History, Race, and Caste

Isabel Wilkerson on our country’s “karmic moment of truth”

June 27, 2021

Isabel Wilkerson

Julius C. Jefferson Jr.’s President’s Program at the American Library Association’s 2021 Annual Conference and Exhibition Virtual on June 27 included the 2021 Awards Presentation and featured speaker Isabel Wilkerson.

Jefferson spoke of the “twin pandemics” that have marked his tenure as president—COVID-19 and systemic racism—and pointed out that only the virus seems to be reaching resolution. “Isabel Wilkerson and her book Caste help explain why,” he said.

Simone Stone, an MSLIS student at the School of Information Services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, introduced Wilkerson. As Chicago Bureau Chief for The New York Times, Wilkerson became the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1994. Her latest book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Random House, 2020), explores the structure of an unspoken system of human ranking and reveals how our lives are still restricted by what divided us centuries ago.

Wilkerson opened by noting that a debut author panel (for The Warmth of Other Suns [Random House, 2010]) at ALA’s 2010 Annual Conference was her first book event ever. “This feels like coming full circle,” she said.

Wilkerson believes there is an urgent need for libraries in our era. Whenever she hears “this is not my country” or “this is not what America stands for,” she is reminded that not enough people know our country’s true history. America is like a country with a preexisting condition, she said—you would not be surprised if a person with heart disease had a heart attack, for example.

“Libraries are society’s vault of knowledge,” she said. Because few people learned America’s true history in their education, “libraries provide a second wave of education for an American public seeking understanding.”

Caste was not a book she wanted to write but one that demanded to be written, she said.

Americans are not used to the word caste being used to describe our society, Wilkerson said—it’s more commonly used with India and feudal Europe. But in the sense of “an artificial, arbitrary, graded human ranking,” it applies. Any number of metrics could have been used, and European colonists chose the idea of race.

Caste is used to decide a group member’s competence, intelligence, worth, and whether one will be protected or attacked by authorities, Wilkerson argued, and it programs people to think they have no stake in the lives of people who are considered lower than them, making society less magnanimous. It affects policy, voting, investments in society, and is a matter of life and death.

She described Martin Luther King’s 1959 visit to India, where he was greeted as a dignitary. He went to visit a Dalit school and was introduced as a “fellow untouchable.” At first, he bristled, but he thought about the 20 million Black people in the US being prohibited from every sphere of life and citizenship. “Those who knew best what a caste system was instantly recognized caste when they saw it,” Wilkerson said.

“Just over a year ago, we saw a man killed before our very eyes,” Wilkerson said of the death of George Floyd, contrasting it with the mostly white rioters who breached the Capitol building on January 6 and largely walked out unharmed. After the mob left, images circulated of the Black custodial staff who had to clean up the mess left behind.

“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,” Wilkerson said.

She posed a challenging question to the audience: “This is the country’s karmic moment of truth—will it follow the path of darkness and division, or will it rise to what Dr. King called ‘the heights of the majestic’ and live up to its creed: become and defend true democracy with liberty and justice for every single one of us?”


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