I’d just finished reading Caste, Isabel Wilkerson’s brilliant new book, when the Republicans convened their national convention and Mayor Rahm raised his head to offer advice for Democrats that no one sought or should follow.
Not sure which is more intense—my respect for Wilkerson or my revulsion for Rahm and the Republicans. Let’s start with the positive.
Run, run, run to read Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, an enlightening, beautifully written book that’s filled with deep insights. Wilkerson’s central point is that Americans get categorized at birth based on our skin color and from there on out who we are is impacted by how other people see us. It’s like we’re put in a box from which there is no escape.
“To recalibrate how we see ourselves I use language that may be more commonly associated with people in other cultures, to suggest a new way of understanding our hierarchy,” Wilkerson writes. “Dominant caste, ruling majority, favored caste, or upper caste, instead of, or in addition to, white. Middle caste instead of, or in addition to Asian or Latino. Subordinate caste, lowest caste, bottom caste, disfavored caste, historically stigmatized instead of African-American.”
She dissuades people from using the “R word”—as our “fixation with smoking out individual racists” is “a losing battle in which we fool ourselves into thinking we are rooting out injustice,” when, in fact, it can help keep “the hierarchy intact.”
She traces the roots of caste in America back to 1619, when the first slaves were brought to Virginia, through colonial days, the Civil War, Jim Crow, Obama, right up to Trump.
“Caste is structure,” she writes. “Caste is ranking. Caste is the boundaries that reinforce the fixed assignments based upon what people look like. Caste is a living breathing entity. It is like a corporation that seeks to sustain itself at all costs. To achieve a truly egalitarian world requires looking deeper than what we think we see.”
And, yet, the political currents pull us in a different direction. And that brings me to MAGA, the wretched cult of Trump known as the Republican Party, now convening its virtual convention.
In 2016, Trump won by exploiting white fears and biases. He’ll be doubling down on that strategy to win again.
At the convention you’re going to hear much talk about radical thugs, burning, and looting. And suburban women needing protection from the horrors of subsidized housing.
They’re bringing on Mark McCloskey, the lawyer from St. Louis who waved a rifle at Black Lives Matter protesters who marched by his mansion.
They’ll be talking about defending their property, and family, and women from the hordes. It’s a narrative straight out of The Birth of a Nation.
You’ll hear talk about their favorite villain—George Soros, the billionaire investor. Republicans hate Soros, in part, because he donates to prosecutors like Kim Foxx, who are undercutting caste by adopting a more compassionate attitude toward criminal justice.
In Caste, Wilkerson writes extensively about the routine criminalization of the lower caste, and how it destroys families, lives, and neighborhoods. How it keeps people from reaching their potential.
The modern-day Republican Party is schizophrenic when it comes to criminal justice reform. They want it for Trump and his celebrity pals (think Blago). But they don’t want it for millions of ordinary Black citizens.
Soros is Jewish—a survivor of the Nazi occupation of his native Hungary. The Anti-Defamation League has repeatedly protested against attempts by the right to turn Soros into an evil caricature. Those attempts play on anti-Semitic tropes of Jews as powerful puppeteers that go back to the Middle Ages.
No matter. A day doesn’t pass when I don’t receive an e-mail from some MAGA outfit or another decrying Soros. I’m sure we’ll hear more of it at the convention.
In her book, Wilkerson frequently compares America’s caste system to those in India and Nazi Germany. She describes how Hitler convened a committee of bureaucrats to draft laws that would separate Jews from Aryans. Their model was the Jim Crow south.
“Hitler had studied America from afar, both envying and admiring it,” she writes. “The Nazis were impressed by the American custom of lynching its subordinate caste of African-Americans. . . Hitler especially marveled at the American ‘knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death.’”
Also, at the convention, you’ll hear much talk about keeping the radical left from destroying monuments to great Americans. Wilkerson devotes a chapter to the cult that’s emerged among white people, not just in the south, for confederate leaders like General Robert E. Lee, a vicious slave owner.
I’m relieved to report that Lee won’t be at the convention—as he died in 1870. But undoubtedly his spirit will be there.
Near the end of the book, Wilkerson briefly tells the story of Leon Lederman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who had to sell his Nobel medal to raise money to pay his medical bills. “In 2018, he died in a nursing home, his Nobel Prize in the hands of someone else,” she writes.
That brings me to Mayor Rahm’s recent interview, in which he advised Joe Biden to steer clear of national health care. Don’t even mention it—to win over Republicans.
According to Rahm, Medicare for All turns off swing voters—even though they love Medicare itself. Apparently, if you’re trying to keep swing voters from voting with their caste, you must avoid anything that might even remotely upset them. Or else—they’re going MAGA.
Cowardly Democrats have been urging activists to take it slow for decades—Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about it in Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
“Compared to our counterparts in the developed world, America can be a harsh landscape,” Wilkerson writes. “It is the price we pay for our caste system. In places with a different history and hierarchy, it is not necessarily seen as taking away from one’s own prosperity if the system looks out for the needs of everyone.”
Between the Republicans and Rahm, it looks as though Wilkerson will have plenty of new material for her paperback edition whenever it comes out. v