• Show Notes
  • Transcript

On this week’s episode of Stay Tuned with Preet, “America’s Caste System,” Preet answers listener questions about New York Attorney General Letitia James’ lawsuit against the National Rifle Association and about the latest in the never-ending saga of the Michael Flynn case.

Then, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson joins Preet for a conversation about her new book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” Wilkerson explains the difference between caste and race, the ways that Nazi Germany drew inspiration from American racism, and the need for radical empathy as we deal with our own enduring caste system.

To listen to Stay Tuned bonus material, try the CAFE Insider membership free for two weeks and get access to the full archive of exclusive content, including the CAFE Insider podcast co-hosted by Preet and Anne Milgram. 

Sign up to receive the CAFE Brief, a weekly newsletter featuring analysis by Elie Honig, a weekly roundup of politically charged legal news, and historical lookbacks that help inform our current political challenges. 

As always, tweet your questions to @PreetBharara with hashtag #askpreet, email us at [email protected], or call 669-247-7338 to leave a voicemail.

REFERENCES & SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIALS

Q&A:

  • Anne Marimow and Spenser Hsu, “Appeals court seems unlikely to order judge to immediately dismiss Michael Flynn’s case,” Washington Post, 8/11/2020
  • Byron Tau, “Justice Department Hints Decision to Drop Michael Flynn Case Came From Nonpublic Information,” Wall Street Journal, 8/11/2020
  • “Attorney General James Files Lawsuit to Dissolve NRA,” New York Attorney General Press Release and the complaint, 8/6/2020
  • Danny Hakim, “New York Attorney General Sues N.R.A. and Seeks Its Closure,” New York Times, 8/6/2020
  • Ruth Marcus, “The NRA is a cesspool. That doesn’t mean it should be dissolved.” Washington Post, 8/9/2020

THE INTERVIEW:

  • Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Random House, 8/4/2020
  • Isabel Wilkerson, “America’s Enduring Caste System,” New York Times, 7/1/2020
  • Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Random House, 9/7/2010
  • Dwight Garner, “Isabel Wilkerson’s ‘Caste’ Is an ‘Instant American Classic’ About Our Abiding Sin,” New York Times, 7/31/2020

RACE AND CASTE

  • Eddie Glaude on Stay Tuned with Preet, CAFE, 7/23/2020
  • James Baldwin, “On Being ‘White’…and Other Lies,” Banneker Institute, 1984
  • “Jane Elliott’s ‘Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes’ Anti-Racism Exercise,” The Oprah Winfrey Show, 1992
  • Jane Elliott Documentary, “The Eye of the Storm,” YouTube, 1970
  • Larry Tye, “How Satchel Paige Helped Integrate Baseball,” NPR’s Fresh Air, 8/7/2020
  • Andrew Hacker, Two Nations Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal, Simon & Schuster, 1992
  • Stereo Williams, “Chris Rock, Isaiah Washington, and Racial Profiling: Why Black People Shouldn’t Have to ‘Adapt,’” The Daily Beast, 4/2/2015
  • Anne Powers, “’12 Years A Slave’ Is This Year’s Best Film About Music,” NPR, 11/13/2013
  • Heather Long and Andrew van Dam, “The black-white economic divide is as wide as it was in 1968,” Washington Post, 6/4/2020
  • “British Vogue’s editor-in-chief Edward Enninful calls for more education after racial profiling incident,” CNN, 8/4/2020

CASTE IN INDIA

  • B.R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste, Verso, 1936
  • Sumit Guha, “What Europeans contributed to the caste system in India,” Scroll, 6/27/2018
  • “Kshatriya: Hindu Caste” Encyclopedia Britannica 
  • Martin Luther King, Jr., “My Trip to the Land of Gandhi,” Ebony, 7/1959
  • Martin Luther King, Jr., “The American Dream,” The King Institute, 7/4/1965

CASTE IN GERMANY 

  • Alex Ross, “How American Racism Influenced Hitler,” The New Yorker, 4/23/2018
  • Matthew Francis, “How Albert Einstein Used His Fame to Denounce American Racism,” Smithsonian Magazine, 3/3/2017

BUTTON: KAMALA HARRIS

  • Preet’s Tweet about his mom’s reaction to Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate, 8/11/2020
  • Video of Preet Bharara and Kamala Harris, “Discussion of Cyber Threats to Corporate America,” Stanford’s Arthur and Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance, 1/30/2013
  • Tim Starks, “Kamala Harris knows something about cyber,” Politico, 1/22/2019
  • Manisha Sinha, “Why Kamala Harris Matters to Me,” New York Times, 8/12/2020
  • Margaret Sullivan, “Tucker Carlson’s mangling of Kamala Harris’s name was all about disrespect,” Washington Post, 8/12/2020

Preet Bharara:

From CAFE, welcome to Stay Tuned. I’m Preet Bharara.

