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“Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson. Random House, 2020. 496 pages, $32.

CHICAGO — A caste is a ranking, an order, a top to bottom accounting.

The concept of caste — not unlike class, though different in important ways — is thousands of years old, its roots can be inextricable, its effects very real. Yet caste is artificial and arbitrary. There is nothing natural or inevitable about it. Caste, as the name implies, is like casting, with society itself as director. Caste insists that you were born into a role, therefore assigning you certain qualities, personalities, urges, deficiencies. You are part of a caste, and so am I. So are your parents, and so were their parents.

The word itself, “caste,” sounds antiquated, like “feudalism” or “commonwealth.”

But as an idea, caste is alive, and invisible.

Isabel Wilkerson likes to explain it with metaphors. In “Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents,” published by Random House and the long anticipated follow-up to “The Warmth of Other Suns,” her landmark history of the Great Migration, caste is often compared to the frame of a house, the studs, joints, nails. If a caste is working properly, you never think about it.

“Caste,” she said from her home in Atlanta, “is a primordial fact of life. It is fixed and rigid. You get accustomed. It’s most efficient when we accept it as the way of the world.”

“Another way I see caste,” she said, drawing on another metaphor, “is that it’s like the bones, and race is the skin, and class is sort of like clothing, the things you can change about yourself — if you can act your way out, then it’s class. If you can’t, that’s caste.”

She tells a story.

A couple of decades ago, when Wilkerson was living in Chicago’s Streeterville (then later Oak Park), when she was working as a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent for the New York Times — indeed, the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer for journalism — she was reporting on New York-based retailers moving onto Michigan Avenue. She arranged an interview with the manager of a boutique. When she arrived, late in the day, the showroom was empty. The manager entered the room frazzled and anxious, and “his first reaction to me is ‘I can’t talk to you right now, I’m waiting for a very important interview with the New York Times, I don’t have time right now.’ I said, ‘I think I’m your interviewer, Isabel Wilkerson, New York Times.’ He said, ‘And how do I know that?’ He asked for a business card. I was out of business cards. He asked for ID. I said I shouldn’t have to show him this but I showed him a driver’s license. He said, ‘You have nothing with the Times on it?’ I said, ‘Look, why would I be here? I’m the only one here.’ He asked me to leave so he could get ready for his interview. I’d never been accused of impersonating myself. Even years later, it’s hard processing the absurdity.”

That sounds like racism.

Yet, as she explains in “Caste,” his notion of caste blinded him. It didn’t seem to occur to the guy that “a New York Times correspondent could come in a container such as mine.”

And the name of the place?

Wilkerson won’t say.

Because it hardly matters. “Because that could have been anywhere, because caste always has one message: ‘I don’t believe you are who you say you are, you are not who I expect to be doing what you are doing.’ It sets boundaries for who should be where they are.” She avoids calling the man racist “not because I don’t believe racism exists. I’m just saying underneath racism is caste — racism is just a tool to say if you belong.”

Sounds like splitting hairs.

Yet “Caste,” the book, among the year’s best, makes a convincing, often scorching case that caste was there alongside the first colonials (divinely ordained, of course), there at the birth of the nation, and we wrestle every day with that legacy, some benefiting from caste, many never allowed their potential because of caste. Her book’s ambition is large — nothing less than a reframing of how we discuss race and inequality in this country.

“The beauty of the word ‘caste’ is we’re unaccustomed to it,” Wilkerson said. “It’s fresh for the 21st century, it makes an American sit up and think how it applies to them. Because in the fraught times we live, we need new language for looking at ourselves and understanding the situation we inherited. ‘Caste,’ unlike ‘race,’ does not provoke the same emotions. It’s not about guilt or shame or fault. It’s the structure we came up in. It’s not personal. It’s an inherited house. The question is, will we make the repairs?”

She is far from the first journalist to explain American inequality through a scrim of caste — Michelle Alexander’s widely read study of mass incarceration, “The New Jim Crow,” also describes contemporary society as a “racial caste system.” But Wilkerson’s book, more than a decade in the works, arrives like the uncannily prescient context that’s been absent from our pandemic America, roiling from unrest and collapsing institutions.

When you hear someone use “systemic” — often to explain the larger framework through which injustice an inequality is allowed to continue — they are referring to caste.

