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The Origins of Our Discontents

Book - 2020 | First edition.
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""As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power--which groups have it and which do not." In this brilliant book, Isabel Wilkerson gives us a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America as she explores, through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings. Beyond race, class, or other factors, there is a powerful caste system that influences people's lives and behavior and the nation's fate. Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, stigma, and more. Using riveting stories about people--including Martin Luther King, Jr., baseball's Satchel Paige, a single father and his toddler son, Wilkerson herself, and many others--she shows the ways that the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day. She documents how the Nazis studied the racial systems in America to plan their out-cast of the Jews; she discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires that there be a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she writes about the surprising health costs of caste, in depression and life expectancy, and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics. Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity. Beautifully written, original, and revealing, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is an eye-opening story of people and history, and a reexamination of what lies under the surface of ordinary lives and of America life today"-- Provided by publisher.
Publisher: New York : Random House, [2020]
Edition: First edition.
ISBN: 9780593230251
Characteristics: xvii, 476 pages ; 23 cm


From Library Staff

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is an eye-opening story of people and history, and a reexamination of what lies under the surface of ordinary lives and of American life today.

Meeting: January 11, 2022

15 "best of 2020" lists

October 6, 2021

As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power--which groups have it and which do not. This book ... Read More »

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Jun 20, 2021

Isabel Wilkerson has written a really powerful book. She has compared the American Race system to the Indian Caste System and the Nazi treatment of Jews. While we all knew of the historical ill-treatment of the slaves by their masters it is painful to see that even today the dominant caste (read Whites) are abusing African Americans. It is clear that the caste system is a mindset and her estimate of how long it and its effects will last are realistic. A must read.

Jun 16, 2021

Pillar 5

ACL_ChrisS Jun 10, 2021

Really important and really emotionally challenging, as it should be. I had to stop reading it for a period of days to regain some equilibrium; the events and experiences she writes about, both personal and historical, are heart-wrenching and horrific. Not surprising to anyone who has studied history. But read together, and after all that has happened recently, made for a thought-provoking and challenging read. Again, as it should be.

I think her main thesis is best summed up in the review I read in "The New Republic": "for African Americans, class matters less than race and racism, its endurance foreclosing the possibilities of any true ascent in status—a tension that she seeks to illuminate by seeing through the lens of caste and casteism." As you would expect from Wilkerson, the book is clearly written, impeccably researched, and compelling. It's not a traditional work of narrative nonfiction or academic nonfiction, but a series of essays and anecdotes all working toward her goal.

I loved her discussion at the end about radical empathy, and I can see how books like this one can help develop empathy in others who can read it with an open heart and mind.

Jun 07, 2021

I'm on chapter 9

Gina_Vee Jun 01, 2021

I feel like this is one of those books we should have read in school but didn't.

JCLChrisK May 22, 2021

Wilkerson describes an important, innovative way for thinking about race in the U.S. She compares specifically to the caste systems of Hindu India and Nazi Germany, similarities that have been apparent to those from those countries but seem novel to most of us in America. She supports her assertions with a constant, continuous quilt of examples, historical and current, radical and subtle, violent and structural, obvious and surprising, showing the countless dimensions to the system that is in place. She is a gifted writer who is easy to read. Because she is pulling together so many diverse pieces the course of the book is not entirely linear; that and the emotionally taxing subject matter make it the kind of book to nibble and digest slowly, but it is always engaging and illuminating. An essential book.

