Monday, November 2, 2020

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents - a review by Mark D. Walker

The lockdown caused by COVID-19 has laid bare the growing inequalities and injustices in our social and economic systems today. Yet it offers a good opportunity to understand our foundations, as well as why so many white Americans seem willing to disregard the needs of their fellow citizens in order to maintain a system that benefits them so mightily, while ignoring and explaining away the suffering of others.

The public, excruciating murder of George Floyd sparked an awakening among many white people of our nation’s systemic racism, to acknowledge its power and longevity for over 400 years on this continent. Pulitzer Prize winner and bestselling author, Isabel Wilkerson, examines the often unspoken caste system that has shaped America. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, shows how our lives are still impacted by a hierarchy of human divisions, which damages not only the Blacks at the bottom, but also the white population at the top of society today. In understanding this insidious system, I fully agree with Albert Einstein, who said, “If the majority knew of the root of this evil, then the road to its cure would not be long.” 

Wilkerson states, “American slavery, which lasted from 1619 to 1865, was not the slavery of ancient Greece or the illicit sex slavery of today. American slavery, by contrast, was legal and sanctioned by the state and a web of enforcers...” “For the first time in history, one category of humanity was ruled out of the ‘human race,’ and into a separate sub-group that was to remain enslaved for generations in perpetuity.” 

The author goes on to describe caste systems in India as well as in Nazi Germany, in order to broaden our understanding of how the system has developed in the U.S. And according to a spokesman for the German press agency, when the Nazis were solidifying their grip on the country, they used the United States as a model for their own racism. “For us Germans, it is especially important to know and see how one of the biggest states in the world with Nordic stock already has race legislation, which is quite comparable to that of the German Reich.” 

Another passage reveals, “In Germany, displaying the swastika is a crime punishable by up to three years in prison. In the United States, the rebel flag is incorporated into the official state flag of Mississippi. It can be seen on the backs of pickup trucks north and south, fluttering along highways in Georgia and the other former Confederate states…” The author goes on to point out that, “In Germany, restitution has rightly been paid, and continues to be paid, to survivors of the Holocaust. In America, it was the slaveholders who got restitution, not the people whose lives and wages were stolen from them for twelve generations.” 

The Epilogue of the book offers some sobering final thoughts, such as, “Caste is a disease, and none of us is immune. It is as if alcoholism is encoded into the country’s DNA and can never be declared fully cured. It is like a cancer that goes into remission, only to return when the immune system of the body politic is weakened…” 

“Wilkerson’s book is a powerful, illuminating and heartfelt account of how hierarchy reproduces itself, as well as a call to action for the difficult work of undoing it.”—The Washington Post

So, the question becomes, how does the white community deal with systemic racism in this country? Given the numbers and diversity of people participating in the Black Lives Matter protests around the world, this seemed a good time to reflect on my own upbringing and what we can do to take advantage of a pivotal point in our history, especially with elections on the horizon. 

I was brought up in Plainfield, New Jersey, and although many of the students were Black in middle school, I saw only a small number who were part of the “advanced” classes, and these kids seemed very scholastically motivated. My family moved to Littleton, Colorado, when I was 16 and from there to Evergreen in 1963. I went to school on the Western Slope of Colorado in a basically white community and ended up in the equally white community of Scottsdale, Arizona. Shortly after we arrived in Colorado, all hell broke loose in New Jersey with violent race riots, burning property, shooting and looting. I remember thinking, “What was that about? Boy, did we get out of there just in time!” By 1967, Newark, New Jersey, was one of 159 cities where riots took place, including one four-day tirade in which 26 people died. 


Walker was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala and spent over forty years helping disadvantaged people in the developing world. He came to Phoenix as a Senior Director for Food for the Hungry, worked with other groups like Make a Wish International and was the CEO of Hagar USA, a Christian-based organization that supports survivors of human trafficking. 

His book, Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond, was recognized by the Arizona Authors Association for nonfiction and according to the Midwest Review, “. . . is more than just another travel memoir. It is an engaged and engaging story of one man’s physical and spiritual journey of self-discovery . . .” 

Several of his articles have been published in Ragazine and WorldView Magazines while another appeared in Crossing Class: The Invisible Wall, an anthology published by Wising Up Press. His reviews have been published by Revue Magazine as well as Peace Corps Worldwide, including one on Paul Theroux’s latest book, On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey. 

His honors include the "Service Above Self" award from Rotary International. His wife and three children were born in Guatemala. You can learn more at and follow him on his Facebook page.

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