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Caste by Isabel Wilkerson.
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The United States’ presidential election in Fall 2016 was a significant event. Not only were the candidates different from the usual options—a female candidate vs. a reality TV star—but the campaign exposed prejudicial toxins living below the surface of American society.

The choice between candidates became one of supporting equality, moral values, and justice or protecting a way of life long dead but awaiting a resurrection by those who’d grown frustrated with the costs of diversity and equality in their lives. The Republican candidate became the spokesperson for the rage and fear felt by many white Americans, and his followers became fiercely vocal about their desire to return America to a time when white supremacy reigned.

The mobilization of this faction of supporters was too great for a mishandled campaign by the female candidate to overcome. And with the election results, American society grew sick with hate. Today, many people feel shocked about the current state of things in America. The deep-seated sentiments of white supremacy and hate seemed to sprout overnight, but they were actually there the whole time under the surface.

The current social and political landscapes in America derive from the infrastructure of human hierarchy developed 400 years ago when Europeans first came to this land. This hierarchy placing whites at the top and black people at the bottom is the American caste system, and although no one alive today is responsible for starting it, we have inherited it and perpetuated it for generations.

What Is a Caste System?

Caste describes a man-made social order developed to rank the value of certain groups of people. This order is based on the assumed supremacy of one group and assumed inferiority of others according to heritage, personal characteristics, religious preferences, or economic status. The superior group uses these characteristics to segregate people and assign parameters for the appropriate behaviors of each group.

Once a caste system is in place, the supporting evidence is enforced until it becomes the inherent beliefs of a culture. When society buys into these beliefs, the laws and principles guiding them are no longer questioned.

America’s caste system was created based on differences in people’s skin color. This arbitrary differentiation is what developed the concept of race. Race is an unwavering line drawn in the sand because the difference is immediately noticeable. Skin color becomes the cue that triggers ingrained stereotypes and assumptions for how people fit into society.

Race and caste are not synonyms, but they support each other within American culture. Race is the physical evidence of difference and the significance assigned to that evidence. Caste is how we organize that evidence to maintain division among groups and ascribe the appropriate lifestyles.

The Original American Narrative—Slavery

Many refer to slavery as an unfortunate chapter in America’s story, but this is not accurate. Slavery wasn’t an event that happened in America. Slavery is the mechanism by which America was created and was the standard mode of operation on American soil from 1619 to 1865.

Before there was a United States of America, there was a vast wilderness. The Europeans who claimed the land in the 1600s saw an opportunity to build a prosperous existence, but they needed help turning the wild into civilization. As they’d done in other colonized nations, they transported African people to the new world to help build their kingdoms.

The Europeans needed a way to justify the subordination of the Africans. The obvious choice became the stark contrast in skin tone. Thus, they invented two classifications of people—those with light skin became one group called “white,” and those who were not white became “black,” or the opposite of white. The white group branded themselves the dominant group, and the black group became slaves.

Once the dominant caste successfully categorized people according to skin color, they could more easily validate their cruelty toward those in the lowest caste. They counted Africans not as laborers, but as property of the landowners and subjected them to immeasurable horrors to ensure they knew their role, remained subservient, and produced extraordinary results. The dominant caste grew accustomed to punishing the subordinate caste for any behavior that threatened their power, and they had the full force of the law on their side.

The treatment of slaves fits the definitions of war crimes under the Geneva Convention, for which Nazi soldiers were tried and convicted but slave owners were not. This violence, including whippings, sexual assault, and starvation, is too horrible for many modern Americans to acknowledge because it goes against the current ideals of freedom, opportunity, and democracy.

But slavery was the founding ideal of this country, and we only have to do the math to understand how deeply ingrained it is in America’s development. America is two years away from marking the day in which it will have been independent for as long as slavery lasted. And black Americans will have to wait until the year 2111 before they will have been free for as long as they were enslaved.

The Legacy of Slavery

The fight to end the 246-year institution of slavery involved the bloodiest war on American soil, the assassination of a president, and the addition of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. But even after the abolishment of slavery, its legacy continued to shape the landscape of America.

There was a brief moment of true freedom following the end of slavery after the Civil War, known as Reconstruction. For 12 years, blacks had the opportunity to rebuild their lives with the help of federal troops stationed in the South. But once those troops were pulled out of the South, **conservative political entities were able to govern the former Confederate...

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Caste Summary Caste Guide Introduction: A Symbol of Dissension

A famous picture of shipyard workers in 1936 Hamburg, Germany shows more than a hundred men lined up with their arms outstretched. They’re performing the “heil Hitler” salute. In the picture, one man stands in the corner with his arm tucked to his chest. He’s the only man not saluting.