Isabel Wilkerson:

The reason why I think caste is such a useful term in understanding human interactions and the impulse to categorize and then rank is that it has a potential to take certainly Americans away from the emotions that they get attached to race and racism.

Preet Bharara:

That’s Isabel Wilkerson. She’s a Pulitzer Prize winning author and her new book is Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. It’s a powerful and profoundly timely meditation on the way that hierarchies form across societies. From the United States to India to Nazi Germany. Wilkerson has been at the forefront of journalism and historical scholarship for three decades. Her 2010 book The Warmth of Other Suns is a richly researched history of the great migration of African Americans to the north during the first half of the 20th century. And it’s already a classic. Wilkerson and I discuss the differences between race and caste, why the United States is like an old house, and how some people can resist the toxins of prejudice. That’s coming up. Stay tuned.

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Preet Bharara:

Let’s get to your questions. This question comes in an email from Polly, who writes, “Hi Preet. I listen to you every week. Love your show. After listening to the appeals court Flynn hearing today, I had a question that was examined by one judge. Since we know the wheels of justice move slowly, and if it took many months to get this case scheduled, if we had a new AG before the case was over, could the Justice Department reverse it’s position?”

Preet Bharara:

Well, that is a very, very good question. To take a step back, obviously you’re talking about the twisting and turning saga of the Michael Flynn case. Michael Flynn of course was the former National Security Advisor who lasted only a few days in the Trump administration and was charged with making false statements to the FBI. He pled guilty. He reaffirmed his plea of guilty. And then in a stunning move he decided to retain new counsel, wanted to withdraw his guilty plea, and the Justice Department itself, headed by Bill Barr, moved to dismiss the case, notwithstanding the guilty pleas. Then of course the district court judge, Judge Sullivan, said that he took the rule seriously that says you can only dismiss a case with leave of the court. In his mind that meant, well, I get to sort of ask some questions and hold a proceeding and find out what’s going on here. Because it seems like a stunning reversal. It seems unprecedented. And this person has a direct connection to the president of the United States.

Preet Bharara:

Well, then Flynn’s lawyers decided to make their own move and petition the court for what’s called a writ of mandamus to force the lower court judge to dismiss the case without taking any further action. And they won that. The three judge panel in the DC circuit court of appeals agreed with Flynn’s lawyers and said, “You know what, the judge doesn’t really have much of a role other than a ministerial one in deciding whether or not to dismiss a case on the petition of the government, because that’s the executive branch’s prerogative. It’s in their province.” The case didn’t end there because the district court judge said, “Hey, why doesn’t the whole court hear the arguments and hear the case?” So a 10 judge panel, all the judges minus one, heard the case again yesterday. There was another case recently involving Don McGahn in which the full court on the DC circuit, the same exact court, overruled a three judge panel on the issue of whether or not the house of representatives can get certain testimony from Don McGahn.

Preet Bharara:

So just because it went one way earlier on, it can go a different way when the full court meets. And based on the proceeding that you listened to and that I have read about, and that other people have commented on, it looks like Flynn’s lawyers are not going to do well on this next go around. You could tell by some of the statements of the judges yesterday that they’re not that sympathetic to Flynn’s argument. In other words, they want the district court judge to be able to find out what he wants to find out before entering an order. One judge for example said, “What self respecting judge would jump and enter an order without doing what he could to understand both sides?” Another judge, Judge Thomas Griffith, said, “Look, a judge’s role in considering a dismissal motion is not just ministerial.” He says, “The judge has to do some thinking about it. The judge is not simply a rubber stamp.”

Preet Bharara:

So that’s the background of the issue you’re talking about, and you’re exactly right. If it turns out that the entire circuit sides with the judge in the case, and against Michael Flynn, Michael Flynn’s attorneys can do what people do in these circumstances and they can petition the Supreme Court. And if it goes to the Supreme Court, it won’t be listened to, it won’t be heard, it won’t be adjudicated until the next term. And that will be after the election in all likelihood. So it’s a little bit interesting the strategy of Flynn’s lawyers because what they seem to have done is just delay the day of reckoning. It’s been my view and the view of a lot of other people that at the end of the day, whatever you think about what the Justice Department did, it really is in the province of the department of justice to decide to pursue a case or not pursue a case. And it still remains likely in my view, I think highly likely, that after holding a hearing and asking questions of both sides, the judge probably will agree to the motion of the government. The judge probably will agree with the motion of the department of justice to dismiss the case against Michael Flynn.

