men at the rallies who wanted to make America great again.”
America did indeed have a racial caste system until the mid-1960s and its effects still negatively impact African Americans. Like anti-Semitism, racism has declined but not disappeared. But racism, as many black dissident intellectuals note, is not the main problem holding back African Americans. The grievance narrative which pretends America is locked in a racial hierarchy is both misleading and harmful to black progress.
College-educated marchers have returned to their keyboards, where some write for leading national newspapers. They wash their hands of the collateral damage their moral panic has produced. Could it be that the narrative of caste, rather than caste itself, is the prison from which black America needs to escape?