This man is believed to be August Landmesser, an Aryan member of the Nazi party. Before the Nuremberg laws outlawed relations with Jews, he was in love with a Jewish woman. **He knew from his experiences with her and others that Jews were neither animals nor lesser...

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Caste Summary Caste Guide Part 1: The Dangers Below the Surface | Chapter 1: Revealing Buried Toxins

Two major events happened in 2016 with detrimental consequences for the societies involved. The first was a massive heat wave in the Northeast Siberian tundra. The unseasonably warm temperatures melted the permafrost that had covered the ground for decades. The indigenous people became mysteriously ill, and after Russian authorities evacuated the area, scientists discovered anthrax, a deadly pathogen, in the soil.

The anthrax was a leftover byproduct of the Second World War, when its use in the area killed hundreds of herds of reindeer. The reindeer carcasses became embedded in the frozen earth, but with the thawing of the permafrost, the carcasses were exposed. The anthrax leached from their bodies into the soil, infecting both animals and humans. No one could have known the anthrax was lying in wait below the surface and would emerge one day at full potency. It took a massive uncommon event to reveal the poison.

The second event unraveled in a similar fashion but in a very different arena. Many considered the United States’ presidential election in Fall 2016 to be an uncommon event. Not only was there a female candidate for the first time in history, but her opponent was...

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Caste Summary Caste Guide Chapter 2: The History of the Caste System

America is like an old house. Many occupants have lived within its walls, and they’ve all left their mark on the place. When we buy that house, we inherit all the issues the previous occupants created, attempted to repair, or allowed to deteriorate. Likewise, we’ve inherited the cracks and deterioration in America’s foundation, and if we make no moves to address these issues, any further damage is on us.

The house of America was built on a foundation of a caste system placing whites at the top and black people at the bottom. The infrastructure of the social and political landscapes is based on a human hierarchy developed 400 years ago when Europeans first came to this land.

What Is a Caste System?

Caste describes a man-made social order developed to rank the value of certain groups of people. This order is based on the assumed supremacy of one group and assumed inferiority of others according to heritage, personal characteristics, religious preferences, or economic status. More often than not, the characteristics used to delineate groups are arbitrary and benign in other contexts. They only become important when one group uses them to segregate people and assign...

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Caste Summary Caste Guide Chapter 3: Race Versus Caste

The word “race” and the derivatives of “racism” and “racist” are so ingrained in our cultural vernacular that we may not understand the true nature of those words. Race originated as a means to differentiate dominant power from subordinate inferiority based on skin color, and over centuries, it has become a weighted term. But the meaning the term attempts to convey is arbitrary because the distinction is arbitrary.

Consider the following analogy:

During the creation of civilization, the people with the most power were short. They saw a community of tall people and realized they needed to dominate this group to maintain their superior position. Thus, they developed beliefs about tall people and used them to signify their lack of worth. People who were six feet tall or taller became “unattractive” and “gangly.” The “talls” were suddenly only good for reaching things or playing sports. The dominant group also made tall people feel ashamed of their long legs, long arms, and lengthened torsos and necks.

The “shorts” used these stereotypes to categorize the talls as less than so they could restrict their behaviors. Shortness became the standard of beauty. The shorts modified...

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Shortform Exercise: Reflect on Your Caste

Reflect on the impact of the white-dominated caste system in the U.S. on your life.


What caste are you part of? While growing up, what were you taught about your caste and other castes?

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Caste Summary Caste Guide Part 2: The Eight Tenets of Castes | Chapter 4: The First Tenet—Laws of Nature and Divinity

Every belief system is governed by a set of tenets. For caste systems, there are eight tenets that uphold the structure and allow for unquestionable participation by the related societies. As each tenet is repeated and supported by attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, it becomes rooted in civilization. Once these beliefs are ingrained, they become the standard mode of life in the form of social hierarchies.

The first of these tenets involves divine intervention. When a belief system is said to be the will of God, it becomes nearly impossible to argue the legitimacy of its claims. The will of an all-knowing spiritual power is at the heart of both the Indian and American castes.

The Word According to Hindu Scripture

Hinduism is the main religion in India, and according to ancient scriptures, the first man was Manu, a wise deity with all-encompassing vision. Manu described the correct social order of man to several disciples who wanted to learn how to govern society. The story was about a god who created the universe and then the world. He took the form of a man named Brahma, or “the grandfather of the worlds,” and set out to build his land.

From his mouth, he created...