Preet Bharara:

So going back to your question, after giving a long winded explanation of the position we’re in, I think that’s a distinct possibility. If this case goes on and on into next year and Joe Biden is the president of the United States and there’s another attorney general, that attorney general and administration, just like Trump’s attorney general and administration, will take a look at positions that have been taken by the department. Whether that has to do with the Affordable Care Act or antitrust policy or cases like this. And they might decide to do something completely different. So at the end of the day this gambit of trying to force the district court judge to do the thing that they wanted done without exercising any discretion at all or entering into any kind of inquiry at all, may actually backfire. It’s not to say that the position will change. There’s a strong policy of maintaining positions, particularly in individual cases. But look, in the same way that the Justice Department took one position on Flynn and the very same administration decides to take a different position on Flynn, it should come as no surprise if a different administration goes back the other way again. Thanks for your question.

Preet Bharara:

This next question comes in a tweet from @BHoneysuckle. The question is, “Does the New York AG’s suit against the NRA muddy the waters for the election by providing the Trump campaign with the talking point, dems want to take your guns? Perhaps this could have waited til after November? Thoughts?”

Preet Bharara:

As everyone knows, the New York Attorney General, Letitia James, announced a civil suit, not a criminal case, but a civil suit against the NRA, the National Rifle Association, as an organization and four executives, principally Wayne LaPierre, for doing all sorts of things that seem to go against what you’re supposed to do as a nonprofit. Essentially saying that the executives looted the funds of the NRA for an extravagant lifestyle. You raise an interesting point. I haven’t thought about it from that sort of political standpoint and I’m not a political pundit. But I guess it’s the case that for some people the fact that you have a New York State Attorney General going after the NRA, that people could sort of spin that as democrats are coming after your guns. I will say any reasonable reading of the document, at least on the surface of it, and in connection with the text, is only about the fraud and abuse going on within the organization. It says nothing about guns. It says nothing about the second amendment. It says nothing about the other work and the first amendment rights of the NRA.

Preet Bharara:

It’s about looting of funds paid by rank and file members of the NRA. It’s also probably the case, and is the case, that republicans have making the point that democrats want to take away your guns for a long time, and they could have done that without this suit, and they will certainly do it after the suit is a distant memory. As for your second question though, perhaps this could have waited until after November, when Ann and I discussed it this week, we did raise that issue. And there is a decent argument to be made that it could have waited until after November. Not for the reason that you suggest. Not because it unduly gives a political talking point on the second amendment to republicans who are trying to defeat democrats largely. But because it’s a politically tinged case. The New York State Attorney General is on record as saying that the NRA is a terrorist organization. And there’s an argument to be made that the timing of the lawsuit was itself political in so far as it was brought a few months before the election. And I guess you could make the argument that it was designed to sort of depress voting on the part of republicans who might favor the NRA by showing them the NRA is a corrupt organization.

Preet Bharara:

I don’t know. I hope those considerations didn’t play a role in deciding the merits of bringing the case and the timing of the case. But I guess there are political arguments that can be made on both sides, going to the spirit of your question.

Preet Bharara:

It’s time for a short break. Stay tuned.

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Preet Bharara:

Author Isabel Wilkerson‘s new book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is a riveting reframing of how power operates in our society. It’s been sparking conversations all over the country, and for good reason. Wilkerson and I talk about why the language of race is inadequate for our moment and how we can begin to use radical empathy to move beyond our current polarization.

Preet Bharara:

Isabel Wilkerson, thank you so much for being on the show.

Isabel Wilkerson:

Thank you for having me.

Preet Bharara:

Congratulations on the book. It’s called Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. And can I add my small voice to all the waves of praise that you have gotten for the book? I read every page from beginning to end over the weekend and it had a lot of praise that preceded it, but I found it to be an enormously important work. Can’t put it down. For me it was a combination of not just the ideas that you have in the book and the analysis in the book, but also how you string it all together with stories and metaphors. So I also could not put it down. So it’s a magnificent achievement and I congratulate you. And we’re going to spend a lot of time talking about some of the things you say in the book. This took you a number of years, am I right?

