Racism reeducation book #9 – Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Caste: The Origins of our Discontents is one in a stack of books I’m reading as part of my overdue reeducation on racism. I’ve reviewed more than 500 business books for The Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations for 27 years.

Here are four questions to wrestle with from Isabel Wilkerson’s brilliant and brutal Caste: The Origins of our Discontents.

Question one – If you’re white, how much would you have to be paid to live the next 50 years as a Black person?

Political scientist Andrew Hacker put that question to his white undergraduate students at Queen’s College back in the 1990s.

Most students said they’d need $50 million to “buy protection from the discriminations and dangers white people know they would face once they were perceived to be Black.”

Question two – What would you have done with Hitler if he hadn’t killed himself in a bunker (that’s been paved over and turned into a nondescript and unmarked parking lot)?

In 1944, the public school district in Columbus, Ohio ran an essay contest where they put that question to students.

A 16-year-old Black girl won the contest with a single sentence – “Put him in a black skin and let him live the rest of his life in America.”

The contest ran the same year a Black teenage boy, who sent an innocuous Christmas card to a white girl at work, was bound and thrown into a river while his father was held down on shore to watch his son drown.

Question three – Are you willing to be as courageous as August Landmesser?

There’s a famous photo taken in 1936 at a shipyard in Hamburg, Germany. Hundreds of workers are heiling in unison. August is the only one who refuses to salute.

“Looking back from our vantage point, he is the only person in the entire scene who is on the right side of history,” says Isabel. “Everyone around him is tragically, fatefully, categorically wrong.

“We would like to believe that we would have taken the more difficult path of standing up against injustice in defense of the outcaste. But unless people are willing to transcend their fears, endure discomfort and derision, suffer the scorn of love ones and neighbours and coworkers and friends, fall into disfavor of perhaps everyone they know, face exclusion and even banishment, it would be numerically impossible, humanly impossible, for everyone to be that man. What would it take to be him in any era? What would it take to be him now?”

So if you’re a white person, do you have the courage to dismantle a caste system that’s given you a lifetime of unearned economic, social and political privileges simply because of the colour of your skin?  Are you prepared to direct your anger up, rather than down, the ladder? Are you willing to stop correcting, directing, disciplining and policing the people who are the bottom rung?

“The fact is that the bottom caste, though it bears much of the burden of the hierarchy, did not create the caste system, and the bottom caste alone cannot fix it,” says Isabel. “The challenge has long been that many in the dominant caste, who are in a better position to fix caste inequality, have often been least likely to want to.”

And question four: While debate rages about statues, monuments and memorials for slave owners and segregationists, it’s worth looking at what Germany has done.  “Rather than honor supremacists with statues on pedestals, Germany, after decades of silence and soul-searching, chose to erect memorials to the victims of its aggressions and to the courageous people who resisted the men who inflicted atrocities on human beings,” says Isabel.

Next to the front doors of a subway station in the heart of Berlin is a sign that’s nearly a storey-high and impossible for residents and tourists to miss. The sign reads Places of Horror That We Should Never Forget and then lists a dozen concentration camps where millions of Jews were slaughtered.

So where would you put a storey-high sign in your city that lists all of Canada’s former residential schools?

You’ll be forced to confront many more uncomfortable and unforgettable moral questions in Isabel’s follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Warmth of Other Suns.

“Evil is not one person but can be be easily activated in more people than we would like to believe when the right conditions congeal,” says Isabel.

“It is easy to say ‘if we could just root out the despots before they take power or intercept their rise. If we could just wait until the bigots die away…It is much harder to look into the darkness in the hearts of ordinary people with unquiet minds, needing someone to feel better than, whose cheers and votes allow despots anywhere in the world to rise to power in the first place. It is harder to focus on the danger of common will, the weaknesses of the human immune system, the ease with which the toxins can infect succeeding generations. Because it means the enemy, the threat is not one man, it is us, all of us, lurking in humanity itself.”

Published by Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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