Read Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents Online
Authors: Isabel Wilkerson
Copyright © 2020 by Isabel Wilkerson
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Names: Wilkerson, Isabel, author.
Title: Caste : the origins of our discontents / Isabel Wilkerson.
Description: First edition. | New York : Random House,  | Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2020012794 (print) | LCCN 2020012795 (ebook) | ISBN 9780593230251 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780593230268 (ebook)
Subjects: LCSH: Caste—United States. | Social stratification—United States. | Ethnicity—United States. | Power (Social sciences)—United States. | United States—Race relations.
Classification: LCC HT725.U6 W55 2020 (print) | LCC HT725.U6 (ebook) | DDC 305.5/122—dc23
LC record available at
LC ebook record available at
Ebook ISBN 9780593230268
Title-page art by Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos
Cover design: Greg Mollica
Cover photograph: Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos
Part One: Toxins in the Permafrost and Heat Rising All Around
Because even if I should speak,
no one would believe me.
And they would not believe me precisely because
they would know that what I said was true.
If the majority knew of the root of this evil,
then the road to its cure would not be long.
There is a famous black-and-white photograph from the era of the Third Reich. It is a picture taken in Hamburg, Germany, in 1936, of shipyard workers, a hundred or more, facing the same direction in the light of the sun. They are heiling in unison, their right arms rigid in outstretched allegiance to the
If you look closely, you can see a man in the upper right who is different from the others. His face is gentle but unyielding. Modern-day displays of the photograph will often add a helpful red circle around the man or an arrow pointing to him. He is surrounded by fellow citizens caught under the spell of the Nazis. He keeps his arms folded to his chest, as the stiff palms of the others hover just inches from him. He alone is refusing to salute. He is the one man standing against the tide.
Looking back from our vantage point, he is the only person in the entire scene who is on the right side of history. Everyone around him is tragically, fatefully, categorically wrong. In that moment, only he could see it.
His name is believed to have been August Landmesser. At the time, he could not have known the murderous path the hysteria around him would lead to. But he had already seen enough to reject it.
He had joined the Nazi Party himself years before. By now though, he knew firsthand that the Nazis were feeding Germans lies about Jews, the outcastes of his era, that, even this early in the Reich, the Nazis had caused terror, heartache, and disruption. He knew that Jews were anything but
that they were German citizens, human as anyone else. He was an Aryan in love with a Jewish woman, but the
recently enacted Nuremberg Laws had made their relationship illegal. They were forbidden to marry or to have sexual relations, either of which amounted to what the Nazis called “racial infamy.”
His personal experience and close connection to the scapegoated caste allowed him to see past the lies and stereotypes so readily embraced by susceptible members—the majority, sadly—of the dominant caste. Though Aryan himself, his openness to the humanity of the people who had been deemed beneath him gave him a stake in their well-being, their fates tied to his. He could see what his countrymen chose not to see.
In a totalitarian regime such as that of the Third Reich, it was an act of bravery to stand firm against an ocean. We would all want to believe that we would have been him. We might feel certain that, were we Aryan citizens under the Third Reich, we surely would have seen through it, would have risen above it like him, been that person resisting authoritarianism and brutality in the face of mass hysteria.
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 loved ones and neighbors and co-workers 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?
In the haunted summer of 2016, an unaccustomed heat wave struck the Siberian tundra on the edge of what the ancients once called the End of the Land. Above the Arctic Circle and far from the tectonic plates colliding in American politics, the heat rose beneath the earth’s surface and also bore down from above, the air reaching an inconceivable 95 degrees on the Russian peninsula of Yamal. Wildfires flared, and pockets of methane gurgled beneath the normally frozen soil in the polar region.
Soon, the children of the indigenous herdsmen fell sick from a mysterious illness that many people alive had never seen and did not recognize. A twelve-year-old boy developed a high fever and acute stomach pangs, and passed away. Russian authorities declared a state of emergency and began airlifting hundreds of the sickened herding people, the Nenets, to the nearest hospital in Salekhard.
Scientists then identified what had afflicted the Siberian settlements. The aberrant heat had chiseled far deeper into the Russian permafrost than was normal and had exposed a toxin that had been encased since 1941, when the world was last at war.
It was the pathogen anthrax, which had killed herds of reindeer all those decades ago and lain hidden in the animal carcasses long since buried in the permafrost. A thawed and tainted carcass rose to the surface that summer, the pathogen awakened, intact and as powerful as it had ever been. The pathogen spores seeped into the grazing land and infected the reindeer and spread to the herders who raised and relied upon them. The anthrax, like the reactivation of the human pathogens of hatred and tribalism in this evolving century, had never died. It lay in wait, sleeping, until extreme circumstances brought it to the surface and back to life.
