America after fascism
How America helped inspire the Nazis, and how post-Nazi Germany should now inspire America: a conversation with author Isabel Wilkerson
So, about last night. I don’t know how many of you watched the Democratic National Convention, but I did and was impressed. I thought they pulled off the transition to virtual in a way that often made it feel like a blessing as much as a curse — which I wouldn’t say about most of my Zoom calls. Michelle Obama iswhatitised Donald Trump into smithereens. The party struck the delicate balance that is its great challenge in 2020: coming off as woke and as all-American at the same time.
The most important thing about last night, to me, was it confirmed that, after a heated primary, the improbable but essential thing has actually been achieved: a wide, unified popular front against fascism, with its eyes on the ball. There is now an Angela-Davis-to-George-Will, Bernie-Sanders-to-John-Kasich, democratic-socialist-to-libertarian, front-of-the-plane-to-back-of-the-plane, dirtbag-left-to-Birkin-bag-right coalition to save the republic. It is still candid about differences but mutually respectful, patriotic, and rightly focused on the one big thing.
The emergence of such a popular front provides some hope that America will outlive this dangerous moment of fascism without the organizational skills. And as we seek to imagine an America after this, we could do no better than to listen to one of the wisest writers we have, Isabel Wilkerson, who has just published a breathtaking book called “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” Today’s issue is my conversation with her.
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Isabel Wilkerson is one of the world’s preeminent writers of narrative nonfiction. (I say this as one of the world’s non-preeminent writers of narrative nonfiction.) She dazzled readers some years ago with her book “The Warmth of Other Suns,” an epic chronicle of the Great Migration through which millions of African-Americans resettled within the borders of a nation-state to escape tyranny.
She took 15 years to write that book, making her pretty much the opposite of everyone who tweets. Now she’s back with “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” It’s a mesmerizing, thorough, head-spinning look at three different societies that erected systems of caste -- the United States, India, and Nazi-era Germany.
In our conversation, Isabel and I talk about why caste may be more useful than race as a framework for understanding contemporary America, what the Nazis learned from Jim Crow when brainstorming their race laws, how caste systems injure even those at the top, and what the way out of them looks like.
At the very beginning of your book “Caste,” you describe a photograph of Nazis in Nazi Germany, and you describe in great detail one man. Tell us who that man is and who he is in relation to us.
Well, it's a photograph from 1936 — Hamburg, Germany, a few years after the Nazis had taken over. There in that photograph is a sea of men, factory workers, who are all standing with their arms outstretched giving the heil salute to Hitler. And in that huge crowd of people there is one man who is standing with his arms folded, refusing to give the Nazi salute, refusing to heil to Hitler. That man was named August Landmesser, and he was the lone man in the crowd who had decided he was not going to participate.
He decided that he knew that everything around him was wrong, that what they were doing was wrong. He was the one man in that photograph who was on the right side of history, and we can look at that now and realize that. He was there standing alone among a sea of people despite the pressures on him, in spite of the life-and-death consequences of what he was doing. So he is a person who calls to us and reminds us today: What do we stand for? What will we stand up for? And where do we stand when we see injustice?
I would guess most people hearing this think that, were the circumstances to present themselves, they would be that man. And you've written a book explaining to them that they probably wouldn't be.
I would like to believe what everyone else would believe. I would love to believe that we would all be that man. But, numerically speaking, statistically speaking, realistically speaking, historically speaking, not everyone could be that one man. That's a tremendous amount of fortitude, a tremendous amount of courage and ability to withstand ridicule and censure from all the people that you know and love — to stand up for what you believe in.
It means even being willing to risk one's standing and even one's life, potentially, to be that man. So, therefore, because that was the majority that were going along with this, it's a reminder of how, while we may want to do the right thing, there are structures in place and pressures on people to go along with the flow. The whole idea of going along with the crowd. Generally, it's the easiest thing to do. It's much, much harder to stand up and stand for something that everyone else seems not to see.
The writer Michael Lewis has this great line about writers often writing books because they feel the world has fundamentally misperceived something. So you take the primordial American subject most commonly called race and you suggest that that's the wrong word for it. You impose on the discussion a word that most Americans do not think is a thing we have here, which is “caste.” Can you explain, in the simplest way possible, what is race, what is caste, and why do you think we've actually been having the wrong conversation all these years?
I came to the term through the research I did for “The Warmth of Other Suns,” in which I wrote about the six million people who fled the Jim Crow South in hopes of freedom in the rest of the country, essentially seeking refuge from what they were enduring. And in the process of that I did not use the word “racism.”
