In March 2008, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign nearly imploded when reporters revealed that his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., regularly blasted the United States as irredeemably racist. “[The United States] government lied about their belief that all men were created equal,” Wright preached. “The truth is they believed that all white men were created equal.” So, “No, no, no, not God bless America,” Wright concluded: “God damn America.”
Reeling, repudiating his pastor, Obama embraced the U.S. and the American ideal. “The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society,” Obama said, after acknowledging the ugliness of slavery and the lingering bigotry still haunting Black people, “it’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country … is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen — is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation.”
Twelve years later, Wright seems to have won. Anyone echoing Obama’s optimism and faith in America now risks being labeled Trumpian — by those who don’t consider that a compliment. The party line pronounces the American experiment dead on arrival. They assume America is incorrigible, doomed by the crimes of slavery and the ongoing curse of “systemic racism.”
The latest boost to Wright’s wrongheaded reading of America comes from talented reporter Isabel Wilkerson. A glowing New York Times review pronounced her new book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” “an extraordinary document … an instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far.” Offering the highest pop culture compliment a book can get — and the greatest of sales boosts — Oprah Winfrey enthusiastically included “Caste” in her book club.
Wilkerson’s book has many merits. However, if a work offering such a pessimistic reading of U.S. history is “the keynote” for our times, we are in serious trouble.
A lyrical writer, Wilkerson has an extraordinary ability to make dense material accessible and to bring alive scenes, feelings and ideas. It’s hard not to read her book without the occasional lump in your throat or tear in your eye as she describes the evils of slavery and the ongoing wounds of racism. Consider this story from 1944, when a 16-year-old Black girl in Ohio entered an essay contest that asked: “What to do with Hitler after the War?” Wilkerson’s devastating punchline: She won “with a single sentence: ‘Put him in a black skin and let him live the rest of his life in America.’ ”
In addition to adding poignant examples that advance the ongoing reckoning about race in America — including some of her most humiliating moments at the hands of piggish, thoughtless whites — Wilkerson ambitiously tries shifting the conversation from “race” to “caste.” Exploring what she claims are the two other caste systems that “have stood out” in human history, in India and Nazi Germany, she identifies eight “pillars” traditionally used in constructing castes.
In addition to adding poignant examples that advance the ongoing reckoning about race in America — including some of her most humiliating moments at the hands of piggish, thoughtless whites — Wilkerson ambitiously tries shifting the conversation from “race” to “caste.”
Caste systems are propped up by claims that discrimination is natural, even divinely sanctioned; that the condition is heritable; that you must marry within your caste; that the “higher” castes are pure, the lower orders polluted; and that certain menial jobs are most suited to the oppressed, who then are dehumanized, terrorized and made to feel inferior.
Wilkerson prefers talking about caste instead of race for two reasons. First, she wonders, “What does racist mean in an era when even extremists won’t admit it? … The fixation with smoking out individual racists or sexists can seem a losing battle in which we fool ourselves into thinking we are rooting out injustice by forcing an admission that (a) is not likely to come, (b) keeps the focus on a single individual rather than the system that created that individual, and (c) gives cover for those who, by aiming at others, can present themselves as noble and bias-free for having pointed the finger first, all of which keeps the hierarchy intact.”
By contrast, caste is invisible, insidious, like the “wordless usher in a darkened theater” steering you to inferior seats or the “stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation” of what looks like the “beautiful home” you inherited.
Here, then, is the real issue — and the real bias distorting the book. Wilkerson, like so many today, freezes the United States in its racism, calling the American caste system “the architecture of human hierarchy, the subconscious code of instructions for maintaining, in our case, a four-hundred-year-old social order.” She views these race-conscious, anti-Black handcuffs as mostly unchanging.
Wilkerson comes down unequivocally on one side of the longstanding historical — and existential — debate over whether slavery made racism America’s most crippling yet curable disease, or, as she believes, its chronic condition, with occasional flare-ups that cause even more pain than the usual anguish. “Slavery in this land was not merely an unfortunate thing that happened to black people,” she writes. “It was an American innovation, an American institution created by and for the benefit of the elites of the dominant caste and enforced by poorer members of the dominant caste who tied their lot to the caste system rather than to their consciences.” Wilkerson agrees with sociologist Stephen Steinberg that slavery wasn’t just a torn thread in “an otherwise perfect cloth. It would be closer to say that slavery provided the fabric out of which the cloth was made.”
Wilkerson, like so many today, freezes the United States in its racism.
Similarly, Wilkerson puts post-Civil War racism front and center. This reorientation rewrites the history of many phenomena, including immigration. Instead of the “uprooted” from the Old World coming to the New World and finding salvation by becoming American, it becomes a story of Europeans coming to the New World and becoming white — on the backs of Black people. “Hostility toward the lowest caste” — Black people — “became part of the initiation rite into citizenship in America. Thus, people who had descended from Africans became the unifying foil in solidifying the caste system, the bar against which all others could measure themselves approvingly.” Again, she boosts her claim by quoting an academic, in this case Yale historian Matthew Frye Jacobson, who wrote: “It was their whiteness, not any kind of New World magnanimity, that opened the Golden Door.”
