Caste: Book Review, Context, and Background

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Are you looking for a book review of Caste by Isabel Wilkerson? Does the book deserve all of the hype it received upon its release?

Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste was an almost instant bestseller, making it onto Oprah and Barack Obama’s suggested reading lists. It was generally well-received, however, it did receive some criticism.

This Caste book review cover’s the book’s background, context, and critical reception by the readers.

About the Author

Isabel Wilkerson is an American journalist who previously served as Chicago Bureau Chief of The New York Times. In 1994, she became the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for journalism; later, then-President Barack Obama awarded her the 2015 National Humanities Medal

Wilkerson has taught journalism and narrative nonfiction at Harvard, Princeton, Emory, Northwestern, and Boston University. Since publishing Caste in 2020, she’s also become an in-demand speaker. She was the keynote speaker at the 2021 annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association and the University of Chicago’s 31st annual commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Wilkerson has also conducted video interviews with notable figures such as Barack Obama, filmmaker Ken Burns, and author Jacqueline Woodson

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The Book’s Publication

Publisher: Penguin Random House

Caste was published in August 2020. It is Wilkerson’s second book, published exactly 10 years after her first book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which chronicled the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North during the 20th century. The Warmth of Other Suns was a New York Times bestseller and won six literary awards. Wilkerson’s research for The Warmth of Other Suns inspired her to write Caste

Historical Context

Caste was published in 2020, at the end of a summer characterized by nationwide protests of police brutality and systemic racism in response to the murder of George Floyd. The book was also published during the Covid-19 pandemic, which disproportionately affected Black and Latinx communities. Wilkerson references the pandemic late in the book.

Intellectual Context

Caste follows in the footsteps of other popular books on race and racism in the United States. These books often serve a particular purpose: Some are practical guides to talking about racism (such as Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist and Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race) while others offer an explanation for why racism is such a widespread problem in the first place (like Jennifer Eberhardt’s Biased and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility). Caste falls into the second category. 

Wilkerson’s thesis is that caste—not race—is the primary factor that defines race relations in America. This sets Caste apart from other books in the genre, which focus on race as the primary factor underlying racism. However, many of these books focus on systemic racism (the racial prejudice inherent in institutions like government, finance, and popular culture) rather than interpersonal racism (the racially prejudiced beliefs or behavior of individual people). The definition of systemic racism is very similar to Wilkerson’s definition of caste; as a result, Caste uses different language to address many of the same issues as other popular books on race.

The Book’s Impact

Upon its release, Caste became an instant bestseller, particularly after being selected for Oprah’s Book Club. Oprah’s continued support (including an entire podcast series dedicated to the book) helped turn Caste into a household name among readers: By 2021, the book had more than 30,000 reviews on Amazon. Barack Obama also listed Caste as one of his “Favorite Books of 2020.”

In October 2020, Netflix announced that a film adaptation of Caste is in development. The film will be written and directed by Ava DuVernay, who previously directed “13th,” a critically-acclaimed documentary about systemic racism in America.

Critical Reception

According to book review aggregator Book Marks, Caste is the number one best-reviewed nonfiction book of 2020. One New York Times reviewer, Dwight Garner, called it “the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far” because Wilkerson uses her journalistic skills to weave historical facts, sociological analysis, and powerful emotional appeals into one cohesive account. Other reviewers praised Wilkerson’s poetic use of imagery and metaphor.   

Caste book reviews were split in their evaluation of Wilkerson’s focus on caste rather than race. Garner argues that using the concept of caste to reframe conversations about race in America helps readers see the issue with fresh eyes, and that “the reader does not have to follow her all the way on this point to find her book a fascinating thought experiment.” 

On the other hand, some social scientists who study race and journalists who are familiar with caste systems were critical of the emphasis on caste over race. For example, one Wall Street Journal reviewer argued that Wilkerson doesn’t successfully make the case that race and caste are two different things in America. Another reviewer argued that the comparisons between the caste systems in the United States, India, and Nazi Germany are more superficial than Wilkerson admits. The same reviewer also highlights the fact that Wilkerson doesn’t address the economic underpinnings of racism (for example, the fact that slavery was the engine of American capitalism). 

Commentary on the Book’s Approach

Wilkerson’s journalism background is on display in Caste. While she provides plenty of data to back up her points, her focus is on telling the story of the American caste system and how it impacts everyone in the social hierarchy. For this reason, Caste is punctuated with stories of real people’s experience with the caste system, including many anecdotes from Wilkerson’s own experience as a Black woman. These stories make the book engaging and accessible; however, for the sake of brevity, we’ve eliminated their details and focused instead on the general principles they illustrate. 

Caste: Book Review, Context, and Background

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Isabel Wilkerson's "Caste" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Caste summary:

  • How a racial caste system exists in America today
  • How caste systems around the world are detrimental to everyone
  • How the infrastructure of the racial hierarchy can be traced back hundreds of years

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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