Littler Books cover of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents Summary

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents Summary and Quotes

Isabel Wilkerson

3.2 minutes to read • Updated May 22, 2024

Get full book

Download summary as PDF, eBook/ePub, DOCX

What it's about in one sentence:

A powerful examination of how America's caste system shapes our lives and society, and how we can move beyond it.

Bullet Point Summary

  1. Caste refers to a human-constructed hierarchy that assigns value to different groups. This ranking system is founded on the premise that some groups are inherently superior.
  2. "Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things."
  3. There are three major caste systems in history -- American, Nazi Germany, and Indian. America and Nazi Germany's caste systems are similar and bipolar (white vs black, Aryan vs Jewish/minorities). India's caste system involves many subcastes (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra, and the Dalits/The Untouchables).
  4. America has inherited foundational flaws like inequality and racism since its conception. These systemic issues stem from America's caste system, which confers superiority or subjugation based on caste membership. After centuries in the lowest caste, change for marginalized groups like African-Americans is difficult, as the dominant caste (white Americans) resists losing status.
  5. "Slavery was not merely an unfortunate thing that happened to black people. 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."
  6. The longer a problem persists the more difficult it is to fix because the more ingrained it will be.
  7. Caste is different from class. You can transcend class through money or marriage.
  8. In America, the caste system was built on ideas of racial superiority and inferiority. The notion of race emerged as European colonists arbitrarily categorized peoples they encountered by their skin color.
  9. We all originated from African tribes.
  10. The word "Caucasian" was invented in 1795 by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. He liked to collect and analyze skulls, and his favorite skull was from the Caucasus Mountains, so he named Europeans like himself "Caucasian".
  11. Slavery in America lasted 246 years, establishing a caste system positioning African-Americans at the bottom.
  12. Groups like Italians and Irish also faced discrimination, relegated to subordinate castes. In the late 1800s, European immigrant groups gained "white" status, but not African-Americans.
  13. African-Americans in America were still kept at the lowest caste through social discrimination and government policies like the Jim Crow laws (US laws in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that enforced racial segregation at public facilities, "Jim Crow" being a pejorative term for an African American).
  14. White people prevented black people from joining communities through tactics like violence, threats, and redlining (refusing financial services based on race or ethnicity).
  15. A caste system has eight foundational pillars:
    1. Divine Will and the Laws of Nature: a religious text encourages a caste system.
    2. Heritability: you belong to the caste of your parents.
    3. Endogamy and the Control of Marriage and Mating: you must marry and reproduce within your caste.
    4. Purity versus Pollution: people of lower caste are treated like contaminants (e.g., black people were banned from public swimming pools).
    5. Occupational Hierarchy: people of lower caste should do the least desirable jobs.
    6. Dehumanization and Stigma: people of lower caste are somehow less human (e.g., people in lowest castes were used as medical guinea pigs).
    7. Terror as Enforcement and Cruelty as Means of Control: unimaginable violence like beatings and hangings were used to keep the lower castes suppressed.
    8. Inherent Superiority versus Inherent Inferiority: interactions between castes are ruled by traditions that remind inferior castes of their lower status.
  16. In the late 1900s, upward mobility for lower castes was seen as upending centuries of social order. Dominant castes felt threatened as subordinate castes gained rights. They wrongly believed in a zero-sum game in which the status gained by the lower caste must be from the upper caste losing their status. The upper caste even started to experience more stress-related illnesses out of fear of losing status.
  17. The number of American hate groups doubled during Obama's first term.
  18. Black people are five times more likely to be killed by police than white people.
  19. Caste systems breed group narcissism -- elevated self-worth through group identity, overestimating one's position and hating those different. This hurts everyone, and transferring narcissism to a race or nation can provide euphoric feelings of supremacy that leads to facism, as seen in Nazi Germany.
  20. Nazis modeled segregation and punishment laws after America's.
    1. "The Nazis were impressed by the American custom of lynching its subordinate caste of African-Americans, having become aware of the ritual torture and mutilations that typically accompanied them. Hitler especially marveled at the American β€˜knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death.'"
  21. Germany now has memorials of Nazi victims while America is still meeting resistance removing memorials of advocates of slavery.
  22. The pandemic highlighted ongoing caste issues, with dominant castes having job-provided healthcare while subordinate castes worked essential jobs without it, facing disproportionate risk.
  23. A plumber arrived at the black author's house wearing a hat hinting at his politics. He assumed the author did not own the house, rudely asked for "the lady of the house", and seemed ready to barely work. But in sharing about her late mother, and him opening up about his father, they quickly began to relate to each other and tore down prejudices. The plumber then diligently fixed the issue.
  24. To combat casteism, we need to practice radical empathy by actively listening and learning from people of different backgrounds to truly understand their perspectives.
  25. "The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly. And the least that a person in the dominant caste can do is not make the pain any worse."
  26. Dismantling a centuries-old caste system is challenging, but increasing awareness, elevating marginalized voices, and emphasizing shared humanity can slowly dismantle entrenched caste.

Caste: Resources