By Sonali Oberg
In November 2020, the DEI Shared Interest Group’s (SIG’s) book club read Isabel Wilkerson’s book, “Caste: The Origins of our Discontents.” Wilkerson’s book is about how brutal misperceptions about race have disfigured the American society. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author believes racism is an insufficient term for the systemic oppression of Black people in America. Instead, she believes America has a "caste" system. She describes this caste system as an artificial hierarchy that determines standing and respect, and access to resources. "Caste focuses in on the infrastructure of our divisions and the rankings, whereas race is the metric that's used to determine one's place in that," Wilkerson says.
Participants of the book discussion raised concerns that the caste system benefits those who create and enforce it; it hurts society at large when only thoughts from those in power are heard and great ideas and solutions from all people are not considered. They perceived that the American caste system was created to be sure that a group of people will always feel “enslaved,” hence this type of hierarchy rewards those at the top and the lower tiers must fight for the power that is leftover.
The book club moderators discussed Wilkerson’s metaphor that racism is the skin and the caste system is the bones, indicating that the caste system is more insidious and engrained in the cultural psyche of the nation. Anyone who entered that caste system had to then navigate and figure out how to manage where they would succeed and how they would be categorized. The moderators reiterated Wilkerson’s belief that “[r]ace, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste. Caste is the bones, race the skin.”
Important discussion emanated from the moderators’ questions for reflection, particularly the question about how a caste system succeeds. Examples that were discussed by participants ranged from housing and how neighborhoods are created in a segregated manner to job searching. Attendees shared stories of how their parents were “guided” into purchasing property in certain areas because of the color of their skin or their perceived identity politics. It was suggested by a participant that the segregated neighborhood system was potentially a way to create a hierarchy so people were placed into areas where those in the higher echelons of the caste thought they were suited.
Additionally, there was a significant discussion about how people who would otherwise be allies are turned against each other. The attendees believed that fear drove these decisions — not wanting to be on the low end of the spectrum, as in wanting someone else to be at the bottom. Rather than employ a method where everyone is equal, groups of people naturally try and find those who would be at the top, because of abilities or other reasons, and find a reason to label another group as lesser. Self-preservation allows for these would-be allies to turn against each other, rather than fight the label together.
By using stories about individuals, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and baseball’s Satchel Paige, in addition to Wilkerson herself, the author shows the ways that the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day. She shares stories about real people, and how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system. Because of these examples, it is a very thought-provoking premise to highlight racism, classism and discrimination in such a way that it is more insidious as a “caste system.”
Interested in learning more about LMA’s DEI SIG and future events? Visit the SIG page here.
Sonali K. Oberg is the senior proposal writing manager at Sidley Austin LLP. As a woman of color and ethnic minority in the legal field as both a legal marketer and as a lawyer, she has developed a passion for D&I. Through her work as a proposal manager at multiple Am Law 100 law firms, she has been an advocate for the building of staff diversity committees and initiatives.