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Caste by Isabel Wilkerson.
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Part 1: The Basics of Caste

In Caste, Isabel Wilkerson argues that the racial tensions in the United States are better explained through the lens of caste, not race—caste being a 400-year-old hierarchy placing white people at the top and Black people at the bottom. In this guide, we’ll explore:

  • The basics of Wilkerson’s caste theory
  • The eight tenets of a caste system
  • How the caste system affects the lives of people in the upper and lower castes
  • How we can move away from caste and create a more equitable society

The Definition of Caste

According to Wilkerson, 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, Wilkerson argues, 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 parameters for the appropriate behaviors of each group.

(Shortform note: Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, agrees that skin color, the defining characteristic of the American caste system, was originally a neutral signifier. According to Kendi, modern racist ideas sprang up out of racist policies: People needed a way to justify economically self-serving policies, so they used skin color as a marker to decide who to exclude, then invented rationale to justify that decision. If those policies never existed, we wouldn’t associate any darker or lighter skin colors with any inherent meanings.)

How Casteism Differs From Racism

Wilkerson believes that while race and caste are not synonyms, they support each other within American culture. Race is the physical evidence of difference and the set of meanings assigned to that evidence. Caste is how we organize that evidence to maintain division among groups and ascribe the appropriate lifestyles. Therefore, Wilkerson believes it would be more accurate to refer to someone who discriminates against another race as a casteist, not a racist. That’s because, according to the author, the definition of racism has changed over time.

Originally, racism signified one group that uses their social power to oppress another group based on race. However, Wilkerson argues that in the last century, racism has become synonymous with beliefs, actions, and character. Today, if you’re a racist, it means you hate people who are not like you and condone oppression. Wilkerson believes that this misunderstanding is why the dominant caste flinches at the term. The author argues that if racism were understood as a byproduct of casteism, society might actually be open to acknowledging racial problems.

Are “Race” and “Caste” Really Different?

To understand the difference between race and caste, it helps to understand how other scholars define “racism.” As Ijeoma Oluo describes in So You Want to Talk About Race, there are two culturally accepted definitions of racism. The first is personal (bias against a person based on their race), and the second is structural (racially biased power structures and institutions that discriminate against a particular racial group). Wilkerson argues that most people rely on the personal definition, while only social scientists tend to use the structural definition.

Wilkerson’s solution to the confusion over how to define “racism” is to focus on caste, not race. However, her description of caste as the structure of American inequality sounds almost identical to the second (systemic) definition of racism. If this sounds confusing to you, you’re not alone: Multiple reviewers have questioned whether there’s a meaningful difference between discussing “casteism” and discussing “systemic racism.” They argue that Wilkerson’s distinction is arbitrary and weak. Other reviewers, however, argue that reframing the situation in terms of caste “neatly lift[s] the mind out of old ruts,” even if readers don’t fully buy into Wilkerson’s logic.

The Three Major Caste Systems—America, India, and Nazi Germany

Wilkerson believes there are three main examples of caste systems in history—the American South, India, and Nazi Germany.

(Shortform note: Wilkerson’s list of the primary examples of caste systems in history contains a notable exclusion: the apartheid system that governed South Africa from 1948 to the early 1990s. Like the systems in Nazi Germany, India, and the US, the South African caste system was codified into law and impacted every aspect of citizens’ lives, including where they could live and work, who they could marry, and even which train car they could ride in.)

The American Caste System

According to the author, the American caste system is divided into two primary castes: The dominant caste consists of people considered “white,” and the lowest caste consists of people considered “Black.” This system has its roots in the American institution of slavery, which was the standard mode of operation on American soil for 246 years, from 1619 to 1865.

(Shortform note: Wilkerson focuses her analysis on these two groups because racial tensions in the United States have historically revolved around the distinction between “white” and “Black.” While focusing specifically on anti-Black...

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Caste Summary Shortform Introduction

In Caste, Pulitzer Prize and National Humanities Medal winner Isabel Wilkerson explores America’s unacknowledged caste system and how the concept of “caste” explains the country’s legacy of discrimination better than the concepts of race and class alone.

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...

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Caste Summary Part 1: The Basics of Caste | Chapter 1: What Is Caste?

In Caste, Isabel Wilkerson argues that the racial tensions in the United States are better explained through the lens of caste, not race. In this guide, we’ll explore:

  • The basics of Wilkerson’s caste theory
  • The eight tenets of a caste system
  • How the caste system affects the lives of people in the upper and lower castes
  • How we can move away from caste and create a more equitable society

In this first part of the guide, we’ll discuss the definition of “caste” and how it differs from “race.” Then, we’ll compare the American caste system to two other notable examples of caste systems: India and Nazi Germany.

The Definition of Caste

According to Wilkerson, 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, Wilkerson argues, 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 parameters for the...