In a telling exchange bringing this new nihilism up to date, Wilkerson asked author Taylor Branch after the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, “With everything going on, where do you think we are now? Are you still thinking 1950s? I’m thinking 1880s.”
Without sugar-coating the problems of today or being insensitive to the persistent suffering of so many Blacks at the hands of subtle, polite, covered-up racists, to see 2020 as 1880 takes work. It helps if you only tell personal stories of encountering racists without ever recounting your triumphs, from landing a job at The New York Times to winning the Pulitzer Prize to writing an award-winning, instant classic of a first book in 2010, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” It helps if you only read Barack Obama’s presidency and Donald Trump’s election through the lens of “caste” — really, race — essentially treating every criticism of Obama as anti-Black and every vote for Trump as pro-white. It helps if you see the United States as a “harsh landscape, a less benevolent society than other wealthy nations,” thanks to “our caste system.” And it really helps if you cleverly clump together the American, Indian and Nazi caste systems — while avoiding any discussion of caste in Africa.
Wilkerson sees her focus on caste as an X-ray, illuminating the invisible, unchanging dimensions of American life.
Comparing American racism to the Nazi’s genocidal Aryanism is particularly outrageous. Wilkerson props up that proposition in three misleading ways. First, she usually writes about “America” or “The United States,” then references specific laws or incidents from Southern states, especially Mississippi. It’s true; we Northerners sometimes minimize racism as a Southern problem — that’s too self-serving. But America is not the South, and the North certainly isn’t the South. The North defeated the South and never established a Jim Crow segregationist regime. Over the decades, the North didn’t become very Southernized, but the South did become quite Northernized — for the better.
Second, and most misleading, is a lack of proportion. The Nazis killed 6 million Jews in six years, murdering two to three thousand Jews an hour when Auschwitz was running at its peak. According to the NAACP, from 1882 to 1968, there were 4,743 lynchings, with 72.7% of the victims — 3,446 people — being Black. That was horrific enough. Yet Wilkerson compares the public hangings and other abuses the Nazis imposed on Jews to “lynchings, preceded by mutilation,” as simply “a feature of the southern landscape.” She ignores the numbers, likely because real data would prove the comparison absurd.
Finally, neither India nor Nazi Germany struggled with the kind of guilt, hypocrisy and paradox that vexed most Americans. True, some wondered how “cultured” Germans could act so brutally. But that confusion didn’t compare to the anguished, centuries-old American struggle over slavery and now racism. That embarrassment is part of this peculiarly American striving to perfect our union.
Some analytical tools serve as mirrors, reflecting reality. Some are flashlights, highlighting particular phenomena, or prisms, singling out specific rays. Wilkerson sees her focus on caste as an X-ray, illuminating the invisible, unchanging dimensions of American life. Unfortunately, in her book — and in the broader debate today — her approach functions more like a strobe light, commanding attention but ultimately blinding us to the truth.
America isn’t a static “four-hundred-year-old social order”; it’s a dynamic, ever-striving, ever-improving democracy.
You can still fight racism while acknowledging all the progress that has been made; in fact, progress is the best guarantee of more progress. So, the fact that so many Americans resist the label “racist” is laudable — not a cover. We should rejoice that the United States today is not the Virginia of 1619 when the first slave ship arrived, the slave-owning society of 1860 on the eve of the Civil War, or the Jim Crow South of 1950. Both the changes and the increasingly marginalized nature of the worst of America suggest that Obama was right: America isn’t a static “four-hundred-year-old social order”; it’s a dynamic, ever-striving, ever-improving democracy.
Alas, that optimism has been shaken, badly and broadly — but not universally.
In a bizarre twist that proves the world is round, the nihilism of the anti-racist “Social Justice Warrior Woke Left” oddly overlaps with the nihilism of the Trumpean “Make America Great Again” crowd. Both view U.S. history in simplistic, stick-figure terms. Both see the world as “dog eat dog,” “us versus them” and “zero sum,” with one group’s gain being the other group’s loss.
What’s most disturbing about this bleak, Europeanized, Hobbesian rejection of New World reformism and optimistic, integrative E Pluribus Unumism is that it’s self-defeating. Wilkerson ends by calling for “radical empathy,” meaning “putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel.” It’s hard to cultivate “radical empathy” or any hope for change when you tell people they are incurably racist and pronounce our racial predicament unchanging.
The message of U.S. history, the lessons Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Barack and Michelle Obama, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson taught, is that America changes by appealing to the best of Americans, to the aspirational America, to the hope for hope, not the assumption that we’re hopeless.
I’d rather lead the race to stop judging people by race than believe the die is cast because we’ll always be cast in castes.
Gil Troy, a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, is the author of “The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland — Then, Now, Tomorrow.”