When Wilkerson writes about the “urgent necessity of a bottom rung,” it’s hard not to think of how often working poor and people of color filled the role of “essential workers.” “They allowed others to shelter in place,” she said. “They were on the front lines, thus more likely to get sick as a result of their roles in society, which speaks to a pillar of caste — hierarchy. But then the dirtiest, dangerous jobs always went (to lower castes). To Asians in the West. Even to European immigrants in the colonial era. But the lowest rung was always enslaved Africans brought to perform the toughest jobs without pay.”

When Wilkerson sees one of countless online videos of white people calling the police on African-Americans simply existing in the same space, she sees caste. She mentions a 2018 video of a white St. Louis woman who dialed 911 to report a Black man in her apartment building: “She’s not threatened by him, she gets in the elevator with him, she follows him to his door. Which he opens it with his key. That’s an example — that’s someone enforcing a caste, and deciding someone else doesn’t belong in their space.”

Wilkerson didn’t always think of caste.

She never even used the word herself until she began “The Warmth of Other Suns,” about 25 years ago, living in Oak Park and traveling constantly as a correspondent. She was searching for the right way to describe the circumstances of African-Americans. Using narrative storytelling and a small cast of characters, “Warmth” told a vast story of Black migration in this country, across 60 years, from the South to Chicago and elsewhere. But she needed a word that went deeper and more elemental than “racism.”

Wilkerson, 59, grew up in Washington, D.C., the daughter of parents who themselves had left Georgia (her mother) and Virginia (her father) as part of the Great Migration. Her father had been a Tuskegee airman in World War II, and later, finding it hard to make a living after the war, remade himself as a civil engineer. She prides herself on being part of a family that literally built bridges. Her parents sent her to a predominantly white school, where her classmates were the children of diplomats. They were helping her break free of caste, she said, as they had done themselves by leaving the South.

“Which we never discussed,” she said. “We just lived with the heaviness of it. They were ambitious, forward-thinking people and the fact they didn’t discuss it was information for me. It had been too painful, and too difficult, something they didn’t want to think about.”

The title “The Warmth of Other Suns” was taken from a poem by Richard Wright, who left Mississippi for Chicago. He wrote: “I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown … I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently … ” As “Caste” seems to answer — and “Warmth” illustrates — Black Americans often left one caste system only to serve as cheap labor for another, leaving one pecking order to run into another pecking order, segregation, redlining, delineation.

“Warmth,” released in 2010, took 15 years and thousands of interviews to finish. “Caste,” only her second book, took more than 10 years, partly because “Warmth” was such a blockbuster — its champions included Barack Obama and Toni Morrison — that Wilkerson traveled endlessly to discuss it. (Indeed, love for “Warmth of Other Suns” remains so intense a decade later, she canceled speaking engagements about the book because of the pandemic. It also recently re-entered the New York Times best-seller list.) Research for “Caste” took her to India and England and Germany — home to some of the oldest and (in the case of Nazi Germany) most violent castes — during which Wilkerson was asked occasionally where she herself landed within the American caste.

She didn’t expect the question.

She was “assigned” the lowest rung, she would say, making her proof of its artificiality.

“Caste,” the book, upsets the already rickety national myth that anyone in the United States can be anything — albeit, without entirely abandoning that hope. Like “Warmth of Other Suns,” it’s pleasantly eccentric, jumping from memoir to narrative journalism, history to sociology, unexpected in its direction. Water — for instance, how 17-year old Eugene Williams was stoned and drowned in 1919 after passing into “white water” near a South Side public beach — provides what Wilkerson calls an “imaginary line” between castes. God makes a cameo, purporting to delineate nothing less than divinity. Caste even expands, accepting Irish and Italians into the ruling caste, out of self-preservation.

Of course, if there’s a supporting role in “Caste,” it’s insecurity.

It’s the creeping horror of potentially losing ground. “Make America Great Again” is, if nothing else, a plea to maintain caste. Political scientists in Wilkerson’s book refer to that panic as “dominant group status threat,” a funhouse reflection in which those on the bottom rungs are seen as moving up a little too easily for the comfort of those at the top.

Or as Donald Trump explained it even more explicitly in a recent tweet: “I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood … ”

Again and again, throughout “Caste,” Wilkerson returns to Germany, initially to show how violent segregation in America inspired Hitler’s nightmare caste for Germany — then how a post-war Germany set symbols of that caste aside while seeking lessons in them.

Asked if the removal of Confederate statues and monuments to colonialism across this country could signal a coming realignment of American caste, she returns to metaphor.

“That old house we inherited, maybe you don’t want to go into the basement, but the fact is, whatever’s there, we will have to deal with it — whether we go down there or not.”

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