On the other side of the planet, the world’s oldest and most powerful democracy was in spasms over an election that would transfix the Western world and become a psychic break in American history, one that will likely be studied and dissected for generations. That summer and into the fall and in the ensuing years to come, amid talk of Muslim bans, nasty women, border walls, and shithole nations, it was common to hear in certain circles the disbelieving cries, “This is not America,” or “I don’t recognize my country,” or “This is not who we are.” Except that this was and is our country and this was and is who we are, whether we have known or recognized it or not.
The heat rose in the Arctic and in random encounters in America. Late that summer, in New York City, an indigo harbor in a safely blue state, a white man in Brooklyn, an artist, was helping a middle-aged white woman carry her groceries to a southbound subway in the direction of Coney Island.
By then, it was impossible to avoid talk of the campaign. It had been a political season unlike any other. For the first time in history, a woman was running as a major party candidate for president of the United States. A household name, the candidate was a no-nonsense national figure overqualified by some estimates, conventional and measured if uninspiring to her detractors, with a firm grasp of any policy or crisis that she might be called upon to address. Her opponent was an impetuous billionaire, a reality television star prone to insulting most anyone unlike himself, who had never held public office and who pundits believed had no chance of winning his party’s primaries much less the presidency.
Before the campaign was over, the male candidate would stalk the female candidate from behind during a debate seen all over the world.
He would boast of grabbing women by their genitals, mock the disabled, encourage violence against the press and against those who disagreed with him. His followers jeered the female candidate, chanting “Lock her up!” at mass rallies over which the billionaire presided. His comments and activities were deemed so coarse that some news reports were preceded by parental advisories.
Here was a candidate “
so transparently unqualified for the job,” wrote
in 2016, “that his candidacy seemed more like a prank than a serious bid for the White House.”
On the face of it, what is commonly termed race in America was not at issue. Both candidates were white, born to the country’s historic dominant majority. But the woman candidate represented the more liberal party made up of a patchwork of coalitions of, roughly speaking, the humanitarian-minded and the marginalized. The male candidate represented the conservative party that in recent decades had come to be seen as protecting an old social order benefitting and appealing largely to white voters.
The candidates were polar opposites, equally loathed by the fans of their respective adversary. The extremes of that season forced Americans to take sides and declare their allegiances or find a way to dance around them. So, on an otherwise ordinary day, as the Brooklyn artist was helping the older woman with her groceries, she turned to him, unbidden, and wanted to know who he was voting for. The artist, being a progressive, said he was planning to vote for the Democrat, the more experienced candidate. The older woman with the groceries must have suspected as much and was displeased with his answer. She, like millions of other Americans in the historic majority, had brightened to the blunt-spoken appeals of the nativist billionaire.
Only weeks before, the billionaire had said that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and his followers would still vote for him, devoted as they were. The woman overladen with groceries was one of them. In the bluest of sanctuaries, she had heard his call and decoded his messages. She took it upon herself to instruct the artist on the error of his thinking and why it was urgent that he vote the right way.
“Yes, I know he mouths off at times,” she conceded, drawing closer to her potential convert. “But, he will restore our sovereignty.”
It was then, before the debates and cascading revelations to come, that the Brooklyn man realized that, despite the odds and all historic precedent, a reality star with the least formal experience of perhaps anyone who had ever run for president could become the leader of the free world.
The campaign had become more than a political rivalry—it was an existential fight for primacy in a country whose demographics had been shifting beneath us all. People who looked like the Brooklyn artist and the woman headed toward Coney Island, those whose ancestry traced back to Europe, had been in the historic ruling majority, the dominant racial caste in an unspoken hierarchy, since before the founding of the republic. But in the years leading to this moment, it had begun to spread on talk radio and cable television that the white share of the population was shrinking. In the summer of 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau announced its projection that,
by 2042, for the first time in American history, whites would no longer be the majority in a country that had known of no other configuration, no other way to be.
Then, that fall, in the midst of what seemed a cataclysmic financial crisis and as if to announce a potential slide from preeminence for the caste that had long been dominant, an African-American, a man from what was historically the lowest caste, was elected president of the United States. His ascension incited both premature declarations of a post-racial world and an entire movement whose sole purpose was to prove that he had not been born in the United States, a campaign led by the billionaire who was now in 2016 running for president himself.
A low rumble had been churning beneath the surface, neurons excited by the prospect of a cocksure champion for the dominant caste, a mouthpiece for their anxieties. Some people grew bolder because of it. A police commander in southern New Jersey talked about mowing down African-Americans and complained that the woman candidate, the Democrat, would “
give in to all the minorities.” That September, he beat a handcuffed black teenager who had been arrested for swimming in a pool without authorization. The commander grabbed the teenager’s head and, witnesses said, rammed it “like a basketball” into a metal doorjamb. As the election drew near, the commander told his officers that the reality television star “is the last hope for white people.”