Isabel Wilkerson:

It did. It actually began with my first book The Warmth of Other Suns, which was about the great migration of African Americans who were fleeing the Jim Crow south. And in order to write that book I had to do a tremendous amount of research into what life was like for people during the 100 years or so of formal segregation system in the Jim Crow south and made these discoveries of what it was actually like. That it was so controlled that it was actually against the law for a black person and a white person to merely play checkers together. There were separate bibles, one for black people and one for white people when they were swearing to tell the truth in court. There were restrictions at every turn based upon what you looked like. In other words, the group to which you were attached or categorized. And I emerged from that research and also from having interviewed 1,200 people and then doing tremendous amount of reading as to what anthropologists and sociologists had described that world as. And that’s where I came across the term caste to describe the Jim Crow south as it existed.

Isabel Wilkerson:

As many even Americans are not really fully often educated because it’s not emphasized or even really taught, the great migration’s not taught in schools. Or has not until this book came out. So most people really didn’t have a sense of what it was like to live in that world. And the people who did the research into that world, the anthropologists and sociologists who immersed themselves in that world, doing ethnographies in the 1930s and ’40s emerged with that word as the only word they felt was accurate to describe the hierarchy that they observed and that they actually lived for a time. And that is how I came to the word. And so the word racism does not appear in The Warmth of Other Suns, although many people might attach that word to the book. But that word does not appear in the book. The word that I came to use that I thought was more sufficient and comprehensive in capturing what the people were enduring was caste.

Preet Bharara:

Before we get to what you mean by caste, and you’re right, it’s not something that people have a deep understanding of in the United States. Caste and race, as we’ll get to in a moment, they overlap, they intersect with each other in various ways. But first, I thought I would ask you about what your thoughts are on what race and racism are. And here are a couple of things you say in the book. “Race as we have come to know it is not real. It is a fiction told by modern humans for so long that it has come to be seen as sacred truth.” And then you also say, “Color is a fact. Race is a social construct.” Explain what you mean by those things.

Isabel Wilkerson:

Well, race as we now know it is a fairly new term in the arc of human history. It’s only 400 or 500 years old. In terms of what we now view as the delineation of human beings on the basis of skin color and other physiological characteristics. This does not mean that the skin color is new to humanity or that the physical characteristics that might distinguish one group of people have not always been there. People have always looked the various ways that they do. But the way that they look did not delineate either by law or custom or culture in the ways that it ultimately would in the early years and decades of colonial America. In this country the idea of race is relatively new. The idea of race in humans identifying themselves on the basis of what they look like solely is relatively new. Before then people were Irish or they were Polish or they were Hungarian or they were Ndebele or they were Europe or whatever they might have been. They didn’t need to identify themselves by color because they were all fairly contained on land where everyone pretty much looked the same so that would not have been the signifying, determining factor of how you identify a person.

Isabel Wilkerson:

But when people from all over the world, peoples from all over the world, converged in the new world, then the metrics of hierarchy began to be established and then calcified. And one of the things that I say about caste in general as a phenomenon, as an idea, is that caste is essentially an artificial hierarchy of graded ranking of human value in a society that determines standing and stature and respect, benefit of the doubt, access to resources, through no fault or action of one’s own. I mean, you are born to that role and that placement in the caste system. And each hierarchy, each caste system uses a different metric that works for their culture, their society going back to however they were first identified. Whether by use of religion, by use of ethnicity, by use of geographic origin. And in the case of the United States, skin color became the signifier of where one fell or where one was assigned in the artificial hierarchy that was created here. In other words, where a person was situated in the hierarchy within the caste system was determined by what they looked like. Race became the tool for delineating people. Race became the signal of a category that you were assigned to. Race was the cue and remains in shadow as we have inherited all of this, is the cue of where one is positioned in the hierarchy.

Isabel Wilkerson:

So that is the difference between them. I say that caste is the bones, race is the skin. And race is what we can see, but it’s the signal as to where one belongs in the caste system, or where one is perceived as belonging in the caste system.

Preet Bharara:

Yeah. You quote from James Baldwin in your book who said, “No one was white before they came to America.” Because that’s not how people thought about themselves. And then you also say later in the book there are no black people in Africa. They’re just themselves. They didn’t become black until they came to America. What was different about America that caused these delineations to be made? Because people have been around for a long time.

