Thursday, December 17, 2020

REVIEW Isabel Wilkerson's Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

For many reasons, we needed rescuing from 2020. Covid-19 disrupted all areas of people activity and life around the planet. Simultaneously, police slaughters of black people prompted global protests against the System of White Supremacy. In the midst of a U.S. presidential election, violent confrontations between enforcement officials and citizens, and an unprecedented viral scourge, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson allegedly tossed us an elixir. 

There’s been a lot of snake oil this year. 

Wilkerson compiled decades of topnotch reporting for The New York Times – much of it addressing Racism/White Supremacy. Her 2010 publication, The Warmth of Others Suns : The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, is an eloquently written, meticulously researched narrative of 20th century black migration. I, like former President Barack Obama, caped hard for Wilkerson’s first book and was piqued by news of her latest offering. 

Alas, hopes of consecutive constructive books were quickly annihilated. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is dubiously poor in quality. Where The Warmth of Other Suns provides enormously detailed information and high-quality, clear writing, Caste is a mealy-mouthed presentation of sloppy metaphors that works hard not to offend White people. 

Oprah Winfrey, who’s networking with entertainment mogul Ava DuVernay to adapt this text into a documentary film, declared, “[Caste] might well save us.” Winfrey, DuVernay, and Wilkerson are all qualified and entitled to their respective views. But it’s highly doubtful Caste will help us end Racism or even get a better understanding of the problem because “this book is pointedly not about racism in itself,” writes Wilkerson. 

Some readers may logically conclude that Wilkerson’s primary objective is to get non-white people to swap the term “Racism” for her book title, “Caste.” In nearly every 2020 interview and in the text, Wilkerson explains that the term “Racism” is too limited to encompass the systemic terrorism Whites wage against black people. She submits that “caste” is more adequate to convey the omnipresent and never-ending suppression of non-white people and labors mightily to persuade readers. The term “caste” appears more than 1,000 times in the book – which does not include the title. 

In chapter six, Wilkerson dissects “The R-word,” writing that for Whites, “The word is radioactive—resented, feared, denied, lobbed back toward anyone who dares to suggest it. Resistance to the word often derails any discussion of the underlying behavior it is meant to describe, thus eroding it of meaning.” 

Wilkerson chucks “the r-word” and often identifies people classified as White as “members of the dominant caste.” Caste provides a full course of word-salad as Wilkerson describes the rape of black slaves as dominant caste enslavers being “invited to impregnate the women themselves if so inclined.” 

Pussyfooting and circumlocutious dialog that presents information in a convoluted and indirect way helps maintain the System of White Supremacy. Talking about Racism in a manner more palatable to the “dominant caste” helps maintain the System of White Supremacy. Minister Malcolm X notoriously encouraged us to “make it plain.” 

One unambiguous goal of Wilkerson’s work is to not offend White people. The book redacts the “r-word,” often deliberately shirks labeling anyone as White, and name-drops a collection of so-called well-meaning Whites. Wilkerson devotes an entire italics section to the work of Jane Elliott – an Admitted White Supremacist, and bookends the text alluding to the 2017 killing of Heather Heyer. Many reference the Charlottesville, Virginia protests that lead to Heyer’s death as an example of Trump-inspired White rage and extremist violence. 

In fact, Wilkerson and others include Heyer’s martyrdom alongside the 2015 terrorist attack of Dylnn Storm Roof. After researching and visiting the South Carolina Mother Emanuel AME congregation, Roof sat with black worshipers before slaughtering 9 people. Wilkerson omits the names of all of Roof’s victims. Readers are not told that Roof may have committed a White Supremacist political assassination, as one of his victims was State Senator Rev. Clementa Pinckney. 

Conversely, Heather Heyer, a White Woman, is named repeatedly in the text. Wilkerson describes the 2018 police shooting of Botham Jean and the 2015 police assault of Thabo Sefolosha. Like those butchered at Mother Emanuel, Jean’s murder and Sefolosha’s suffering are depicted as anonymous black victimization. The hashtag #SayHerName was created to acknowledge how black female Victims of Racism and violence are often ignored and minimized. Wilkerson continues the same pattern throughout Caste – although often applied to black males. 

One male who is named is Wilkerson’s deceased White husband, Brett Hamilton. 

In the acknowledgements, Wilkerson first makes it clear: “this book is pointedly not about racism.” Then she tells us about who inspired this project: 

“Finally, I am grateful beyond language for the love and devotion of Brett Hamilton, the kindest and most giving husband I could have wished for, a gift from the universe. Many of the observations in this book first found a voice in our deeply fulfilling conversations and in our life together. While it breaks my heart that neither he nor my parents lived to see this culmination of what we, each in our own ways, sought to transcend, I feel his cosmic embrace as I send this out to the world…” 

A C.O.W.S. listener pondered how we would respond if a black male authored a bestselling book about Racism, where he gushes about his White spouse who “transcends” race. I’ve yet to think of such an author, so I’m still pondering. 

Incidentally, months after Caste’s publication, The C.O.W.S. hosted Dr. Paul Ortiz, whose research on White terrorism against black Florida voters is referenced in the book. He celebrated Wilkerson’s writing ability, said he’s had the privilege of being a part of speaking engagements with her, and explained how he explicitly instructs his students to avoid dangerous clich├ęs like notions of “transcending” Racism/White Supremacy. 

Dr. Ortiz said he read Caste, but skipped the acknowledgments. 

Wilkerson paints a full White circle with Heather Heyer and her spouse. The acknowledgements conclude Caste, while her book begins with this dedication: “To the memory of my parents who survived the caste system and to the memory of Brett who defied it.” Wilkerson fails to offer detail for many components of Caste. Names of black people are omitted, footnotes are absent from the body of the text, and Wilkerson refuses to offer a sentence explaining how her White hubby defied White Supremacy. Marrying a black female does not count. 

Wilkerson insists that White people are ignorant about Racism, ignores the history of sexual exploitation of black males, and offers a plethora of faulty logic. This book – and the subsequent film – is dangerous material for non-white people. Works like this deliberately promote confusion about what Racism/White Supremacy is and how it works. 

This book is so dangerous and lame I now give The Warmth of Other Suns the side eye. 


Mother Emanuel AME Victims: 

Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor 

Mrs. Cynthia Graham Hurd 

Mrs. Susie J. Jackson 

Mrs. Ethel Lee Lance 

The Honorable Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney 

Mr. Tywanza Kibwe Diop Sanders 

Reverend Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr. 

Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton 

Mrs. Myra Singleton Quarles Thompson