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Caste Summary Caste Guide Chapter 5: The Second Tenet—Heritage

Each country needed to uphold the social constructs created according to God’s will to continue drawing lines between the dominant and subordinate castes. The best way to do this was to identify someone’s caste at birth. Thus, ancestral lines became another way to maintain the rankings of each group. Whatever caste you were born into would be yours for life and that of all generations to follow.

In India, children took the status of their father, which was also common in European countries. But colonial Virginians had to use a different tactic because the nature of their caste was different. Many slaveholders impregnated slave women. If the child were to be assigned the caste of their father, there would be dominant caste members that were half-subordinate. Therefore, Virginians changed the structure to serve the dominant caste, the first such deviation from the old world traditions.

The law in the colonial South not only stated that children would take...

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Caste Summary Caste Guide Chapter 6: The Third Tenet—Laws of Love

The third step in maintaining the caste structure is to ban interracial relationships. Endogamy is the restriction of marriage to only those from the same caste. This tenet was used in all three caste systems, but its use in the American caste system has far-reaching implications.

The purpose of endogamy is to protect the dominant caste’s bloodline and emphasize the differences between the different castes. When families are isolated according to caste, a person’s interest or investment in the lives of other families diminishes. In not sharing the landscape of love and family building, members of the dominant caste have little reason to be concerned about the happiness and satisfaction of the lowest caste’s livelihood. In fact, outlawing love and marriage between the castes pushed the lowest caste further into the role of different, other, or less than.

Endogamy is controlled race breeding. The bans on relations among castes enable the dominant caste to curate the type of population they want.

The Beginnings of American Endogamy

In 1630 colonial Virginia, a man from the dominant caste was publicly whipped for having an intimate relationship with a woman from...

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Caste Summary Caste Guide Chapter 7: The Fourth Tenet—The Purity of the Dominant Caste

For all the other tenets of a caste system to be upheld, the dominant caste must define their race in an irreproachable way and safeguard that definition at all costs. The easiest way to create this unassailable distinction is through the purity of one’s blood. The concept of pure versus tainted blood created restrictions around who was allowed into the dominant caste, but the idea also translated into the purity of a person’s skin. The dominant caste went to great lengths to restrict contamination via skin-to-skin contact.

In India, the Untouchables had to keep a certain number of feet away from the dominant caste. Some were required to wear bells to alert the Brahmin of their proximity. If a Brahmin accidentally touched something previously touched by an Untouchable, they performed cleansing rituals to purify themselves. Likewise, Nazis banned Jews from using public pools and beaches. And segregation in America kept black Americans isolated from the dominant caste in almost every facet of life.

Purity of Blood

**The dominant caste in America faced increasing difficulties in keeping their Anglo-Saxon bloodline pure as more and more European immigrants came to...

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Caste Summary Caste Guide Chapter 8: The Fifth Tenet—Division of Labor

Every caste system needs a foundation that everything else rests upon. When you’re building a house, this foundation is called a “mudsill,” which is the first wooden beam placed to anchor the rest of the structure. The bottom caste is like that mudsill, upon which the rest of society gets built. The building of a society requires labor; therefore, in a caste structure, the division of labor determines who will build the foundation and who will use that foundation to thrive. The menial tasks required to lay the foundation for progress are given to the subordinate caste, solidifying their place as the backs on which everyone else steps.

In 1858, Senator James Hammond from South Carolina delivered a speech to the Senate explaining the need for bottom dwellers. He argued that the tasks that make up the drudgery of life require little intelligence and skill and are beneath the efforts of the dominant caste. He concluded that former slaves were lucky to be allowed to perform menial tasks because the tasks elevated these subhumans from the station God intended for them.

Senator Hammond was known for many things throughout his life. He enslaved more than 300 people on his...

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Caste Summary Caste Guide Chapter 9: The Sixth Tenet—Dehumanization at the Group Level

Even with the other tenets in place, there’s always the possibility that reality might slip into the social consciousness and expose the injustice of how the subordinate class is treated. To keep this from happening, the dominant caste must change the collective view of the subordinates from humans to objects. If society sees the underclass as mere objects, the abhorrent actions taken against them become more palatable.

Dehumanizing an entire segment of society is a huge undertaking. The dominant caste must create a stigma about the subordinate caste powerful enough to quiet all sense of reason. Humans are emotional beings, and it’s part of our nature to feel sympathy or empathy for less fortunate people. When we see someone suffering, especially if we’ve gotten to know them personally, we more easily see this person as a human who shares our capacity for pain and emotion. But we ignore these sentiments if someone is part of a larger stigmatized group.

When a group is stigmatized, any member of that group takes on the stigma of the entire group, and individuals stop being individuals. A caste system demands the dehumanization of the lowest group to survive. **The dominant...