May 19, 2021

The author’s writing style is nicely fluid and quite readable. The premise of this book, and not very well established by the author, is that the concept of caste is applicable to the modern American society in regards to race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. I think that the author prefers using caste, which is clearly a cultural construct, rather than race, which is an unscientific mashup of cultural, biological, and historical constructs, to allow a structural discussion of what we generally recognize as racism. However, the author, unhelpfully in my opinion, states: “caste and race are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive.”
The strengths of the book are the telling of some various episodes in our nation’s history regarding the origin and rationale of slavery, the mistreatment of slaves, continued mistreatment of Blacks in the Jim Crow era, and some of the contributions African Americans such as the story of Cotton Mather and Onesimus towards the eventual eradication of Small Pox.
The author uses analogies in an attempt to provide some insight into our current situation, most notably the metaphor of an old house for American society. A better metaphor, I think, would be that of an old tree that unlike the author’s house is a living organism, grows with each generation, covers old wounds, rather than some static structure. The old house metaphor combined with a number of the author’s vignettes reveal the author’s mindset. In one vignette, the author is getting ready to deplane from a flight after having flown first class. A man ahead of her, reaches behind her to grab some luggage. The man appears to be pretty rude about it. But the author doesn’t take any steps to address the problem but rather looks to others to help – a veritable victim. Clearly, the author could have suggested to the man that instead of leaning into her, he could step behind her. The author just fumed and felt sorry for being a victim. The author’s mindset seems to be that from the beginnings of slavery through to the presidency of Barak Obama, there has been no real change to American society certainly in regards African Americans. I would beg to differ.
As a journalist, the author seems to be of the advocacy school journalism. Objectivity is not a standard to which the author aspires.
It seems that almost every page contains some narrative segment that leaves out key facts, contains non-objective descriptive language, or is flat wrong.
These situations are framed as a caste issue when there are simpler explanations. This seems to me to be a very Marxist perspective – just replace the Marxist class with caste to get the basic analysis. Everything is viewed as a dominant vs subordinate caste issue.
Frequently the author refers to the action of an individual as the action of the “dominant caste” as if the caste is a living being – very weird. The author never discusses how the attitudes of succeeding generations in American society have changed in regards to race such as interracial social outings or interracial marriage – both of which have been increasing.
The closing thoughts of the author as expressed in the epilog are full of fine words but unfortunately are a muddle and unsupported by the preceding narrative. There are a few places where the author is specific. The author calls for a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission, so that every American can know the full history of our country, wrenching though it may be.” The author also calls for all of us to have “Radical Empathy” - a national therapy session!
The author inadvertently states the key to ending all of this, “Anyone who truly believes in a meritocracy would not want to be in a caste system …”. This then gets us to the real solution: meritocracy. That is, we should to treat people as individuals and by their abilities rather than as members of a group. Unfortunately, the author does not come to this conclusion.

KCLS_RobinH May 06, 2021

Incredibly thought-provoking, and a great audiobook. Compelling evidence from around the world combined with modern experiences of what life is like when you're doomed to a lower caste, whether it be based on skin color, religion, or artificial hierarchy, making me rethink how I move and relate in the world.

May 06, 2021

Truly an Excellent Read.
I am just shocked of how much I did not know!
This books brings an understanding of where we find ourselves today.
Everyone should have an opportunity to read this book.
I wish I could give it 6/5 stars.

May 01, 2021

This is a very important topic, and a very important book. I would recommend this to everyone everywhere. There will be a lot that is new to many readers, such as the fact that Einstein was an anti-racist. I would have liked even more about the history of South Africa and their struggles to overcome Apartheid, and how poorly America compares. I was disappointed that the book focused on the history of racism in the US, Germany and India, but barely mentioned Malcolm X. In his autobiography, he said that the first time he felt like he was being treated like a man instead of a Black man was when he went to Germany, on his way to the middle east. He also had a lot to say on the state of racism in the US that was more insightful without relying on comparisons with other caste systems. He offered a solution, too. Unfortunately, there is a lot more missing from this examination of caste, but I'll let my friends at Jewish Voices for Peace address that giant gaping hole. Glad I read it, though.

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Feb 06, 2021

601 quotes posted in goodreads. Likely all my favorites are included:

Sep 25, 2020

“The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly. And the least that a person in the dominant caste can do is not make the pain any worse.” - p. 386

Sep 25, 2020

“As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources—which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence—who is accorded these and who is not.” - pp. 17-18

Sep 25, 2020

“America is an old house. We can never declare the work over. Wind, flood, drought, and human upheavals batter a structure that is already fighting whatever flaws were left unattended in the original foundation. When you live in an old house, you may not want to go into the basement after a storm to see what the rains have wrought. Choose not to look, however, at your own peril. The owner of an old house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away. Whatever is lurking will fester whether you choose to look or not. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction. Whatever you are wishing away will gnaw at you until you gather the courage to face what you would rather not see.” - pp. 15-16


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