Caste and the Origins of Our Discontent

Caste and the Origins of Our Discontent

Isabel Wilkerson

Book Review by Hank Bitten, NJCSS Executive Director

I decided to read Caste in my search for new perspectives for information and resources to guide teachers with the teaching of ‘hard history’ about institutional racism in our country. From the events in my lifetime (since the civil rights movement) and more specifically the events of the past few years, I was skeptical of the claim of systemic racism in America. Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste convinced me that the problem is real and needs to be addressed by social studies teachers K-12.

My Personal Perspective

First, allow me to comment on my perspective which is reflected in my experiences as a white citizen and teacher.  My experience in Paterson as a teenager and student at Eastside High School in 1960 reflected fear of the black community which is based on two unprovoked attacks on public transportation and theft of our family’s car. My experience in college was positive and some of my closest friends were black. As a first-year teacher in New York City in 1969, when busing was instituted to integrate schools, my experience was also positive.  I introduced an African American history course and was the advisor to the Harambay or diversity club for students. My black students were very successful even though they were victims of harassment on their route to school on public transportation.  I even rode the B52 bus to school for several weeks during a time of increased racial tension in Queens to offer protection and security to students in our school. Many, perhaps all, of the black high school students I taught over 46 years, were successful in their dreams of attending the colleges of their choice and in their careers.

I recognize that my perspective is influenced by the zip codes of the districts where I taught, the ability level of the students in my classes, and the faculty in the schools and departments in the three districts where I taught. Your experience is likely different than mine and the events of the past four years have motivated me to reflect on what I taught, how I taught, what my students may have remembered, and the importance of teaching about the African American experience with empathy and problem-solving strategies in addition to historical documents and videos. My students learned history in teams and I listened to what they were telling me. I want to think that I contributed to their self-esteem and gave them confidence to make smart decisions in their interactions with people.

My Great Awakening

In my research for this book review, I participated in a Zoom with my New York City students from 45-50 years ago. Both black and white students commented that the racial issues of 2020 were greater than what they experienced in the 1970s. I have very little to offer about this observation except to say that the lessons I taught about Emmett Till, the Starpower simulation game I used to teach about privilege, the movie Roots, and the discussions motivated by current events in those years gave my students an understanding about the power of individuals to abuse, the inequalities of wealth, respecting authority, and the importance of education.

Caste is a valuable resource for teachers and students based on the voices of victims, citizens, leaders, and historical examples.  The information in each chapter is authentic and provided me with new insights into America’s past.  In my reading of Caste, I found myself repeatedly saying “I wish I had known this” or “why didn’t I know this?” The three resources below are reasons to read Caste and supplement the way you are likely teaching United States or World History.

The first resource is the metaphor of an old house.  I have used this metaphor to illustrate the need for reform or renovation in my teaching of the Protestant Reformation and progressive reforms in the 19th and 20th centuries.  I have also used the metaphor of tearing down an old house to teach the concept of revolution.  Isabel Wilkerson’s use of the metaphor reflects on the generations who occupy the house and the need for each occupant to look at what is behind the paint or wallpaper on the walls.

She uses this metaphor to present the idea of the architecture of caste or our place in society. Through this metaphor I have come to understand that the problem is deeper than race and it is the way all of us dehumanize individuals, use stereotypes, and forget that we are all the same. In Caste, we are confronted with the framework of joists, beams, and headers in the way the colonial era used labor, viewed property, and labeled indigenous populations, people from Africa and the Caribbean, and individuals from the Middle East, Far East, and South Asia by the color of their skin.

The new owners of this house in 1776 wanted to end the importation of slaves and offer liberty to those who fought in the American Revolution.  But the framework of caste, race, inequality, and social injustice remained as some of the occupants from the Enlightenment generation owned slaves and supported segregation.

The occupants of the antebellum generation were more radical in their renovations of this house through abolition and voices to end slavery. Unfortunately, others sold slaves breaking up families, captured fugitives, and exploited cheap labor.  After the Civil War, part of the house was replaced with constitutional amendments while the other half of the house added structural supports to the foundation of segregation, racial tension and lynching.

The 20th century generation, including the 30 years I was a teacher and administrator, saw significant renovations to the architecture of ‘this old house’ through the civil rights movement, educational opportunities, and Supreme Court decisions.  Unfortunately, the problems present since 1619 continued as black populations had the highest rates of high school dropouts, incarceration in prisons, divorce, health problems, lower life expectancy, targets of racial profiling, and the list continues.

Even with the appointment of black justices to the Supreme Court, the election of President Barack Obama, and notable leaders of color in every sector of the economy, the problems of race, injustice, violence, fear, and discrimination are continuing and escalating. Isabel Wilkerson explains this as evidence of the caste system in American society.

As a grandparent, I observed the questions our grandchildren asked in their discovery of people of color around the age of three. This is why education in the home and in pre-school is essential.  Parents and educators, siblings and peers, have the ability to rebuild ‘the house’ in this generation. 

