As Shelby Steele has famously pointed out, there are two basic approaches that black American public figures take when addressing whites. There are “challengers,” such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, who “say you are racist until you prove otherwise.” Then there are “bargainers,” who send white Americans a message to the effect that “I won’t rub America’s racism in your face if you won’t hold my race against me.” Writing in 2007, Steele identified Oprah Winfrey and then presidential candidate Barack Obama as bargainers. Of course, after the election Obama flipped, transforming into a world-class racism scold. That left Oprah, who for a long time was America’s #1 bargainer, and who owes her popularity – and hence her status as the richest black person in America – largely to her longtime tendency to celebrate America for the opportunities it offers rather than to excoriate it for its sins.
Oprah remained a bargainer, more or less, until very recently, when, in a transparent effort to play catch-up with the Black Lives Matter movement, she put Breonna Taylor – who was shot to death on March 13 by Louisville police officers – on the cover of O Magazine and paid for 26 billboards demanding the perpetrators’ arrest. Continuing down the same path, Oprah has now glowingly endorsed Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, the latest in the current wave of bestselling, poorly written jeremiads depicting America as a cesspit of race hatred. Announcing on August 5 that Caste was her new Book Club selection, Oprah gushed: “I don’t think that there has ever been another pick that has been as vital as this one. This book might well save us.”
Is Wilkerson’s book the key to America’s salvation? On the contrary, Wilkerson, a former Chicago bureau chief of the New York Times and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, has written a truly execrable and genuinely dangerous tome which, along with Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, seems destined to further Obama’s wicked work of sowing racial discord in the least racist county on earth. Wilkerson’s thesis is that America is a country divided by caste and that in the U.S. the lowest caste is and always has been black people. As examples of countries with comparable caste systems, she offers up India and Nazi Germany. Noting that Martin Luther King Jr., Gunnar Myrdal, and Ashley Montagu before her have spoken of America as having a caste system, Wilkerson insists on the relevance of the concept in describing American society: “Caste is more than rank, it is a state of mind that holds everyone captive, the dominant imprisoned in an illusion of their own entitlement, the subordinate trapped in the purgatory of someone else’s definition of who they are and who they should be.”
One problem with Wilkerson’s premise is that the language of caste isn’t useful in describing the position of Jews in Nazi Germany. Before Hitler came along, many Jews were in the top rung of German society: nowhere in all of human history, indeed, had Jews ever been so privileged and so free, which was precisely why the Nazis hated them so much. Far from being an underclass, Jews were pulled down from positions of extraordinary prestige and power and sent off to be exterminated like rats. Why, then, does Wilkerson insist on dragging Nazi Germany into her book on caste? Obviously, so she can have an excuse to tell us that American race law, under which a single drop of black blood was enough to categorize a person as black, was stricter than Nazi race law; that segregation laws in the states of the American South were consulted by participants at the infamous Wannsee Conference, where the Final Solution was agreed upon; and that “Nazi Germany and the American South devised shockingly similar means of punishment to instill terror in the subordinate caste.”
There’s another problem with Wilkerson’s thesis. Yes, the social structure of the antebellum American South, and indeed of the American South right up through Jim Crow, can well be likened to a caste system, if one wishes. But in today’s America the ruling classes – politicians, academics, news media, publishers, entertainment figures, business leaders – all firmly reject black subordination and embrace an ideology that valorizes officially recognized victim groups, supreme among them blacks. In today’s America, affirmative action is ubiquitous, allowing black people of modest attainments to rise with relative ease to positions such as, say, the Chicago bureau chief of the New York Times and giving black authors a leg up when it comes to winning things like the Pulitzer Prize (especially if they write from a politically correct perspective about subjects like the massive black migration from the South to the North).
The starting point of any honest book about race in America should be that this country, in recent decades, has heroically overcome racial inequality, and had pretty much healed its racial wounds until Obama and, later, BLM deliberately sought to rip them back open. But Wilkerson doesn’t accept these facts. She insists on a continuity between America’s past and present, serving up gruesomely detailed accounts of lynchings and unpleasant stories about the brutal enforcement of segregation at public pools. It’s not enough for Wilkerson to say that slavery in the American South was monstrously bad; she feels compelled to paint it as a uniquely “American innovation,” a point she underscores by quoting historian Ariela J. Gross’s absurd claim that American colonists created “an extreme form of slavery that had existed nowhere in the world.” Caste often recalls Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which highlights the ugliest chapters of American history and buries the most inspiring ones in order to make students hate their own country.