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Caste Summary Caste Guide Chapter 10: The Seventh Tenet—Terror and Violence

Physical violence and psychological terror are two strategies dominant castes use to keep the subordinate caste in line. With both behaviors, the dominant caste reminds the subordinate caste of their place in society and their power over them. Furthermore, the dominant caste uses these actions to influence others outside the subordinate caste to either become complicit or participate to avoid the same fate.

Both the Nazis and Americans relied heavily on violence and terror to dominate their subordinate castes. Whippings and hangings were common in both Nazi Germany and the American South. These punishments were often for minor infractions or in response to seeming insolence by a subordinate caste member.

Nazis strapped their prisoners to wooden boards for public floggings. The victim was often forced to count the number of lashes they were receiving. SS officials might tell the prisoner to count to 25 but then tell the prisoner they’d miscounted to lengthen the abuse. The Americans seemed to have an even larger appetite for whipping, sometimes delivering as many as 400 lashings, a number tantamount to murder, according to historical accounts. If one man grew tired...

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Caste Summary Caste Guide Chapter 11: The Eighth Tenet—Ingrained Superiority

No caste system could survive without the collective belief in the unequivocal superiority of one caste over another. This belief was and is still at the heart of every interaction between the dominant caste and subordinate caste in America. It’s reflected in the portrayal of blacks as ignorant, poor, and servile and whites as strong, glamorous, and refined.

All of the other tenets of caste culminate in this superior mindset. It’s not enough to state that the subordination of the lowest caste is preordained by God. It’s not enough to stigmatize the lowest caste as contaminated. It’s not enough to separate the two groups emotionally by banning inter-caste relations. Each person must clearly understand the innate inferiority of the subordinate caste spiritually, physically, and mentally to legitimize the unhindered, blatant subjugation of them. One caste must be seen as deserving of the good life, and the other must be seen as subhuman and deserving of the ills they’re forced to live with.

Enforcing a Superior Ideology

The dominant castes in India, Nazi Germany, and America created laws and protocols that highlighted the roles of the subordinate caste. In India,...

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Caste Summary Caste Guide Part 3: The Lasting Influence of Caste Systems | Chapter 12: Unintentional Consequences

Although the dominant caste’s actions aim to oppress the subordinate caste, the effects often create repercussions for dominant members, as well. Dominant caste behaviors in America led to many unintentional consequences for middle- and lower-class white Americans. This chapter highlights several overall social consequences stemming from casteism.

For example, in 2015, researchers discovered an increasing mortality rate in middle-aged white Americans from middle- to lower-income demographics between 1998 and 2013. During this period, Americans of similar age and class from marginalized groups didn’t experience this same increase, nor did those from other Western nations. In fact, both groups had experienced decreases in their mortality rates.

Many of the deaths experienced by white Americans aged 45 to 54 were “deaths of despair,” such as suicide, drug overdoses, and substance-related diseases. Approximately a half-million people in these demographics died a death of despair in the first decades of the 21st century, exceeding the number of American casualties during WWII.

Some hypothesized that these deaths were due in part to stagnating wages in blue-collar jobs that...

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Caste Summary Caste Guide Chapter 13: The Fallacy of Leadership

The concept of the alpha dog has become synonymous with someone who is the strongest and most capable person in a group and leads through force or intimidation. This belief stems from studies of wolves in captivity that fought for dominance and forced other wolves into submission. But this meaning is a distortion of the true nature of alpha dogs in their original habitats.

Wolf packs in the natural world follow the alpha dog with reverence. The alpha does not control the other wolves; they are responsible for the survival of the pack. A true alpha leads with calm authority, is discerning in their choices, and possesses an internal strength that helps them shepherd their pack and lead by example. It’s a position bestowed on the merit of a wolf’s character and courage, not taken by force.

Yet, humans have used the phrase to justify brute behavior. We often think of alphas as strong-willed bullies that others cower in front of. In reality, this behavior describes someone who is insecure in their leadership role and fears a loss of power. If they were true leaders, their wisdom and character would cause people to willingly follow them.

The tragedy of this misconception is...

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Caste Summary Caste Guide Chapter 14: The Results of Caste

Society likes to believe that a few bad apples are responsible for systemic oppression in the world, but the truth is that no one person or faction of people is to blame. A caste system cannot exist without the backing of a group mentality. And everyone has an obligation to address the evils they see and attempt to fix them. The era of Nazi Germany highlights the power of this group mentality to allow the persecution of the subordinate caste.

