Calling America a caste society is both misleading and harmful to black progress.
Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is a compelling fable, told by an expert storyteller. A recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in journalism for her feature writing in the New York Times and author of a previous prize-winning bestseller on the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns (2010), Wilkerson aims to awaken American blacks to the arbitrary caste hierarchy pressing upon them and to open the eyes of white oppressors to their unearned privilege. Forcing whites to acknowledge their bias and compassionately listen to the pain of African Americans, she believes, will free all Americans from the prison of caste once and for all. Wilkerson builds her case with vivid images and anecdotes, interlacing the plight of individuals with her own experiences of racism. She wastes little time on counterarguments.
As literature, Caste is a triumph; as social science, it is a disaster. That Caste was feted in leading publications like the New York Times (“an instant American classic”) and the Washington Post (“powerful, illuminating”), was picked for Oprah’s Book Club (“Magnificent. Profound. Eye-Opening. Sobering. Hopeful”), and is now slated to be turned into a feature film for Netflix tells us more about our cultural elite than about racial stratification. When it comes to race, smart people suspend disbelief to worship idols, dispensing with the usual standards of evidence.
Eric Kaufmann is professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London and an adjunct fellow of the Manhattan Institute.
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