Observers the world over recognized the significance of the election. Onlookers in Berlin and Johannesburg, Delhi and Moscow, Beijing and Tokyo, stayed up late into the night or the next morning to watch the returns that first Tuesday in November 2016. Inexplicably to many outside the United States, the outcome would turn not on the popular vote, but on
the Electoral College, an American invention from the founding era of slavery by which each state has a say in declaring the winner based on the electoral votes assigned them and the outcome of the popular ballot in their jurisdiction.
there had been only five elections in the country’s history in which the Electoral College or a similar mechanism had overruled the popular vote, two such cases occurring in the twenty-first century alone. One of those two was the election of 2016, a collision of unusual circumstance.
The election would set the United States on a course toward isolationism, tribalism, the walling in and protecting of one’s own, the worship of wealth and acquisition at the expense of others, even of the planet itself. After the votes had been counted and the billionaire declared the winner, to the shock of the world and of those perhaps less steeped in the country’s racial and political history, a man on a golf course in Georgia could feel freer to express himself. He was a son of the Confederacy, which had gone to war against the United States for the right to enslave other humans. The election was a victory for him and for the social order he had been born to. He said to those around him, “I remember a time when everybody knew their place. Time we got back to that.”
The sentiment of returning to an old order of things, the closed hierarchy of the ancestors, soon spread across the land in a headline-grabbing wave of hate crime and mass violence. Shortly after Inauguration Day, a white man in Kansas shot and killed an Indian engineer, telling the immigrant and his Indian co-worker to “get out of my country” as he fired upon them. The next month, a clean-cut white army veteran caught a bus from Baltimore to New York on a mission to kill black people. He stalked a sixty-six-year-old black man in Times Square and stabbed him to death with a sword. The attacker would become the first white supremacist convicted on terrorism charges in the state of New York.
On a packed commuter train in Portland, Oregon, a white man hurling racial and anti-Muslim epithets, attacked two teenaged girls, one of whom was wearing a hijab. “Get the fuck out,” he ranted. “We need Americans here.” When three white men rose to the girls’ defense, the attacker stabbed the men for doing so. “I’m a patriot,” the attacker told the police en route to jail, “and I hope everyone I stabbed died.” Tragically two of the men did not survive their wounds. Then in that summer of 2017, a white supremacist drove into a crowd of anti-hate protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing a young white woman, Heather Heyer, in a standoff over monuments to the Confederacy that drew the eyes of the world.
The year 2017 would become the deadliest to date for mass shootings in modern American history. In Las Vegas, there occurred the country’s largest such massacre, followed by one mass shooting after another in public schools, parking lots, city streets, and superstores across the nation. In the fall of 2018, eleven worshippers were slain at a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh in the worst anti-Semitic attack on U.S. soil. Outside Louisville, Kentucky, a man attempted a similar assault on a black church, yanking the locked doors to try to break in and shoot parishioners at their Bible study. Unable to pry the doors open, the man went to a nearby supermarket and killed the first black people he saw—a black woman in the parking lot headed in for groceries and a black man buying poster board with his grandson. An armed bystander happened to see the shooter in the parking lot, which got the shooter’s attention. “Don’t shoot me,” the shooter told the onlooker, “and I won’t shoot you,” according to news reports. “Whites don’t kill whites.”
In the ensuing months, as the new president pulled out of treaties and entreated dictators, many observers despaired of the end of democracy and feared for the republic. On his own, the new leader withdrew the world’s oldest democracy from the 2016 Paris Agreement, in which the nations of the world had come together to battle climate change, leaving many to anguish over an already losing race to protect the planet.
Soon, a group of leading psychiatrists, whose profession permits them to speak of their diagnoses only in the event of a person’s danger to oneself or to others, took the extraordinary step of forewarning the American public that the newly installed leader of the free world was a malignant narcissist, a danger to the public. By the second year of the administration, brown children were behind bars at the southern border, separated from their parents as they sought asylum. The decades-old protections of air and water and endangered species were summarily rolled back. Multiple campaign advisors faced prison terms in widening investigations into corruption, and a sitting president was being described as an agent of a foreign power.
The opposition party had lost all three branches of government and fretted over what to do. It managed to win back the House of Representatives in 2018, but this left the party with only one-sixth of the government—meaning one-half of the legislative branch—and thus hesitant at first to begin impeachment proceedings that were its purview. Many feared a backlash, feared riling up the billionaire’s base, in part because, though it represented a minority of the electorate, his base was made up overwhelmingly of people in the dominant caste. The single-mindedness of the president’s followers and the anguish of the opposition seemed to compromise the system of checks and balances thought to be built into the foundation and meant that, for a time, the United States was not, in the words of a Democratic Party chair in South Carolina, a “
fully functional democracy.”
At the start of the third year, the president was impeached by opponents in the lower chamber and acquitted by loyalists in the Senate, their votes falling along party lines that reflected the fractures in the country as a whole.
It was only the third such impeachment trial in American history. By now,
more than three hundred days had passed without a White House press briefing, a Washington ritual of accountability. It had fallen away so quietly that few seemed to notice this additional breach of normalcy.