Summary: an elegantly written exploration of the poison at the heart of the American nightmare
“The townspeople of the East Texas village of Leesburg hammered a buggy axle into the ground to serve as a stake. Then they chained 19 year old Wylie McNeely to it. They collected the kindling they would use for the fire at the base of his feet, despite his protestations of innocence in connection to the white girl they said he had assaulted. Five hundred people gathered that fall in 1921 to see Wylie McNeely burn to death in front of them.”
Violence has long been at the heart of American society. It was intrinsic to slavery and it is intrinsic to maintaining the systems of preference and privilege that persist in America. With her book, Caste, Isabel Wilkerson focuses with impressive clarity on this violence and how it manifests in small ways and large to maintain the system of prejudice and discrimination that still afflicts the United States.
Following the Civil War the lynchings of innocent black people, such as that of Wylie McNeely that Wilkerson describes in such depressing and horrifying detail, became routine to remind black people that whatever the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution said, they still had to know their place. The contemporary police killings of black people serve the same purpose. It is also why so many Americans voted for a corrupt and imbecilic white supremacist to be their president.
As it did for Martin Luther King, the introduction to the South Asia concept of caste helps clarify for Wilkerson the nature of the United States’ own hierarchical system. But, unfortunately, this book provides only a limited discussion on the plight of Dalits – the Untouchables – and Adavasi – tribal peoples – in South Asia where they continue to struggle against ongoing enslavement, and routinized violence comparable to the worst excesses of the United States.
Wilkerson defines caste as the “granting or withholding of respect, status, honour, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in” a hierarchy. She identifies Nazi Germany, contemporary India and the United States as the principal exemplars of caste societies. Indeed, the Nazis drew on the US South’s segregation laws as inspiration for their own anti-Semitic laws, though they did initially find some of the American laws too extreme.
Wilkerson draws some hope from the fact that casteism has been dismantled in German society. However its persistence in both South Asia and the US shows just what a pernicious and destructive idea it still is. But to have any hope of combatting it, it is first necessary to see it clearly, and this is what Wilkerson does in relation to the practice of caste in her own country
Perhaps having diagnosed with such clarity this sickness at the heart of US society, some US legislators may follow the advice of “the Martin Luther King of India”, BR Ambedkar, and propose new laws to help heal a body politic diseased with ignorance and hatred.