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The Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist chronicles the formation and fortunes of social hierarchy. Caste is principally associated with India, which figures in the book—an impressive follow-up to her magisterial The Warmth of Other Suns—but Wilkerson focuses on the U.S. We tend to think of divisions as being racial rather than caste-based. However, as the author writes, “caste is the infrastructure of our divisions. It is the architecture of human hierarchy, the subconscious code of instructions for maintaining, in our case, a four-hundred-year-old social order.” That social order was imposed on Africans unwillingly brought to this country—but, notes Wilkerson, “caste and race are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive.” If Africans ranked at the bottom of the scale, members of other ethnic orders, such as Irish indentured servants, also suffered discrimination even if they were categorized as white and thus hierarchically superior. Wilkerson writes that American caste structures were broadly influential for Nazi theorists when they formulated their racial and social classifications; they “knew that the United States was centuries ahead of them with its anti-miscegenation statutes and race-based immigration bans.” Indeed, the Nazi term “untermensch,” or “under-man,” owes to an American eugenicist whose writings became required reading in German schools under the Third Reich, and the distinction between Jew and Aryan owes to the one-drop rules of the American South. If race links closely to caste in much of Wilkerson’s account, it departs from it toward the end. As she notes, the U.S. is rapidly becoming a “majority minority” country whose demographics will more closely resemble South Africa’s than the norms of a half-century ago. What matters is what we do with the hierarchical divisions we inherit, which are not hewn in stone: “We are responsible for ourselves and our own deeds or misdeeds in our time and in our own space and will be judged accordingly by succeeding generations.” A memorable, provocative book that exposes an American history in which few can take pride. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

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