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Caste Summary Chapter 2: The Three Major Caste Systems

Wilkerson believes there are three main examples of caste systems in history—the American South, India, and Nazi Germany. In this chapter, we’ll explore the basic structure and function of each of these systems and note their similarities.

(Shortform note: Wilkerson’s list of the primary examples of caste systems in history contains a notable exclusion: the apartheid system that governed South Africa from 1948 to the early 1990s. Like the systems in Nazi Germany, India, and the US, the South African caste system was codified into law and impacted every aspect of citizens’ lives, including where they could live and work, who they could marry, and even which train car they could ride in.)

The American Caste System

According to the author, the American caste system is divided into two primary castes: The dominant caste consists of people considered “white,” and the lowest caste consists of people considered “Black.” This system has its roots in the American institution of slavery, which was the standard mode of operation on American soil for 246 years, from 1619 to 1865.

(Shortform note: Wilkerson briefly mentions a “middle...

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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 Part 2: Caste Tenets | Chapter 3: Justifying the Creation of a Caste System

Each of the three examples of caste systems we explored in Part 1 represents a belief system, and every belief system is governed by a set of tenets. For caste systems, Wilkerson believes there are eight tenets that uphold the structure and allow for unquestionable participation by the related societies. The tenets are:

  • Laws of divinity
  • Ingrained superiority
  • Dehumanization at the group level
  • Heritage
  • Laws of love
  • The purity of the dominant caste
  • Division of labor
  • Terror and violence

As each tenet is repeated and supported by attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, it becomes rooted in civilization. Wilkerson argues that once all of these eight beliefs are ingrained, they become the standard mode of life in the form of social hierarchies.

(Shortform note: Not all definitions of caste agree that all eight of these tenets are needed for a caste system to form. For instance, the Encyclopedia Britannica defines caste systems as “ranked, hereditary, endogamous social groups, often linked with occupation.” This definition encompasses only the second, third, fifth, and eighth of Wilkerson’s eight...

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Caste Summary Chapter 4: Maintaining Caste Divisions

Once a society installs a caste system, the dominant caste must work hard to maintain the system and ensure no one questions their right to rule. According to the author, dominant castes across the world have historically used four main tactics to accomplish this: dehumanization at the group level and laws of heritage, love, and purity. Let’s explore each of these tenets of caste in detail.

Dehumanization at the Group Level

According to Wilkerson, 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, Wilkerson argues, 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. (Shortform note: According to psychologist Paul Bloom, Wilkerson is correct to frame mass dehumanization as a deliberate strategy on the part of the upper caste. This contradicts the previous, widespread...

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Caste Summary Chapter 5: Mistreatment of the Lowest Caste

Another aspect of the American, Indian, and Nazi German caste systems is the rampant mistreatment of the lowest castes. Wilkerson argues that this mistreatment often manifests in two ways: the division of labor and widespread terror and violence. In this chapter, we’ll explore each in detail.

Division of Labor

The building of a society requires labor; according to the author, 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. This is true in both India and the United States.

(Shortform note: The author doesn’t go into detail about how this tenet applied in Nazi Germany. The Nazis established forced labor camps where Jews and other prisoners worked for no pay under inhumane conditions. This served two purposes for the Nazi regime: It created a constant supply of laborers to do the nation’s most backbreaking jobs, and it was a tool of the “Final Solution” because [prisoners were often literally worked to...

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Caste Summary Part 3: Caste’s Influence on Individuals | Chapter 6: Unintended Consequences

So far, we’ve learned the basics of Wilkerson’s theory of caste and the eight tenets that support a caste system. In Part 3, we’ll learn about the lasting impacts of caste systems on individuals. In this chapter, we’ll discuss how the American caste system impacts people in the dominant caste.

The Impact of the Caste System on White Americans

Although the dominant caste’s actions aim to oppress the subordinate caste, Wilkerson believes the effects often create repercussions for dominant members, as well. As an example, she cites a 2015 study in which 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.

According to the author, 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. Some hypothesized that these deaths were due in part to stagnating...

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Caste Summary Chapter 7: The Fallacy of Leadership

According to Wilkerson, the dominant caste’s beliefs in an innate right to be in control give them a sense of entitlement and the authority to police the actions of the subordinate caste. This causes three general problems that we’ll explore in this chapter: First, upper caste entitlement can lead to violence; second, people in the lower caste internalize and reproduce that violence; and third, society misses out on the talents of people from the lower caste, who are arbitrarily prevented from assuming positions of power.

