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'Caste' author Isabel Wilkerson on America's race and class hierarchy


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: The focus on Black Lives Matter remains, of course, one of the biggest subjects in the national conversation right now.

A new book looks at how hierarchy and class are very intertwined in the way race and racism plays out in America.

Jeffrey Brown talks to author Isabel Wilkerson.

It's part of our ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: In 1959, Martin Luther King Jr., visiting India and seeing its caste system, realized he was a kind of untouchable in his own land.

It's one of many stories told in the new book "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents," which asks us to see our country in a new way.

Isabel Wilkerson: I really was looking to better understand the very longstanding origins of divisions in our country.

You know, the era in which we live, this era of upheaval, really requires and calls for new language, new ways of seeing one another, new ways of understanding how we interconnect, and also what we have inherited as a country and as a people.

Jeffrey Brown: Isabel Wilkerson is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with The New York Times, and author of "The Warmth of Other Suns," a history of the great migration of African Americans out of the South.

Working on that book, she came to see something deeply embed in American culture, even beyond race.

Isabel Wilkerson: The word racism seemed inadequate to capture the full effect and full total experience of being in a world in which every single thing that you could and could not do was based upon what you look like, a world in which everyone was in some ways consigned to preconceived notions as to who should be where.

And people had to be careful to stay in their place, or it could mean their very lives.

Jeffrey Brown: Wilkerson looks to India, where we're used to seeing caste, and to Germany, where the Nazis created a racial hierarchy that formalized persecution and, ultimately, genocide.

Drawing on the works of past anthropologists and historians, she reveals America's own insidious and artificial caste system, a strict hierarchy with rules that set in place both privilege and privation.

You write of caste as the -- quote -- "infrastructure of our divisions."

Now, in what ways does castes help us think about what's going on in American history and now?

Isabel Wilkerson: The word caste is a reminder of an infrastructure beneath something that we -- something that's larger, something that sits beneath the foundation. It is the foundation, the framework for how people interact with one another.

And so I have come to believe that caste, the infrastructure, the hierarchies that we often don't see, the bones of a thing. I think of caste as the bones and race as the skin. And that is the way to see that race is used or has been used historically as the cue, as the signal, as the indicator of where an individual fits in a preexisting hierarchy that had been created from a time of colonial era America.

Jeffrey Brown: Slavery, from the beginning, manifests that hierarchy, one life worth more than another.

But Wilkerson sees a continuity, waves of European immigrants arriving in this country and, in a sense, learning they are white and, therefore, above those who aren't.

Isabel Wilkerson: When you're in a caste system, a hierarchy, everyone is affected by it. It's about the investment in the hierarchy, how one moves about in a hierarchy.

And the insidious thing about such a hierarchy is, it's something that we don't see, again, bones vs. skin. You can see the skin. You can see the outward manifestations, but you don't often see the unseen inputs and triggers and assumptions, the unconscious biases that pervade society, that are there below the surface of consciousness that have been ways that everyone has been socialized to know and recognize who is -- who is very likely to be in positions of power, who is likely to be poor, who is likely to be on the margins.

Jeffrey Brown: Who is likely to sit in a position of power in the boardroom, who is likely to live in certain neighborhoods, who is likely to be stopped by police and treated with brutality, the focus of current Black Lives Matter protests.

Isabel Wilkerson: American history is reflective of the ebbs and flows, progress and pushback, moving forward and then receding.

That's essentially the history of our country. And so this is a moment, another moment that could be potentially a sea change. I view it as being the cusp of an awakening, an awakening to a part of much, much of American history that many people may not have known.

The goal of this work is to allow us to see, again, the structure that we have inherited, to be able to push forward, but, most importantly, to recognize that we all have a stake in it, and to recognize that it will take each and every one of us to make it the strongest house possible.

Jeffrey Brown: But I have to say that, in reading this, caste, as you describe it, seems even more fixed, in a sense, than race as a concept, as a structure.

Is it something that is fixable?

Isabel Wilkerson: I would like to believe that it's fixable. I wouldn't have written this if I didn't think that it was.

I have to remain hopeful. I have to remain -- I have to believe that, once awakened to our history and to our current reality, as has occurred in recent months, that this would move all of us to want to bridge these divides, to find ways to scale the walls that have been built between us, and to recognize that these are false and artificial divisions. These are man-made divisions. And if they were made by man, then they can also be fixed by man.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, the book is "Caste."

Isabel Wilkerson, thank you very much.

Isabel Wilkerson: Thank you.

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