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”Racism’ Did Not Seem Sufficient.’ Author Isabel Wilkerson on the American Caste System

10 minute read

Isabel Wilkerson arrived in Detroit after an early-morning flight, eager to get to work. With just a day to complete interviews for a piece to be published in the New York Times, the journalist had little time to lose, but the workings of the universe had other plans. As she made her way through the terminal, a pair of strangers hounded her with questions. What were her travel plans? Where did she live? Why was she there? When would she leave?

Ordinary solicitors these were not. After following her to a rental-car shuttle, the strangers finally revealed themselves to be U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents. Their job was to protect the country from drug offenses, but all they’d accomplished was harassing a Black woman on a business trip.

In some ways, the story, from Wilkerson’s highly anticipated book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, will sound unexceptional to many people of color—just one of the myriad experiences of injustice that must be swept aside in order for us to get by in our everyday lives. “These things are so much a regular feature of life for people of color in this country and African Americans in particular,” she says in an interview over Zoom. But in Wilkerson’s skillful hands, the scene is imbued with a deeper meaning. Her experience at the airport becomes both prosaic and outrageous, both personal and a universal condemnation of the society we’ve built. “The quiet mundanity of that terror has never left me,” she writes, “the scars outliving the cut.”

Wilkerson, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing and author of the best-selling 2010 book The Warmth of Other Suns, builds on her previous success in her new book, Caste, which will be published Aug. 4. Like her earlier work, Caste blends history, sociology and a range of other reportage to tell the story of American inequality. But this time, Wilkerson offers a transformative new framework through which to understand identity and injustice in America. Instead of relying on concepts like racism—which Wilkerson sees as too narrow—she argues for understanding the U.S. social hierarchy as a caste system: a deeply entrenched yet artificial method of categorizing people by birth.

Wilkerson displays a photo in her home of her father in his Tuskegee Airmen uniform
Wilkerson displays a photo in her home of her father in his Tuskegee Airmen uniformCourtesy Isabel Wilkerson

The book is the result of more than a decade of research, but it’s hard to imagine a more apt moment for its publication. The coronavirus pandemic has brought the disparate health challenges faced by African Americans to the fore. A series of videos of police brutality directed at Black Americans has led to a reckoning over systemic racism. And the U.S. President’s re-election campaign capitalizes on the power of racial resentment. As Americans confront our own society’s racial hierarchy, Wilkerson explains the root of this injustice and the role of each of us in perpetuating it.

Wilkerson’s goal in writing Caste was not to dismantle this peculiar system of oppression but to conceptualize and explain it. She is a journalist, not an activist. And to that end, she has traveled to three continents to study other caste systems, credits countless experts and cites hundreds of books in a range of disciplines.

But even as Wilkerson builds her new framework of racial injustice in the U.S. on detached, scholarly analysis, her storytelling is personal. She studies caste because she lives it; she defines it as a means to defy it. “It was a personal act,” she says of writing the book, “seeking to both understand and transcend the boundaries placed on me.”

Wilkerson is a private person. After booming onto the literary scene with The Warmth of Other Suns, she disappeared from publishing for more than a decade, quietly researching but telling virtually no one the details of her new project. Until announcing her new book, her social-media presence consisted largely of sharing others’ work. This is Wilkerson’s first on-the-record conversation about Caste.

So while I was disappointed that in the age of COVID-19 I would be able to meet Wilkerson only via Zoom, I suspected that it was her ideal setting, one that she could control. In the frame of the Zoom call, I can see white shelves crammed with the books that inspired her work (a mere “sliver” of the volumes she relied on, she says) and a small Buddha statue (she is an occasional meditator). The only two personal touches visible are tributes to her parents: a photo of her father in his military uniform, and two vases, one green and the other blue, her mother’s favorite colors. Fitting choices because, in a sense, her parents’ story is the origin of her life’s work.

Wilkerson’s mother left Georgia and her father left Virginia during the Great Migration, the 60-year period beginning around 1910 when millions of African Americans left the South for cities across the U.S. They met and settled in Washington, D.C. Wilkerson’s father served in World War II as one of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African Americans revered in history books. But his work as a civil engineer after the war left a significant impression on Wilkerson too. “I literally am the daughter of a bridge builder,” she says.

Her parents’ story directly inspired The Warmth of Other Suns, which retraces and humanizes the history of the Great Migration through the lens of three primary characters and dozens of secondary ones seeking to create a better life for their families. It’s an enthralling piece of narrative nonfiction, back on bestseller lists in recent weeks as Americans have sought to educate themselves about the country’s fraught racial history. She explains the work as her own exercise in bridge building. “I see so rarely the voices and lives of ordinary African Americans who are wishing and wanting and dreaming and caring about the same things that every other American does,” she says of the book’s central narrative. “By excluding ordinary lives of ordinary African Americans, we miss an opportunity to recognize how much we all have in common.”

