Salt Lake Community College welcomed Isabel Wilkerson as the keynote speaker at the Tanner Forum on Social Ethics over livestream on Thursday, Nov. 4.
Wilkerson’s latest book, “Caste: The Origins of our Discontents,” explores America’s caste system, split along racial lines and perpetuated in the modern day. Wilkerson explained the reason for her heavy use of metaphors in her latest book.
“Metaphors are one of the really effective ways of being able to reach people who otherwise might not be as engaged with the deep and very complex topics,” she said.
The metaphor Wilkerson would use for the state of politics in 2021 is the same one she used to explain 2016 in her book: In 2016, a heat wave hit Siberia so extreme that it melted the upper layers of permafrost to expose reindeer carcasses that died of anthrax in 1941, the result of which affected residents in the region.
“We are still dealing with the reemergence of that [caste system], which has always been here, has been part of our country’s history,” Wilkerson said. “And it has resurfaced in recent years, things that people thought were long buried.”
Later in the interview, during that same session that afternoon, Wilkerson gave some perspective on how recent slavery was still legal in the U.S.
“No adult alive today and very, very few children alive today will be alive at the point at which African Americans will have been free for as long as African Americans were enslaved,” Wilkerson said. “That will not happen until the year 2111. It will not be until the second decade of the 22nd century that African Americans will have experienced freedom for as long as there was not.”
Ways in which our country is still divided on racial lines, according to Wilkerson, are in health care, how children are disciplined in schools, incarceration rates and wealth disparity.
Then, Wilkerson explained that Nazi Germany learned to control racial minorities by researching how the United States discriminated against its marginalized population.
“Nazis sent researchers to the United States to study how the United States had managed to subjugate, control, restrict and stratify its marginalized people,” Wilkerson said. “They looked and studied the Jim Crow South. They studied the ways in which the United States had come up with a way to define race.”
Wilkerson shared a piece of advice for spotting someone who may be perpetuating the American caste system: Be on alert if someone qualifies a statement with, “I’m not a racist,” or claims they cannot be racist because they have a Black friend. To Wilkerson, these statements are a red flag.
Her book, while depressing at times, asserts that there have been fractures in the foundations of racial inequality in America. Wilkerson cited the innate human desire to be free, slaves risking their lives to run away from their captors and the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 as evidence to show that people are rebelling against the system in an effective way.