Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent

The Harris Common Read selection for the 2021-2022 academic year explores the unseen and often highly destructive American hierarchy that goes beyond the confines of race, class, gender, and other factors that have proven so successful at dividing us. 

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, a powerful portrait by Pulitzer Prize-winning, bestselling author Isabel Wilkerson, examines eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, stigma, and dehumanization. She documents the parallels between American and two other hierarchies in history, those of India and of Nazi Germany, leaving a fuller appreciation for the price we all pay in a society torn by artificial divisions.

“The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality,” Wilkerson writes in Caste. “It is about power — which groups have it and which do not.”

Throughout her deeply researched book, Wilkerson 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, and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics. Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity.

Caste relies on riveting stories about people—including the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; the great pitcher Satchel Paige; a single father and his toddler son; Wilkerson herself; and many others—to show how the pernicious undertow of caste has shaped and still has a grip over American society today.

Isabel Wilkerson

Caste offers such an eye-opening, highly readable, almost poetic look at some of the forces that quietly and unhelpfully influence the lives of every day American citizens, in ways that both shine a spotlight on and yet also transcend race,” said Michelle Hoereth, Assistant Dean of Diversity & Inclusion at Harris. “As with selections from previous years, Caste will serve as a common learning experience aimed at helping students gain a greater appreciation for diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and individual stories that not only impact their work together as classmates, but also their worldview as future policymakers.” 

Through her writing, Wilkerson brings the invisible and the marginalized into the light. Her debut work, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Heartland Prize for Nonfiction, the Anisfield-Wolf Award for Nonfiction, the Lynton History Prize from Harvard and Columbia universities, and the Stephen Ambrose Oral History Prize and was shortlisted for both the Pen-Galbraith Literary Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

All returning students, faculty, and staff are encouraged to participate in the Common Read and are invited to discussions that will occur throughout the academic year. An important component of Harris' commitment to diversity and inclusion, the Common Read provides an opportunity for future policymakers to gain an understanding of the lived experiences of people who have been marginalized and explore related policy questions. The Common Read was carefully selected by Harris’ 2021 Orientation Leaders in consultation with the Diversity and Inclusion Office.

Ebooks will be made available soon to members of the Harris community. For more information, go to The Common Read.

Past common read books include: 

What the Eyes Don't See (2020)

Just Mercy (2019)

The South Side (2018)

High Rise Stories (2017)