But it was in researching The Warmth of Other Suns that Wilkerson arrived at the topic of her next book, Caste: the idea that traditional conceptions of race and racism are inadequate in describing the circumstances facing Black Americans. In writing The Warmth of Other Suns, she chose to avoid the word racism entirely; it does not appear at all in the book. “Racism did not seem sufficient to describe the infrastructure that they were born into and that they were seeking to escape and restricted them at every turn,” she explains.

Caste takes that epiphany and builds on it. The central argument of the book is that understanding the racialized systems of injustice that undergird American society requires a wider lens. It is not just that all Americans are born into a particular racial category based on our appearance and heritage; it is that no matter what we do in life, that category—that caste—remains immutable, fueling and powering the system itself. Wilkerson prefers the terminology of caste over race in part because race implicitly affirms the concept’s pseudoscientific origins; Wilkerson masterfully undresses the work of eugenicists that has long since been disproved. The term caste, by contrast, acknowledges the man-made nature of systemic injustice. “We live in an artificial hierarchy, an infrastructure that was created and is not natural,” she says.

In introducing the framework of an American caste system, Wilkerson draws on reams of scholarly research in sociology, history, anthropology and a range of other disciplines. Over the course of researching the book, she met with leading international scholars on caste; traveled to Berlin and Delhi, among other places, for primary research; and often found herself on tangents, spending months learning about the Siberian tundra, for example. The result is a rich and well-defended argument that draws a direct line between our system and those that defined Nazi Germany and that persist in India today.

But if it’s a scholarly work, it’s also a personal one. Throughout the book, Wilkerson returns repeatedly to how the American caste affects and shapes her own life. On a trip to London, after telling an Indian scholar that she believes America has a caste system, he asks Wilkerson which caste she belongs to. “It was a refreshingly honest question,” she tells me. The answer was obvious: “I had been born to what would be seen as a subordinate caste.”

Wilkerson often speaks in metaphor and analogy. She compares the U.S.’s history of slavery and racial violence to a deadly pathogen, long dormant under Arctic ice, emerging into the air. Awakening to the reality of living under a caste system, she says, is like learning of an inherited trait like alcoholism.

In Caste, Wilkerson’s central metaphor is one of a house that has fallen into disrepair. The house is the U.S., and our caste system has caused the damage.

Wilkerson, for her part, is the inspector, examining the roof and walls and pointing out what needs to be fixed. “People need to know where we have come from, what we have been through, where we happen to be right now, so that we can have a better sense of where we need to be going,” she says. A dutiful inspector, Wilkerson doesn’t prescribe a specific solution but does suggest a gut renovation could be in order. “That does not mean tearing down the whole house, but it does mean going to the heart of the problem,” she says. “Clearing all of it away.”

Caste could not have landed in more fertile soil—amid a mass protest movement, in an election year riven with more racial tension than any other in recent history. While Wilkerson doesn’t focus much on electoral politics in the book, she offers on the Zoom call with me an incisive explanation of why many white, working-class people voted for Donald Trump. “There are people who will say that certain white, working-class Americans are voting against their own interests,” she says, arguing that they miss the point. “Maintaining the hierarchy, as it has always been, is in the interest of many people.” Indeed, the caste system, as she explains, is not a static thing; it evolves and adapts to stay viable. The definition of whiteness in the U.S. has expanded over the decades to include ethnic Irish and Italians, for example, because the previous definition was too small to sustain its position atop the hierarchy. But there’s a limit to the hierarchy’s ability to adapt: since the dawn of the U.S. caste system, Black Americans have remained at the lowest rung.

This is a challenging reality for anyone trapped on the lower end, and despite her analytical approach to looking at caste, Wilkerson readily acknowledges the trauma of living it. “You can work hard and achieve in your chosen field, you can carry yourself with dignity and grace and professionalism, and still be reduced to a particular assumption, a stereotype,” she says.

At the end of our talk, I return to the old-house analogy with a particular circumstance on my mind: in recent months, I’ve engaged my own parents in a conversation about selling their century-old home to move somewhere where they don’t have to worry about the roofing and plumbing. I put a similar question to Wilkerson: Is there a time when we just give up on this old house?

Her answer alludes to the theme of her first book: millions of African Americans have already migrated, and there’s nowhere else for them to go in this country. But after a moment, she reaches into her own story. “This is a country that my ancestors, along with millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of other people helped build,” she says. “We have an investment in this country. We should be here.”

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Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com