Isabel Wilkerson:

Yes. And the idea of slavery, it’s obviously a part of American history. But of course it is a part of world history and humans have enslaved others for millennia. So slavery as an idea is not new. What made it distinctive in the United States was the idea of chattel slavery. The idea that you were born into essentially an enslaved caste of people who could not escape by any means as it was conceived by law that you inherited the standing, meaning the low standing of one’s mother. It was passed through the mother. And it was generational. And with no means of escape unless you literally kind of kidnapped yourself and then escaped, meaning you were viewed as having taken the property of someone else because you didn’t even belong to yourself. That was one way and of course there was an entire network of enforcement to keep people from doing that and unimaginable punishment for people who managed to escape that way. So very few people did when you consider how many people were enslaved.

Isabel Wilkerson:

And then of course one could work really hard and there could be exceptions where some slave owner might have had a change of heart and freed their enslaved people. But the escape routes were narrow. Very narrow. And so this was the origin. These were the origins of the hierarchies that we live with today. The subtitle of the book is meaningful. And that is it’s the origins of our discontents. It’s an attempt to look back to find out where did this begin? How did we get to this point? Where did the gradations and artificial hierarchies, where did this emerge? And so when people were brought here … Kidnapped and brought across the atlantic during the transatlantic slave trade, they entered into what became a bipolar caste system. Unlike the one in India that has the four main varnas and then the outcast of dalits, this was a bipolar caste system in which there was the dominant group, which would be the British colonists themselves, and then the ones at the bottom, meaning the people of African descent who were brought in to be enslaved. Literally by arriving they were assigned clearly to the very bottom of what was an emerging bipolar caste system.

Isabel Wilkerson:

I should also of course say that the Indian caste system, the original, there are some similarities. Of course many, many, many, many differences. The original caste system, the most recognizable in the world, is very, very complex with thousands of sub castes beneath the main varna. So I recognize that. I’m merely saying that the American one was a bipolar system with the two poles of the dominant caste and then the subordinated caste. And that anyone entering that caste system … Getting to your question and sorry for the long winded way of getting to it. But anyone entering that system who did not automatically fit either as British or as African, of African descent, had to navigate this bipolar world. Which then created what I call middle castes of people who sometimes moved about in between and there are many different names for people in that group. People might say people of color, they might say marginalized people. In earlier decades and centuries of American history, the groups that I mentioned that were not British but were European, also had to find ways to fit into that bipolar system.

Isabel Wilkerson:

And upon arrival, as we just discussed, when they arrived they were not necessarily thinking about, nor had they ever had to think about themselves as white. That was not a term that you would use in describing yourself if you were Polish or if you were Hungarian in 1892. I mean, that’s not the language that would have been necessary or how people would have needed to see themselves. But upon arrival, they then ended up being assigned to that category.

Preet Bharara:

What’s also different between the Indian caste system and what you talk about with respect to America is that that vocabulary is very familiar in India. I’m Indian. I was born in India. And someone writes a book about caste and I’ve read some of the works of Dr. Ambedkar and others that you refer to in the book, no one blinks an eye. There’s a huge amount of scholarship about the caste system in India. You write a book called Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents that goes to some of the issues that other people frame as a matter of race and racism and some people raise their eyebrows, which I think is kind of interesting. The other thing that resonated with me, and you may not appreciate this, is the extent to which when you have a caste system like you have in India, how much that goes with you even when you leave India. I left the country when I was a year old, came to the United States with my father and mother who wanted to come to the US for a better life. And I was thinking back when I was reading one of your chapters that I was told …

Preet Bharara:

Here we were growing up, living in New Jersey, and I was told, I don’t know just as a matter of sort of history or background or, I don’t know, some kind of pride by my father, what our caste was. Do you want to take a guess?

Isabel Wilkerson:

I have not been able to see you interacting with other people, which is one of the things that I say in the book was helpful to me in being able to ascertain it, but statistically speaking most of the people who had the wherewithal to get this far from the originating country of India would have been upper caste people, one of the upper castes.

Preet Bharara:

Yes. I was told that we and our family were Kshatriyas. The warriors. And said with some pride. Again, to my brother and me it was just sort of trivia and kind of interesting in the same way they would tell us other stories about the motherland. But what’s also interesting to me is you have a scene in the book where you’re talking to a scholar I think at a conference, from India, who describes themself as being part of the Kshatriya caste, the warrior caste, and you think to yourself this is kind of a small guy. You don’t think of this guy being a warrior.

Isabel Wilkerson:

He was. Yeah.

Preet Bharara:

The same could be said of members of my family. So it’s an oddity and a weirdness over time that I think still kind of confuses people. The other thing you say about caste is race is the front man for caste. What does that mean?