I've found that the word “racism” was not sufficient to describe the rigid hierarchy into which they were born. “Caste” was the word that I came to to describe the expectations, the laws, the customs that held people in a fixed place — caste having a lot to do with boundaries and who can do what and what's expected of different people based upon where they are in the hierarchy.
Caste is essentially an artificial, arbitrary, graded ranking of human value in a society. It determines standing, respect, benefit of the doubt, access to resources or denial of access to resources, assumptions of competence, and even beauty — through no fault of anyone's own or due to no action of anyone's own. If you're born to a hierarchy you are born to, that is how you may be perceived, whether it’s how you wish to be perceived or not.
So caste is essentially the infrastructure of our division — the ranking, boundaries, and hierarchy — and then race is the metric. It's the signifier of where one fits in the caste system.
One of the things that's impressive about this book is it's the kind of book I think culturally you're not supposed to do right now, which is a comparative book. You go into different caste systems, and you mine from the comparative study of them eight pillars of caste that uphold caste systems in general and really help us see each of the three you study in its own new light.
But, first, about this comparative business. I teach writing at NYU every now and then, and one of the disturbing trends in recent years — which I believe is the dark side of a good thing — is that there's this ascendant idea that people should only write about cultures that they have lived experience of. I get where that comes from in a whole bunch of ways, but I'm also very disturbed by the notion that a white student would actually not concern themselves with issues affecting the African-American community, for example — stories many of my students have said they feel are not their stories to tell. You flout this completely in “Caste,” by doing a comparative study of the African-American experience in the United States, Nazi Germany and its casteist project, and the ancient caste system of India.
Can you talk about the resistance to that kind of work and why you chose to do it anyway?
In the book I talk about how, historically, people have run into that kind of resistance. But I was working on it and immersed in it, and I was focused on what I was doing. Every time I saw the word “caste,” my neurons lit up. I was doing my thing. But, historically, it's been the preserve of scholars, anthropologists, and sociologists, who have used the term “caste” actually going back to the time of the Civil War, recognizing the fixed nature of people at the bottom, people who were enslaved in this country for 246 years, and the fixed nature of those who were positioned on top.
The focus of this book is primarily the United States and what we can learn. What can we learn about ourselves by looking at other cultures that are wildly, completely, totally different in so many ways — economy, history, demographics — and yet there's this one point of intersection of how hierarchy was used, has been used historically, to rank, define, categorize?
And then also how, across oceans, across land masses, across time, there ended up being similar concerns by those in the dominant caste. Concerns over control of such things as marriage, who could marry whom. That was consistent in all three. How is it possible that three completely different cultures that are different in every other way settle on that as one of the ways of maintaining divisions and dominance for one group? And then these obsessions with purity and pollution, which run through all of these hierarchies.
This is the continuum, these are the connections, these are the points of intersection that, across time and space and oceans, people still found ways to police the boundaries to maintain separation, not just for separation's sake, but to maintain the delineation, the categorization, the walls, and to protect the purity of one group from the pollution of the other.
You have these special italicized chapters where the voice changes and tells of a historical episode in the past, perhaps a town in Nazi Germany where the stench of people being murdered at scale was unavoidable. Everybody smelled it; everybody knew. Or lynchings in the American South, where everybody was passing around postcards such that the Postmaster General had to get involved with the volume of postcards. This notion of everybody knowing, everybody being part of this injustice.
So we are right now in this country having a big debate about white complicity.
Some argue that you have to treat racism as a discrete thing that takes place at a certain time and place, with a certain person willfully being racist. And there is an emerging new definition offered by the anti-racism movement that says, No, racism is more like air than murder. It's around us. There are even some folks who say you cannot be white and not be racist. And there's a big backlash to all that. I wonder as this book arrives into this moment how you see the notion of white complicity in America.
Well, I haven’t used that word.
The whole idea of caste to me removes the emotion of the freighted language that we're accustomed to of shame and blame and guilt and allows us to see that there's an infrastructure that we have inherited that no one alive built but all of us live under. And we have memorized a script of who should be where, and we all know the gradations of value and we can see the viral videos that show whose lives are valued and whose might not be.
So I think of this as an infrastructure that we've inherited. In fact, one of the metaphors that I use in the book is an old house, saying that our country is an old house. When you have an old house, there's always something that needs to be done. You almost anticipate that there's going to be some work that needs to be done, and you often don't want to go in that basement after it rains. You don't want to go and see what you're dealing with. But if you don't go, it's at your own peril.
