The Origins of Our Discontents
#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • OPRAH’S BOOK CLUB PICK • “An instant American classic and almost certainly the keynote nonfiction book of the American century thus far.”—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
The Pulitzer Prize–winning, bestselling author of The Warmth of Other Suns examines the unspoken caste system that has shaped America and shows how our lives today are still defined by a hierarchy of human divisions.
#1 NONFICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR: Time
ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The Washington Post, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, O: The Oprah Magazine, NPR, Bloomberg, The Christian Science Monitor, New York Post, The New York Public Library, Fortune, Smithsonian Magazine, Marie Claire, Slate, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews
Winner of the Carl Sandberg Literary Award • Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize • National Book Award Longlist • National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist • Dayton Literary Peace Prize Finalist • PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction Finalist • PEN/Jean Stein Book Award Longlist • Kirkus Prize Finalist
“As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not.”
In this brilliant book, Isabel Wilkerson gives us a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America as she explores, through an immersive, deeply researched, and beautifully written narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings.
Beyond race, class, or other factors, there is a powerful caste system that influences people’s lives and behavior and the nation’s fate. Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, stigma, and more. Using riveting stories about people—including Martin Luther King, Jr., baseball’s Satchel Paige, a single father and his toddler son, Wilkerson herself, and many others—she shows the ways that the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day. She documents how the Nazis studied the racial systems in America to plan their outcasting of the Jews; she discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires that there be a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she writes about the surprising health costs of caste, in depression and life expectancy, and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics. Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity.
Original and revealing, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is an eye-opening story of people and history, and a reexamination of what lies under the surface of ordinary lives and of American life today.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Oprah calls her book club pick “a game-changing, revolutionary, profound look at how we got where we are in terms of inequality.” And she’s right. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson—best-selling author of The Warmth of Other Suns—takes us on an eye-opening journey as she excavates and reframes history. Her astounding deep dive into racial hierarchy in the United States pulls no punches. Drawing parallels to India and Nazi Germany and blending history, sociology, and powerful stories of lived experience, Wilkerson argues that the U.S. has always operated through a race-based system of caste. Her historical reframing gives us a new language for talking about racism and helps explain what it means to be casteist, or “invested in keeping the hierarchy as it is or content to do nothing to change it.” Wilkerson backs up her assertions with meticulous research, illustrating how caste permeates every aspect of American life: from politics to health outcomes to interpersonal relationships to the ways we learn to be ourselves. Caste effortlessly makes history personal, because it is. If you only read one book about race in the U.S. in your lifetime, let this be it.
In this powerful and extraordinarily timely social history, Pulitzer winner Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns) investigates the origins, evolution, and inner workings of America's "shape-shifting, unspoken" caste system. Tracking the inception of the country's race-based "ranking of human value" to the arrival of the first slave ship in 1619, Wilkerson draws on the works of anthropologists, geneticists, and social economists to uncover the arbitrariness of racial divisions, and finds startling parallels to the caste systems of India and Nazi Germany. The Nazis, Wilkerson notes, studied America's restrictive immigration and anti-miscegenation laws to develop their own racial purity edicts, and were impressed by the "American custom of lynching" and "knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death." While India abolished formal laws that defined its caste systems in the 1940s, and America passed civil rights measures in the '60s, their respective hierarchies live on, Wilkerson writes, in "hearts and habits, institutions and infrastructures." Wilkerson cites studies showing that black Americans have the highest rates of stress-induced chronic diseases of all ethnic groups in the U.S., and that a third of African Americans hold antiblack biases against themselves. Incisive autobiographical anecdotes and captivating portraits of black pioneers including baseball pitcher Satchel Paige and husband-and-wife anthropologists Allison and Elizabeth Davis reveal the steep price U.S. society pays for limiting the potential of black Americans. This enthralling expos deserves a wide and impassioned readership.
What an education.
This book is not for the heart that wants to live unchanged. Only reading with intellectual tentacles up and with humanity in mind will allow you to receive this beauty in its fullness. What an education.
Caste is ESSENTIAL
I was learning new things from the very first page. I couldn’t believe what I was reading because they never taught us this in school. So I’d google it and BAM! It was real. This book should be in every classroom in America to help us move forward. Great job Isabel!
Such an enlightening read about our history, even as a Black wkman
I thought I was educated about our history in this country, but I was floored to learn about everything from exactly how similar our nation is to the Indian caste system to the fact that our relationship with race isn’t much different than that is the nazis. Isabel’s writing is phenomenal and I also appreciated her personal perspectives about her time as a Black NYT writer.