Isabel Wilkerson:

It means that it is the most visible thing that we see. It does the heavy lifting for what it is ultimately a hierarchy that is not visible to people because people get focused on what they can see. And as we were saying about how color is a fact but race is a social construct, none of this is actually real. It’s not real. None of this is real. This is an effort to try to see beneath what we think we know. And we get so sidetracked by what we see and race becomes the most visible manifestation of what’s underneath it which is the hierarchy that is the foundation. And the reason why I think caste is such a useful term in understanding human interactions and the impulse to categorize and then rank is that it has the potential to take certainly Americans away from the emotions that get attached to race and racism and other language that we use now. White supremacy, whatever the words might be. The words, the longer we use them and in some ways the less we’re able to hear them.

Isabel Wilkerson:

And I think that caste does not have that freight for the American ear. In my view it allows us to focus on the structure of a thing. Caste, I just because really quite fascinated with the way that in English, and also obviously coming from the romance languages of caste and casta, the Portuguese term that was ultimately used late in the game of course in defining what was a caste system in India. The word is a Portuguese word. But the idea of what caste actually means. I mean, caste has multiple meanings in English. One of them is the mechanism that’s used to hold fractured bones in place. You put a cast around the bones in order to keep them in a fixed place. You think about cast in a play where you have characters who are all supposed to follow a certain script and everyone knows their lines and they may even know the lines of other people. And everyone knows where they’re supposed to be when the play is ongoing.

Isabel Wilkerson:

And we just absorb those things. But all of them having to do with placement. Where you fit, who belongs where, who is stepping out of his or her place. And everyone knows it’s embedded in the thinking of it, but we don’t often see it. And so that’s the reason why I see caste as the underlying infrastructure that delineates and categorizes people by many, many different metrics. I mean, in any caste system … And I would add … Spending all this time looking at it primarily from the American perspective, but reading as much as I could, was the idea that any kind of human ranking could take any possible characteristic and use that to create a hierarchy. I mean, I have a reference to people being tall or short. I mean, it could have just as well been that in the United States as it was forming or in the western world as it was colonizing the west.

Preet Bharara:

Yeah. You talk about this experiment done by a school teacher where for part of the day she said the people with blue eyes are dominant and the rest of the day the people with brown eyes are dominant and that was a very compelling portion of the book. Within 15 minutes the superior eyed people so to speak began to engage in behaviors that they had not engaged in before and began to act in a demeaning way towards the others in an entitled way. Just on the basis of an arbitrary decision by a teacher to differentiate them in a hierarchy based on eye color.

Isabel Wilkerson:

Based on something that they couldn’t control and as you say was completely arbitrary. The stunning thing about that case, and dispiriting on some level, is that they were such young children for one, and that the way that she set it up, she set it up by saying the brown eyed children are not as smart. The brown eyed children do not work hard. The brown eyed children are slow. And therefore the brown eyed children will not be able to stay out on the playground for as long as the blue eyed children. They will not be able to get second helpings at lunchtime. But the blue eyed children who were smarter and more responsible, they will get to stay out on the playground longer and they will get to have all of these additional things that they can do. And one of the things that happened is that as the experiment was beginning, she told the children to then turn to a particular page in their text book. And one little girl was taking a little longer to find the page. And the teacher purposefully as part of her experiment said-

Recording:

On page 127. Everyone ready? Everyone but Laurie. Ready Laurie?

Isabel Wilkerson:

And then one of the other little boys who was a blue eyed boy immediately said-

Recording:

She’s a brown eyed.

Recording:

She’s a brown eyed.

Isabel Wilkerson:

He instantly-

Preet Bharara:

How quickly that can happen, right?

Isabel Wilkerson:

Exactly.

Preet Bharara:

It is dispiriting. Very dispiriting. But you say something else. Going back to what you were discussing a moment ago about words and their meaning and whether people listen properly or not. And when people start talking about race and racism there are some folks that maybe don’t listen in the way that they might otherwise. And one of the reasons that maybe you talk about caste is based on this sentence that you have in the book where you say, “Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred. It is not necessarily personal.” So by framing these issues as there’s a matter of sort of caste hierarchy as opposed to racism, which implies hatred and implies something quite personal, whether it’s directed towards a group or an individual person, is the value of that that it enhances the dialog? And is there a potential criticism that it lets some people off the hook whose behavior is not really sort of this subconscious understanding of caste but really is intentional hatred and racism?