We are all the collective owners of this house. People can say, My family had nothing to do with enslavement. My family did not brutalize indigenous people. In fact, my family wasn't even here when those things happened. And yet we are in this house now; this is what we have. We are not responsible for what had happened before with the beams and the pillars and the joists that might be out of square or whatever. But we are responsible for what we do now. We have inherited this, and it's now our responsibility.
So I tend to not want to focus in on complicity as much as a sense of responsibility for what we know. We're responsible for getting to know our country and knowing our country's history. Once you know, then you become responsible for what it is that you can do to address it and to change it.
I want to talk about two of the three societies you write about in a kind of dyad — Germany and the American South. You talk about the different roles of memorials in these two societies. The long and the short of it is: we still have memorials to the people who lost the Civil War, and the Germans do not have, as far as anybody knows, a single memorial to the Nazis. It's the view that when you lose the war and you turned out to be wrong by historical standards, you get rid of those monuments and you build new monuments. In fact, they memorialize all the bad things they've done in Germany. You can't walk down the street in Berlin without encountering testimonies to that complicity. I once talked to this wonderful scholar, Werner Sollors, who's German-born, moved to America, became the head of African-American studies at Harvard, and had this very interesting perspective on the same dyad that you write about.
He told me that the difference between the post-Civil War South and post-Nazi Germany is what became honorable after the defeat in the war. That in the South, the lost cause remained honorable and clinging to the lost cause remained honorable. And in Germany it was the other way around. It became honorable to actually bring up the historical error, self-flagellation became honorable, educating yourself and children and grandchildren about what your country did became honorable. Can you talk about the way in which Germany and the South dealt with those respective defeats of white supremacy diametrically oppositely?
Actually, that is getting to the heart of how I even came to look at Germany to begin with. It was Charlottesville that brought my attention to Germany, because there in Charlottesville were the symbols of both the Confederacy and the Nazi era -- in terms of the symbols that the ralliers themselves brought as they were protesting the potential removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee. So they made this connection between these two different societies. They made the connection between the Confederacy and Nazi Germany. So that's actually what propelled me to look at Germany. I wanted to know what it was that Germany had done in the intervening years, how had they remembered what had happened during the war.
I was stunned to discover some of the things that I did. The idea that German eugenicists actually were in dialogue with American eugenicists in the years leading up to the Third Reich. There were American eugenicists who were writing books, and those books were big sellers in Germany.
Of course the Nazis needed no one to teach them how to hate, but they actually sent researchers to the United States to study the Jim Crow laws and anti-miscegenation laws so that they could see how the United States subjugated the African-Americans and then actually debated those laws as they were forming what would ultimately become the Nuremberg Laws. It's just stunning.
I'm glad you brought that up. I want to underline that for people, because this is history I did not know. You have a scene in the book -- it's like this weird version of The Onion writers’ room, but for Nazism. And they're sitting there and it's a brainstorming session about how to do white supremacy. It's early days. They haven't quite found their Nazi vibe yet. They're looking for ideas. They're workshopping. And where do they turn? America. America supplied this core group of Nazi intellectuals with the playbook. That history was lost to me and is so incredibly devastating.
Devastating to discover. The fact that they were debating it and there were some people in the room who felt that they did not want to go as far as some of the laws they discovered in the United States.
American racism made these Nazis a little uncomfortable. Is that fair to say?
Some of them. There were hardliners who were saying they wanted to outdo what America had done, but there were some who actually said they had a hard time believing that the United States actually did some of these things. Of course we know they would then go so far beyond anything that anyone could have imagined in their depravity. This was before. What we're talking about now is the time when they were forming and trying to figure out what they were going to do in terms of their laws.
There was one thing that they were focused on, again back to purity and pollution, about how to define who would be viewed as Aryan and who would be viewed as Jewish. And the United States, in their view, went further than they thought was appropriate in defining who would be Black and who would be white. They felt that it should not be so extreme. That someone with a mere drop of the outcaste blood should not be viewed as solely outcaste.
You make a case in the book that the caste system does more than hurt those at the bottom of it. It hurts all Americans. You make a persuasive case that the incarceration system we have, which is awful for everybody who has to go through it, not just Black people; the lack of healthcare, which, again, afflicts us all in different ways; the high infant-mortality rate, another thing that disproportionately affects certain communities but actually afflicts all of our communities -- you argue that many of these things are the product of a caste system. What is the case that a caste system even hurts those on the top of it?