My Epiphany Experience

The second resource is how the book presents the claim or argument of caste in America and the evidence used to present this argument. I had the opportunity to listen to Isabel Wilkerson in a presentation about Caste, and was intrigued by her response that she does not present an argument in her book but instead presents a ‘prayer’ for going forward. This is a powerful and inspiring statement!  However, my review found powerful examples documented in history, by historians, and from the news in support of her thesis that systemic racism in inherent in the way we think and behave.

Although there are excellent comparisons to Nazi Germany and India, it is the examples provided in the book that haunted me and convinced me that social injustice exists in schools, neighborhoods, government, business, and within me. Here are just a few examples:

Forest Whitaker, and Academy Award-winning actor walked into a gourmet deli in his Manhattan West Side neighborhood and was frisked in front of other customers.  The incident occurred in 2013. Whitaker said, “It’s a humiliating thing for someone to come and do that. It’s attempted disempowerment.” (p. 107)

“In 2015, the members of a black women’s book club were traveling by train on a wine tour of Napa Valley. When their laughter caused some white passengers to complain, the police were called and the women were told to leave the train.” (p.293 and The Guardian, September 13, 2015)

“In 2018, the owner of a Pennsylvania golf club ordered black women, who were members of the club, to leave because they were not moving along fast enough on the course.” The police were called. (p. 293 and CNN, April 25, 2018)

The unnamed college professor who picked up his mail in his luxury apartment opened one of his letters and was told by the man next to him in the elevator that “You’re supposed to be delivering the mail, not opening it.” (p. 213.)

At Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, a woman called campus police on a female graduate student who had fallen asleep while studying in a common area of her dormitory, Officers demanded her identification even after she unlocked the door to her room. She was told, “You’re in a Yale building and we need to make sure you belong here.” (p. 217)

Sgt. Isaac Woodard, Jr. was riding a Greyhound bus after he was honorably discharged in February 1946. The bus driver called the police at the next stop in Aiken, South Carolina where Sgt. Woodard, still in uniform, was arrested for disorderly conduct.  The police chief beat him with a billy club which left him blind. The NAACP brought this to the attention of President Truman who ordered an investigation.  The local prosecutor did not accept the testimony of Sgt. Whittaker and he was found guilty.  His defense attorney spoke racial epithets to his face. (p. 227-228)

“Offenders in Georgia were eleven times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim was white than if the victim was black.” (p. 241)

The examples of social injustice are carefully documented from multiple states and over three centuries.  It is painful to read these examples even though as a history teacher I am aware of the violence against Americans of color and women.  The evidence is overwhelming when presented in each chapter and on almost every page. Although I did not want to accept the claim that a caste system based on color is in the America where I live and teach, I became convinced and humbled by my guilt and silence that institutional racism is real.

My Call to Do Something

These factual observations opened my eyes to and ‘ugly America’ that I was not addressing with my circle of family and friends. The documented reports in Caste are not only discussion starters for a class in Sociology but a call for action to a five-alarm fire in K-12 social studies classes. As we learned in the 1968 Kerner Commission Report, we are living in two Americas.  Every history and social studies teacher and department needs to address the problem of injustice and unequal treatment in the curriculum. Behaviors are more likely changed by education than by legislation!

Conclusion

The first action I took while I was reading this book was to develop a comprehensive resource for teachers in middle school and high school on African Americans and Latinx Americans. The second step I took was to identify best practice curriculums on African American history. These are posted on the Links page of the NJCSS website, www.njcss.org  The third action I took was to write this book review and publish it. I am aware that I need to do more regarding human rights education, racial and social injustice, environmental sustainability, LGBTQ awareness, and teaching world religions.

In a webinar sponsored by Facing History and Ourselves, Isabel Wilkerson made the statement that she intended her book as a prayer for the future. I did not grasp the meaning of her statement until the Epilogue where she wrote, “Every spiritual tradition says love your neighbor as yourself not tolerate them.” (p. 387).  We must teach students how to live with courage in a dangerous world.

At the end of 2020, 335,000 Americans have died as a result of the Covid-19 virus. The death rate for African Americans is 2.7 times that of white Americans. What is not documented is the number of minorities, with health care insurance, who are not able to have a conversation with their doctor about how to get tested, the care they will be receiving, and the options for medications and treatment available to them.

Caste is written in 31 chapters over approximately 400 pages which allows for a debate in class or a faculty book discussion. This is a book that needs to be discussed and debated. Teachers are the catalyst for curriculum reform in social studies and English Language Arts. A thread is needed to weave the political, social and economic events between 1619 and the present with the horrific accounts of injustice, slavery, discrimination, and abuse.  The positive accounts of contributions to America’s stories of industrialization, democracy, service to country, are critical to ending the legacy of caste in America’s social and cultural history.

Perhaps this is best told through the voices and stories of natives, slaves, abolitionists, sharecroppers, immigrants, voters, athletes, entrepreneurs, and the families of victims. An interesting story that I enjoyed is the one on pp. 379-80. About Elsa and Albert Einstein opening their home to Marian Anderson who was denied a room at the Nassau Inn in Princeton, NJ after singing to an overflow crowd at the McCarter Theatre. For the Einstein’s this was not a one-time act of hospitality but an action of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. This is how educators change the stubborn behaviors of caste and privilege.

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