Problem 1: Upper Caste Entitlement Leads to Discrimination

Historically, white people have been so convinced of their own superiority that they responded with resistance and criminal acts to any effort by the subordinate caste to uplift their lives. According to the author, Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan were both responses to Reconstruction, and the subordinate caste faced angry mobs in both the North and South in response to progress, with the mobs specifically targeting blacks who showed signs of prosperity. (Shortform note: Unfortunately, these backlashes can sometimes prevent or slow future progress. According to historian Lawrence...

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Caste Summary Chapter 8: The Health Effects of Caste

In addition to causing social disruption, Wilkerson argues that the American caste system negatively impacts the health of lower and upper-caste Americans. In this section, we’ll learn more about these negative health outcomes and how the psychology of caste contributes to them.

Physical Manifestations of Caste Mentalities

According to the author, the caste system damages the health of the lowest caste because the psychological strain of constantly navigating prejudice and discrimination damages the body. The body produces higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone released in response to a crisis, when danger is perceived, and consistent high levels of cortisol damage muscle tissue and the circulatory and digestive systems. Fear also restricts blood flow to the heart. The result is poor heart and immune system functioning, leading to a number of deadly diseases.

However, according to Wilkerson, prejudice doesn’t just damage the bodies of the receivers. Studies show it has similar damaging effects on the perpetrator. Harboring negative emotions or hate also increases blood pressure and releases cortisol. One study found that even simple negative interactions...

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Caste Summary Part 4: The Influence of Caste Systems on Society | Chapter 9: The Fallout of Progress

Now that we’ve addressed the individual consequences of caste, let’s take a look at the impact of caste systems on entire societies. In this chapter, we’ll explore the shift that happened in the U.S. in 2008 that sparked a resurgence of inter-caste tensions.

According to the author, caste tensions in post-Civil Rights era America simmered beneath the surface until the 21st century. The first harbinger of renewed racial animosity was the 2008 election of Democrat Barack Obama and the resulting vengeful quest by many white Americans to restore power to the dominant caste.

(Shortform note: Barack Obama’s successful campaign for the 2008 election presented such a threat to the established racial order that assassination was a looming threat. As a result, the Department of Homeland Security authorized Secret Service protection for then-Senator Obama beginning in 2007, a full 18 months before he was first elected president. This is the earliest any president has received Secret Service protection.)

White America’s Revenge

**Most white...

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Caste Summary Chapter 10: The Legacy of the American Caste System

The American caste system’s impact goes beyond just the political arena. In this chapter, we’ll explore the way the U.S. memorializes the worst days of its caste system and how that approach compares to the way modern Germany memorializes the Nazi’s reign of terror. Then, we’ll discuss other ways the caste system has left a lasting impact on the United States, such as the low measures of health and wellbeing compared to other countries.

Confederate Pride

One way in which the legacy of caste remains visible in American society is through ongoing Confederate Pride and memorialization. According to Wilkerson, 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. 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. (Shortform note: The Confederacy was small compared to the Union (the name for the collection of states that did not secede from the country), but not so small as to be...

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Caste Summary Epilogue: A Shift Away From Caste

According to Wilkerson, the only way to dismantle caste in society is for each of us to open our minds and hearts enough to see how we’ve been manipulated into division. That’s because our actions and thoughts feed the machine of hate and prejudice based on superficial physical traits.

Wilkerson argues that no one chooses to be born into one caste or another, but we do choose whether to abide by the confines those castes dictate. A person born into the dominant caste can choose to uplift others in the subordinate caste. A person born into the subordinate caste can choose to break the barriers around them.

Dismantling Caste: Mindsets, Policies, or Both?

Other scholars disagree with Wilkerson’s conclusion that individual actions and mindsets are the driving force behind the caste system. For instance, in How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi argues that it’s impossible to dismantle American racism by ignoring policy and focusing on individual mindsets. Kendi believes we should focus on changing racist policies first rather...

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Shortform Exercise: Reject the Caste System

The caste system endures because a majority perpetuates it, either actively or unthinkingly. Reflect on your role and how you can stop participating.


How did you feel overall as you read this guide? What aspects evoked your strongest reaction and why?

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Shortform Introduction
  • Part 1: The Basics of Caste | Chapter 1: What Is Caste?
  • Chapter 2: The Three Major Caste Systems
  • Exercise: Reflect on Your Caste
  • Part 2: Caste Tenets | Chapter 3: Justifying the Creation of a Caste System
  • Chapter 4: Maintaining Caste Divisions
  • Chapter 5: Mistreatment of the Lowest Caste
  • Part 3: Caste’s Influence on Individuals | Chapter 6: Unintended Consequences
  • Chapter 7: The Fallacy of Leadership
  • Chapter 8: The Health Effects of Caste
  • Part 4: The Influence of Caste Systems on Society | Chapter 9: The Fallout of Progress
  • Chapter 10: The Legacy of the American Caste System
  • Epilogue: A Shift Away From Caste
  • Exercise: Reject the Caste System