There are so many ways. Take the separation that came, for example, as a result of anti-miscegenation laws and what's called endogamy in the Indian caste system. Keeping people separated over generations and centuries is a form of curating your population. The races as we know them exist because people were essentially banned from marrying people or mating with people who were not in their group.
People will be familiar with what you're saying here because of that “Indian Matchmaking” show.
What that separation does is it curates the population, but it also means that people in the dominant caste are more isolated, less likely to know people who are different, structurally separated from people with whom they might have a tremendous amount in common.
Remember, the majority of the American states, not just the southern states, had some type of anti-miscegenation law, and this would include not just African-Americans and white people, but also immigrants from Asia. Each state had its own definition of who could not marry whom. So this meant that people in the dominant caste were by definition put in a position where they had less of a personal stake in, were less likely to get to know on an intimate level, people who they were being told were very different from them.
As this flows through the centuries and the decades and the generations, you realize that people then have less of a sense of a stake in other people overall. They're less interested in supporting policies that would actually help other people. The United States is kind of singular in the Western nations with the thinness, the skimpiness, of its social safety net. When you have these divisions and the hardened sense that these other people are fundamentally, inherently different, and also inherently inferior, then there is not that same sense of common will and common investment in one another.
You quote an Indian Brahmin who renounces his Brahminical position and the sacred thread that he has signifying it. I want to quote his words, which he says to you with a view to all of the dominant castes that you're writing about. He said, “It is a fake crown that we wear. My message would be to take off the fake crown. It will cost you more to keep it than to let it go. It is not real. It is just a marker of your programming. You will be happier and freer without it. You will see all of humanity. You will find your true self.”
And what it made me think about was this debate that has arisen in this year when we've been talking so much about race. There are folks who really emphasize this notion that we need to really change people's hearts and minds. You have a very inspiring chapter at the end. You seem to suggest that people can be better and there's a better self for them in freeing themselves from this thinking. But there have been folks who say, on the contrary, I don't care about people's hearts and minds. I just want to change the banking laws. I just want to change housing policy. And people's hearts and minds will follow. I wonder, as you think about dismantling the system you're describing, which of those do you emphasize?
I think it's absolutely both. I think that one without the other will not be effective.
If people are not aware of what happened, if they're not aware of how we got to where we are, if they do not see the basic humanity of people who they've been told are different and in fact inferior to them, then I don't know that the laws will be as sound or as strong or as protective. I think that it requires both. We have seen that, without the minds and hearts that are really and truly invested in the laws, the laws are in danger.
I had the benefit of having a PDF of “Caste,” so I was able to search the number of times you used the word “reparations,” which basically you don't use at all. You use it in passing, quoting or describing a past event. But, given the topic, it was a surprising omission. Was it a purposeful omission?
Being a narrative nonfiction writer, my preference is to do the research, lay out the experiences and the analysis, narrate the stories that will make it come alive, and then have you come to the conclusion that hopefully this has led you to. In other words, I would rather show than tell. I think that there has been a lot written about reparations. Of course, I am in support of reparations. Ta-Nehisi Coates has mentioned "The Warmth of Other Suns" as one of the inspirations for his seminal piece, “The Case for Reparations.” So obviously "The Warmth of Other Suns” is a document that you might say is evidence or exhibit A in why this group deserves and is worthy of reparations that have been accorded to other groups, not just in our country, but around the world, who have suffered and endured state-sanctioned actions that have harmed them. The experiences of African-Americans fall under the umbrella, the definition, of who is deserving of reparations.
And I would say that inherent in that word is to repair. Repair damage that has happened in the past and may even be ongoing.
I would also add, though, that it's really important for people to have an education. Reparations without education would mean still people not understanding why and could actually increase resentments that are already there to begin with. There needs to be reparations along with education to make it such that everyone is on board.
When I wrote "The Warmth of Other Sun,” after it came out, one of the things that I heard from so many people, time and time again, no matter what their background was, was: I had no idea. I had no idea what had happened in this country, within the lifespan of many people alive today. And it's time for people to get an idea. It's time for people to get to know their country and their country's history, for us to be on the same page.
One of the epigraphs for the book is from Einstein, who said, “If the majority knew of the root of this evil, then the road to its cure would not be long.” And that's what the smartest person maybe who ever lived said about what could happen in this country if people just knew. I would say, let's give a chance for people to know.
