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John M. Flaxman Library SAIC School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Caste Research Guide

Author + Book Background

About the Author

Isabel Wilkerson is a journalist and author best known for her narrative nonfiction approach in her books.1 Her books to date are The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration (2010) and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020). She won the Pulitzer Prize in journalism (1994) for her writing as the Chicago Bureau Chief with the New York Times, and the National Humanities Medal (2015) for The Warmth of Other Suns.2,3 Her full bio is available on her website.

1. "About Isabel Wilkerson," Isabel Wilkerson
2. "The 1994 Pulitzer Prize Winner in Feature Writing," The Pulitzer Prizes
3. "Isabel Wilkerson," National Endowment for the Humanities

About the Book - Publishers' Summary

"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. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power--which groups have it and which do not. In this book, Isabel Wilkerson gives us a portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America as she explores, through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings. Beyond race, class, or other factors, there is a powerful caste system that influences people's lives and behavior and the nation's fate.

Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, stigma, and more. Using riveting stories about people--including Martin Luther King, Jr., baseball's Satchel Paige, a single father and his toddler son, Wilkerson herself, and many others--she shows the ways that the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day. She documents how the Nazis studied the racial systems in America to plan their out-cast of the Jews; she discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires that there be a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she writes about the surprising health costs of caste, in depression and life expectancy, and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics.

Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity." -- from Penguin Random House

About the Book - Reviews + Criticisms


Is America Trapped in a Caste System,?Gaiutra Bahadur, The New Republic, November 2020

American Hierarchy And How It Poisons: Review [SAIC login required], Dwight Garner, The New York times, August 2020

'Caste' Argues Its Most Violent Manifestation Is In Treatment Of Black AmericansHope Wabuke, NPR, August 2020 

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson review – a dark study of violence and power, Fatima Bhutto, The Gaurdian, July 2020 

Caste Does Not Explain RaceCharisse Burden-Stelly, Boston Review, December 2020

Caste Offers a New Word for Injustice in America, Not a New Way of ThinkingLauren Michele Jackson, Vulture, August 2020 

Comparing Race to Caste Is an Interesting Idea, But There Are Crucial Differences Between Both, Arjun Appadurai, The Wire, September 2020

Isabel Wilkerson’s World-Historical Theory of Race and Caste, Sunil Khilnani, The New Yorker, August 2020

Engaging with Isabel Wilkerson's Idea of Race [SAIC login required], R Srivatsan, Economic & Political Weekly, June 2021

What Caste Leaves Out, Hari Ramesh, Dissent, Winter 2021

The Work of Analogy: On Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents”Anupama Rao, Los Angeles Review of Books, September 2020 

Other reviews, collected by Literary Hub

About the Book - Interviews


Meet Isabel Wilkerson, the Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author of Oprah's Book Club Pick Caste, Elena Nicolaou, Oprah Daily, August 2020


It's More Than Racism: Isabel Wilkerson Explains America's 'Caste' SystemFresh Air, August 2020  |  Play below or access the transcript here

Isabel Wilkerson on America’s Caste SystemThe New Yorker: Politics and More, August 2020  |  Play below or access the transcript here

Isabel Wilkerson wants to change how we understand race in America, Vox Conversations, 2019  |  This podcast does not offer a transcript