Isabel Wilkerson:

Oh no. They actually … No. Thank you. That’s such a great distinction you’re making. No, this is not to say at all that racism does not exist. I mean, I acknowledge and say that it’s a tool. It serves a purpose in animating and triggering and being sort of the loudest voice in the room when it comes to something like this. Caste, as I said, is sort of the worn grooves of routines assumptions and what we accept as sort of the laws of nature. This is where these people are and this is where these people are. And when we are foretold that we’re about to meet a person who is the CEO of this company or we’re going to meet someone who is a homeless person, there’s certain things that come to mind in our society that everyone has been exposed to who is presumed to be where in our society. We make assumptions on the basis of gender. We make assumptions on the basis of ethnicity, on the basis of race and national origin.

Preet Bharara:

But are those things sexism and racism? Let me quote back to you from something in the book. And by the way, the reason I’m quoting from you so much is there’s much memorable in here. I don’t usually do this. And if we were doing this live and in person you would see how many post-its I have. Very colorful post-its on the book.

Isabel Wilkerson:

Oh, thank you.

Preet Bharara:

And you say this, and I think this is interesting. I wonder what people’s reactions will be. You say, “In everyday terms it is not racism that prompts a white shopper in a clothing store to go up to a random black or brown person who is also shopping and to ask for a sweater in a different size. Or for a white guest at a party to ask a black or brown person who is also a guest to fetch them a drink as happened to Barack Obama as a state senator.” And then you tell many, many stories including about yourself when you were a New York Times reporter and the person you were going to interview who was white just wouldn’t believe that you could possibly be a New York Times reporter. And you say that’s not racism. Other people would say it is. Can you elaborate?

Isabel Wilkerson:

Let me say that racism and what you might say casteism or caste at work can interconnect, overlap, and be occurring at the same time. It’s not to say that they’re not. Caste is the underlying basis of all of these other isms. And so a person might not openly see themselves as racist. There are many, many people … Probably a majority of people do not see themselves as racist. And if they don’t, then I would say we have to say or we have to go along with it. I mean, how do you suss out a person who’s racist? Is there a trial that one has to nail someone to the wall, to pin them to the wall and say yes, you are? I mean, what have we achieved if we focus in on that and that alone as the deciding factor of who is a good person or a bad person which is often how it gets conflated. That does not mean that they are not happening at the same time. What I would say is that if one is racist, then they are automatically casteist. Casteist goes underneath it. I mean, casteist is the infrastructure. It’s the foundation for all other isms that affect where a person is positioned or assigned or placed in a hierarchy.

Isabel Wilkerson:

But you could conceivably be casteist, meaning you are invested in maintaining the hierarchy as it is without maybe even being aware of it, and your actions might reflect that. But you feel no personal animus toward people who look a certain way. And you would say, I do not hate the … If a person says they don’t hate, what do you do with that? I mean, that’s one of the reasons why I think it’s important to take emotions out of it. Because a person can easily deny the emotion. They can say, “No, no, no.” They could be waving a confederate flag and still say I’m the least racist person you’d ever meet. I mean, this is part of our everyday parlance. I mean, you here something along those lines all the time. So I feel as if it’s been so derailed that maybe it’s time for new language. Maybe it’s time for us to see ourselves differently, to allow us to look through a different lens that is not frayed at least in the American sense of the word, with the same emotions of shame and guilt and blame and deflecting and derailing. All the things that happen when these words get used.

Isabel Wilkerson:

It allows us to see ourselves differently using language that has been used in the past to describe American hierarchy. I am not the first person by any means to put this word out there in reference to the United States. It’s been used for a century and a half. Going back to the time of the Civil War for certain. So this is just a way to allow us to perhaps look at, explore how else we might see ourselves given that this word has been used in the past and many aspects of it do apply to us now. And that’s the reason for it. I view it as kind of like an X-ray of the country.

Preet Bharara:

Isabel, I’m going to quote from your book again. Because what you just said strikes me in some ways as going to the heart of the matter. How do you explain to people who don’t think they’re terrible, who don’t think that they’re racist, who don’t think that they’re bad, how do you explain to them what the problem is and that they have to be engaged in the solution also? And you use a lot of great metaphors in the book, one of which is the metaphor of a house.

Preet Bharara:

You say, “With an old house, the work is never done and you don’t expect it to be.” And you say, “America is an old house.” And then I think even more compellingly, to carry on the metaphor you say, “Many people might rightly say, ‘I had nothing to do with how all this started. I had nothing to do with the sins of the past. My ancestors never attacked indigenous people, never owned slaves.’ And yes, not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we are the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now and any further deterioration is in fact on our hands.”

Preet Bharara:

That seems to me to go right to the heart of the problems we have in the country and is very understandable. Why is it so hard for people to get that point?