You are one of the most gifted, just beautifully lyrical, writers ever to live, and also more gifted and lyrical than some of the dead writers -- most of the dead writers. Who did you learn from?
One of my favorite writers of all time is José Saramago, the Portuguese writer who wrote “Blindness” and other works. I just love his perspective on humanity, his deep understanding of the somewhat tortured path that humans have to take of wanting to do the right thing and then being pulled hither and yon as they try to move about and survive, essentially. Human nature is what I think of myself as writing about more than anything.
Of course Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Ann Petry. There are so many people who are inspirations for me. I would also say my mother, who was not a writer, but had a way of looking at the world where she was always able to see through things. She would look at clouds and instead of seeing clouds she would see a rabbit jumping over a squirrel. She was very interesting in how she saw the world. So we received, from a very early age, her language and her ways of looking at the world. In other words, metaphor I learned from my mother.
There has been this quickening of the culture, this increasing reactivity in the culture, this feeling that you have to constantly be putting things out there. And you have gambled your career and your vocation on a completely opposite wager that it is the slow work, the long research, these two masterpieces that you've written that changed the conversation from the moment they landed. Can you talk about that kind of faith in the intellectual slow food of your books in this very fast age?
"The Warmth of Other Suns" took so long -- it took 15 years -- that I often say, if it were a human being, it would be in high school and dating. That's how long it took me. It's the nature of the work, especially narrative nonfiction, that it cannot be done quickly. If you're really trying to get inside the hearts and minds and experiences of people, you have to spend time with people. You have to be on their time schedule in terms of where and how they feel comfortable sharing sometimes the most painful or intimate aspects of their life experiences, and there's no way of rushing it. You're on their time schedule. You're on the time schedule of the human heart. So it just takes the time that it does. There has to be this faith that, if you feel that it's important and you feel that this is what you're called to do, then it will work out in the end. There's no guarantee when you start, no guarantee whatsoever. And every time you start it feels like you're jumping off a cliff into the unknown and you just hope that it will work.
I go in completely open because I don't know what I'm going to be in for. For “The Warmth of Other Suns,” I essentially had this casting call, you might say, of interviewing 1,200 people. By that I mean auditioning people. I talked to a lot of people. Did not spend as much time with each of them, clearly -- it's 1,200 people. But it was an effort to try to find the three people through whose life story the range of experiences of the Great Migration would come through. It just took the time that it did.
I think it's a faith in humanity, too, that if you spend enough time with someone who's open enough about their lives and with whom you have a connection, everyone has a story, and if you're willing to have the patience to hear that story, you will come out with something really powerful. So that's the reason why I prefer to go deep rather than wide. And that's what has worked for me, and I think it allows us to have a really deep connection both with the people whose story we are telling, but also with the people who are reading because they can make a connection.
One of the honors that happens with narrative nonfiction is when I talk to people about, say, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” people will say "I just felt like I knew them." They will say "Ida Mae was just one of the most beautiful people I've ever known." They say “known.” I “knew” her, such an honor to have “known” her and Dr. Foster and George Starling. It’s the idea that people can absorb someone else's story. With narrative nonfiction, it's the closest you get to actually being another person. These are real people. They're real people that existed and have had these experiences, had these heartbreaks and triumphs, whatever it might have been. It’s the closest that we get to actually being another person, and that is one of the joys of it. So I feel very at home in doing that kind of work.
Isabel Wilkerson is the author of “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” and “The Warmth of Other Suns.” She is the first African-American woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize in journalism and the recipient of the National Humanities Award presented by President Barack Obama.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Special thanks to Strand Books, where you can find “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” and other titles.
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Because we all need a little humor and comfort in our lives right now, make these “octopus wieners,” which I discovered through “Midnight Diner” on Netflix. They are not actually sausages made of octopus, but rather sausages cut to resemble them.
A long time ago, I learned how to make caipirinhas from a Brazilian. His name is Fabio. Because students must go beyond their teachers, last week I tried a ginger-cucumber-chile caipirinha. Chop up a lime in lots of pieces — I think Fabio cuts off six coin-sized facets to form a cube, and then cuts up the cube. Muddle the lime with a tablespoon of sugar. Slice up and toss in a Persian cucumber or cucumber that isn’t Persian. Break off some ginger the size of the last section of your thumb and mince that and add it in. Throw in some chili flakes if you live spicily. Muddle some more. Add 2 ounces of cachaça. Shake it with ice, and pour it, all of it, into a glass.
Photo: Boston Globe/Getty