A film shown in a Berlin museum captures a parade-like atmosphere the day Hitler returned from the invasion of Paris. The crowds were packed tight around his balcony, and women screamed and carried on in a way reminiscent of the Beatles invasion in America decades later.

The German public knew about the violence committed by their leader. They saw their Jewish neighbors rounded up and taken away. They heard stories about the concentration camps. They watched footage of bombings that leveled other European cities before movies at local theaters. Many of these people were ostensibly good people, but they willingly bought into the rhetoric that the Jews were subhuman because of whatever past grievances, large or small, they had that fit...

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Caste Summary Caste Guide Chapter 15: The Fallout of Progress

The history of backlash for subordinate achievement should have prepared Americans for the response to the 2008 presidential election. But many were surprised by the depth of resentment to the election of a black president and the subsequent vengeful quest to restore power to the dominant caste. Americans from all castes never thought a black man would hold the highest office in the country, a belief supported by a history of 43 white male presidents. But Barack Obama was able to claim that position because of his particular biracial ancestry and dynamic personality, which helped him overcome black stereotypes..

Obama was a Harvard Law School graduate and senator with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Constitution, a gift for public speaking, and an easy, non-threatening demeanor. It helped that his wife, Michelle, was also a highly intelligent Harvard Law graduate and equally charming. In contrast, the Republican candidate, John McCain, was a beloved yet aging war hero who lacked the same intensity and charisma. And once McCain chose a running mate who was unqualified for the job of second-in-command, his campaign was doomed.

Obama’s campaign received a boost after the...

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Caste Summary Caste Guide Chapter 16: The Legacy of Castes

Imagine if statues of King George III stood tall in major American cities. Imagine Hitler memorialized by a two-story monument in the middle of Berlin. These scenarios seem ridiculous considering the wars fought against these rulers. Yet, statues of enemy leaders exist all over America, and their treasonous behaviors are celebrated, rather than admonished.

The Confederacy, or the Confederate States of America, was an anti-democracy, pro-slavery group of states that seceded from the United States after the election of Abraham Lincoln. They formed their own centralized government and attacked the United States to uphold white supremacy and secure the forced enslavement of blacks as a national standard.

The Confederacy is not part of the American heritage, but rather a separate faction of 11 states that banded together to overthrow the national government to gain their sovereignty. In another country, a group like this would be clearly identifiable as the enemy. In America, its members are memorialized as heroes.

Confederate Pride

More than 1,700 Confederacy monuments sit in town squares, outside courthouses, and in front of schools in America. The most decorated...

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Caste Summary Caste Guide Epilogue: A Shift Away From Caste

All human life is a momentary occurrence in the history of the world. Therefore, the actions of one group to force another to spend this fleeting existence in captivity is criminal and immoral. Everyone deserves to become the best versions of themselves, and everyone loses when that right is taken away.

Who knows who the 11 million people the Nazis murdered could have become. What might the legacy of the 750,000 people who died fighting over slavery have been? What contributions could the millions of enslaved people have made to American society and the world? How would humanity and the planet be different today if all those people had lived out their dreams and reached their full potential? A look at one survivor gives us a glimpse of what was lost.

The Genius of Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein is considered one of the greatest minds to have ever lived. He was a true genius, and his contributions to science with his Theory of Relativity revolutionized physics and our understanding of energy, matter, and gravity. But these contributions were almost not realized.

Einstein and his wife, Elsa, were Jewish, and in December 1932, they escaped the Nazis and traveled to...

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Introduction: A Symbol of Dissension
  • Part 1: The Dangers Below the Surface | Chapter 1: Revealing Buried Toxins
  • Chapter 2: The History of the Caste System
  • Chapter 3: Race Versus Caste
  • Exercise: Reflect on Your Caste
  • Part 2: The Eight Tenets of Castes | Chapter 4: The First Tenet—Laws of Nature and Divinity
  • Chapter 5: The Second Tenet—Heritage
  • Chapter 6: The Third Tenet—Laws of Love
  • Chapter 7: The Fourth Tenet—The Purity of the Dominant Caste
  • Chapter 8: The Fifth Tenet—Division of Labor
  • Chapter 9: The Sixth Tenet—Dehumanization at the Group Level
  • Chapter 10: The Seventh Tenet—Terror and Violence
  • Chapter 11: The Eighth Tenet—Ingrained Superiority
  • Part 3: The Lasting Influence of Caste Systems | Chapter 12: Unintentional Consequences
  • Chapter 13: The Fallacy of Leadership
  • Chapter 14: The Results of Caste
  • Chapter 15: The Fallout of Progress
  • Chapter 16: The Legacy of Castes
  • Epilogue: A Shift Away From Caste