Isabel Wilkerson Talks Dismantling the “American Caste System”

Isabel Wilkerson, the first female Black recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in journalism and author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, spoke about her book to the Boston College community on Wednesday over Zoom.

Wilkerson began by discussing the country’s history of avoiding issues that plague the African American population. 

“The country is like a patient with a pre-existing condition, like heart disease,” Wilkerson said. “And if a patient has a heart attack, you might be upset, you might be dismayed, you might be worried, but you would not be surprised.”

Wilkerson said this complacency toward combating systemic racism inspired her to write her book. By including stories of people who suffer the hardships of being Black in America, Wilkerson wanted her audience to feel their plight and to aid those activists fighting for social change.

“I did not drop caste on anyone,” Wilkerson said. “Caste is there whether we acknowledge it or not, and we continue to live under the manifestations of centuries-old divisions and hatreds.” 

Caste redefines the term “systemic racism” as a version of the historical Indian caste system reinvented in modern-day America. Wilkerson got this idea from Martin Luther King Jr., who she said compared millions of African Americans in the 1960s to the “untouchables” at the bottom of the caste system.

“They were restricted in every sphere of their lives, and their efforts to be recognized as citizens were met with tremendous hostility, resentment, and violence,” Wilkerson said. “And so [MLK Jr.] thought about it, and he said to himself, ‘I am an untouchable, and every black person in the United States is an untouchable.’” 

This caste system affects everything, according to Wilkerson, including the treatment of Black Americans during the pandemic. 

“There are many reasons why we find ourselves in the current crisis, but caste and the divisions that it sews surely is one of them,” Wilkerson said. “And it is literally costing lives as the global tragedy of COVID reaches out to harm everyday people, or the health of Americans, caught up in a social order that pits one group against another.”

Wilkerson said that there needs to be a holistic approach to reparations from the long-lasting effects of systemic racism.

“There should be a deep study of what other countries have done,” Wilkerson said. “Let’s look beyond American Exceptionalism and focus on the fact that yes, we as human beings in this country can actually learn from other countries, and I think we need to be open to that.”  

The horrors Black Americans have endured for centuries demand more than a quick fix, Wilkerson said. By examining the concept of a caste, Wilkerson said people can begin dismantling the caste system.

“I think that caste allows us to see an idea that representation alone will not solve the challenges,” she said. “You have to think about ‘cast’ without an ‘e.’ You think about the apparatus that goes on one’s arm to hold fractured bones, a cast. And that’s to keep everything in a fixed place so that everything is immobile.” 

In other words, in order to move forward and incite true social change, we must first remove this “caste.”

Featured Image by Vikrum Singh / Heights Editor

September 12, 2021