86 pages 2 hours read

Isabel Wilkerson

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2020

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Part 2, Chapters 4-6

Chapter Summaries & Analyses

Part 2: “The Arbitrary Construction of Human Divisions”

Part 2, Chapter 4 Summary: “A Long-Running Play and the Emergence of Caste in America”

Wilkerson describes a play that has been “running for centuries” in which being cast in a role is only part of a deeper project, as people “merge the assignment with their inner selves and how they are seen in the world” (39). Innovation is not rewarded in this cast: “Veer from the script, and you will face the consequences. Veer from the script, and other cast members will step in to remind you where you went off-script” (40). Wilkerson uses this metaphor to argue that all residents of the United States are “the latest cast in a long-running drama that premiered on this soil in the early seventeenth century” (40).

The first enslaved African people were brought to Virginia in 1619. By 1630, historical records show that these people were already considered inferior to or less significant than White Europeans, as few of them are listed by name or arrival date in the colonial census. Originally, Christianity was the key status marker in the colonies, as neither the indigenous people nor many of the African enslaved people professed this religion. Race became a more pressing category as African enslaved people converted. This maneuver was both ideological and practical, as Africans had “immunity to European diseases” that Natives lacked (42), and the landowners looking to profit from the crops of the South needed a labor force.