Yes, you can certainly fill hundreds of pages with horrific tales of whites doing evil things to blacks in the 1870s or 1930s or whenever. You could also fill hundreds of pages with equally horrific case studies in black-on-white or black-on-black crime in Chicago or Detroit or Baltimore during the last five years. But to what end? Wilkerson’s implicit argument is that America still hasn’t faced up to and atoned for its centuries of crimes against its black underclass. “In Germany,” she notes with approval, “displaying the swastika is a crime punishable by up to three years in prison”; by contrast, “In the United States, the rebel flag is incorporated into the official state flag of Mississippi.” Her point: today’s Germany overtly rejects Nazism; America still embraces the Confederacy, and hence the legacy of chattel slavery.
You or I might see the election of Obama as a sign that the American caste system, if it ever existed, was, by November of 2008, patently dead. No, Obama got elected, according to Wilkerson, not because of his race but in spite of it – he was so unprecedented in his sheer magnificence that some white people (though not, she emphasizes, a majority!), even though opposed for reasons of caste condescension to the idea of a black president, felt they just had to vote for this miraculous creature. If his presidency was less than a great success, moreover, it’s because the caste system “handcuffed the president as it had handcuffed the African-Americans facedown on the pavement in the videos that had become part of the landscape.” Moving on, if the 2012 election didn’t so much as hint at a waning of racism, the 2016 election, for Wilkerson, was clearly all about racism – about, that is, “[m]aintaining the caste system.” She cites random post-election incidents in which white people killed blacks, Jews, Indians, and Muslims as if Trump were responsible for these crimes. And she outrageously misrepresents Trump’s record on blacks, ignoring prison reform and record high black employment statistics.
Don’t believe that anti-black caste thinking is still alive and well in America? To prove otherwise, Wilkerson serves up accounts of various purported microaggressions which took place in recent years and which were supposedly motivated by an attitude of caste superiority. A black professor is mistaken for a mailman; a cardiologist’s black wife is mistaken for the lady from the cleaners. A black marketing consultant is suspected of being an intruder into his own apartment building; a black youth pastor in a car with white kids is suspected of being a kidnapper. The Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker is stopped and frisked at a gourmet deli in New York by an employee who doesn’t recognize him. Members of a black women’s club are kicked off an Amtrak train in California for being rowdy – but Wilkerson is sure it’s racism. Another group of black women are kicked off a Pennsylvania golf course for moving too slowly – but again, Wilkerson attributes the action to racism.
Sorry, but these are the sorts of things that happen all the time to people of every race. Just the other day, I was asked by a fellow patron in a shop if I worked there. I smiled and said no, and that was that. Should I have been offended? Should I read something caste-related into the man’s question? I’m not black, but did my behavior or dress suggest to him that I was somehow of a lower order than he is? Besides, you could use Wilkerson’s anecdotes to make an opposite point – namely, that it’s pretty terrific that a black person in the United States can become a cardiologist or a professor or a movie star.
Most of the stories Wilkerson advances to demonstrate the enduring power of caste are about herself. Some of them go on for pages. Because she’s black, she complains, some people who come to the door think she’s a maid – which tells me that she lives lavishly enough that strangers approaching her home imagine she has a maid. (As a fellow writer who lives in a flat where nobody would ever expect to find a maid, I’d gladly change places with her.)
Then there was the time she was stopped at the Detroit airport by DEA agents who, after asking if she was carrying drugs, followed to her car. For Wilkerson this wasn’t just a brief unpleasantness; it was “a societal disruption, a tear in the daily workings of human interaction.” Such intrusions, she pontificates, “serve to reinforce caste by derailing lower-caste people, subverting their work lives in an already competitive society, imposing additional burdens not borne by their dominant-caste colleagues as they go about their work.” What the DEA agents manifested, she charges, was “the thievery of caste, stealing the time and psychic resources of the marginalized, draining energy in an already uphill competition.” Wilkerson claims that “[t]he quiet mundanity” of the “terror” she experienced at the hands of those DEA agents “has never left me, the scars outliving the cut.”
Sometimes the nightmare occurs not at the airport but on the plane itself. “Because I fly so often,” Wilkerson writes, “I frequently have cause to be seated in first or business class, which can turn me into a living, breathing social experiment without wanting to be.” One time, for example, a flight attendant actually assumed that Wilkerson was in coach! Another time, the man seated behind her got angry when she leaned her seat back, pushing his laptop into his stomach. Then there was the occasion on which she asked a flight attendant to help her with a carry-on and was ignored (or unheard?). After this humiliation, Wilkerson “went back and sat up straight, across the length of the country. The caste system had put me in my place.” Bottom line: she really thinks she has it bad. She recalls describing herself to an Indian man, without a trace of irony, as the American equivalent of a Dalit, or Untouchable. This took place at a London conference that Wilkerson had flown across the Atlantic for the day to attend.
Reading Wilkerson’s airline anecdotes, I thought: haven’t I read this stuff before? Then I remembered that in a recent piece I’d referenced another professional racism scold, Yale professor Claudia Rankine, who in an article for the New York Times Magazine last summer explained that when she flies around the world giving talks, she’s surrounded by white men “in airport lounges and in first-class cabins” who are always, in one way or another, reminding her of her inferior racial status. For example, at one airport, “a white man stepped in front of me” in line, which Rankine interpreted as a reaction by the man to the presence of a black body in his “white space.” She seems never to have imagined that such things happen at airports all the time to people who aren’t black.
But Rankine, ridiculous though she is, doesn’t hold a candle to Wilkerson. I’ve never seen anything to compare with Wilkerson’s unselfconscious narcissism, her apparently photographic memory for every last occasion on which she’s been looked at the wrong way or hasn’t been waited on quickly enough, her certainty that even the slightest of slights that she’s endured is on a par with the Bataan Death March and has to do with her skin color and never anything else. Why hasn’t it ever occurred to me that my own less-than-satisfactory encounters with flight attendants, plumbers, delivery people, and so on could be turned into a book, if only I could find some overarching societal ill to blame them on? Hey, Ms. W., dig this: just before the COVID lockdown, I was taken off a plane at the Oslo airport and strip-searched on the entirely baseless suspicion that I was trafficking narcotics. Eat your heart out!
Needless to say, this woman’s endless whining about horrors in first class are an insult to real suffering by generations of black Americans and real Untouchables and, above all, by the Jews who perished in the Shoah. Instead of appreciating the remarkable progress that has enabled her to spend so much time ordering serfs around in first class, and appreciating the people, white and black, dead and alive, to whom she owes so much for that progress, all Wilkerson can do is to take her privileges for granted, complain endlessly, and insist on her own rightful place in the sacred company of the actual victims of racism, class oppression, and murderous anti-Semitism. “The friction of caste is killing people,” Wilkerson asserts. “Societal inequity is killing people.” No, it’s not, Ms. Wilkerson. Not in America. You’re not dying. You’re living it up. You’ve made it. You’re jet set. Quit this destructive nonsense and start showing some gratitude and giving some praise.
If I haven’t already made it clear, I found this book utterly sickening to read. Toward the end, as if she hasn’t already thrown enough mud, Wilkerson serves up a disgusting Aaron Sorkin-like litany of cherry-picked statistics designed to make the U.S. sound like the worst place on earth. (No mention that, say, black Americans are the best-off blacks on the planet, or that America is still the top dream destination of the world’s immigrants.) Caste is also stupendously pretentious, awash in bad pseudo-poetic prose: “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.” And: “We cannot fully understand the current upheavals or most any turning point in American history, without accounting for the human pyramid [of caste] encrypted into us all.”
But what’s by far the worst thing about this book is the mischief it can do, with the dismaying connivance of Oprah Winfrey. It’s a shame. Just the other day I watched Oprah in The Butler, and was moved to tears by her powerful portrayal of the troubled wife who, when her Black Panther son dismisses her husband, a veteran White House butler, as an Uncle Tom, furiously smacks the boy’s face and says to him with deadly seriousness: “Everything you are, and everything you have, is because of that butler!” There was a time when it was possible to view Oprah Winfrey as the stirringly effective embodiment of a healthy and harmonious post-racial America. No more. By promoting Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, Oprah has enlisted in the army of division and destruction. Shame on her.