Isabel Wilkerson:

This is not a pleasant thing to think about. If you’re in an old house, you don’t want to think about the things that are wrong with the house. After rain you don’t want to go into the basement after a rain and confront whatever may be in there if there’s a leak in the basement. You would rather not have to think about it. If you can manage to move about in your life and in your world without thinking about it, of course it’s human to not want to think about those things. But as I say, if you don’t go into the basement after rain, it’s at your own peril. You will have to deal with the consequences of whatever’s going on in the basement whether you choose to look at it or not. Not looking at it doesn’t make it go away and you’ll have to deal with the consequences. Eventually, one way or the other, you’ll have to. And that’s why I make use of the metaphor. It came to me that that was one way to remind ourselves that we are in fact all in this together. That some of us may be affected more or less.

Isabel Wilkerson:

Like if you have a big apartment building and there are some people who are on the side of a building where the roof is leaking and they get more damage and you’re in another part of the building that doesn’t have that and so you don’t have to think about what people who are dealing with the leaky roof in the other side of the building have to think about. Yes, you may say, “Oh, that’s unfortunate,” but you don’t have to live with it and you might not do anything about it because you don’t have to deal with it. The problem is when we deny that other people are experiencing these challenges due to what we have inherited. That is where the problem comes in. And also the problem comes if we do not know what is going on in our collective house. There comes a time when, if people are not taught, and a lot of the history …

Isabel Wilkerson:

I mean, when The Warmth of the Suns first came out a lot of people came up to me afterward and they said, “I had no idea.” These are people who lived through the era that I’m writing about and they said, “I had no idea.” It was not being taught in the schools. The great migration didn’t get taught in the schools. So on some level, if people don’t know their history, it means that … You cannot expect complete awareness if people have not been taught. But once you know, that’s when the responsibility comes in. And once you know that something is wrong, then there comes the responsibility to do something about it. I mean, I actually pictured myself in working on this book as the building inspector. The inspector of a building and the building happens to be a country. And I’m presenting essentially this report. It’s really a prayer for people to hear and to listen, open their hearts, to take in this report, an X-ray of our country, and then once you know then the responsibilities come. Especially for those who have not had to deal with the roof leaking in their particular apartment. For people who have not had to deal with the downsides and deprivations that come from being assigned to a subordinated, subjugated caste historically with shadows to the current day.

Isabel Wilkerson:

The responsibility then does fall on all of us because we all have to live with the consequences and we may be hurt even though we may not realize it. But everyone is hurt by this and that’s where the responsibility comes in.

Preet Bharara:

So you choose to examine caste in this country in comparison, and not so much contrast, mostly in comparison, to so called caste systems in India and also in Nazi Germany. I’ll get to the German example in a second. But going back to the Indian example, you tell a story about how Martin Luther King Jr. traveled once for a month to India, in part because his approach of nonviolence was one that was embraced by Mahatma Gandhi and others to gain independence from India.

Recording:

I came to Gandhi in the same setting in theological seminary days. I had heard of Gandhi. But I remembered hearing a message by the president of Howard University, Dr. Mordecai Johnson who had just returned from India. He spoke in Philadelphia on his trip to India and the whole philosophy of Gandhi and passive, nonviolent resistance. I was so deeply moved by the message that I went away and bought several books on Gandhi and Gandhian technique. And at that point I became deeply influenced by Gandhi. Never realizing that I would live in a situation where it would be useful in meaning.

Preet Bharara:

And you tell a story about how Martin Luther King is talking to folks about the caste system, and as people may know and they will come to know more if they read your book, the lowest caste in India is the so called untouchable, the dalit. And their lot in life is very, very poor. And there’s very little they can do to get out of that lot in life. And many of them are relegated to doing the worst jobs that other people don’t want to do, cleaning, et cetera. Explain the revelation that King had when he was having a conversation in India.

Isabel Wilkerson:

Well, he was very excited to go because he so admired the nonviolent protests of Mahatma Gandhi, Mohandas Gandhi and he was received by the prime minister. A very beautiful arrival there. And then he made a trip to visit a dalit school, what would have been called an untouchable school. A school where the students and everyone the people working there were part of what was then known as the untouchable caste. And so upon arrival a principal introduces him to the children and he says, “Young people, I want to introduce you to a fellow untouchable from America.”

Recording:

And I remember that afternoon that the principal got up to introduce me. And as he came to the end of his introduction, he said, “I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.” And for the moment I was peeved. I was shocked that I would be introduced as an untouchable. But pretty soon my mind ran back across to America and I started thinking about the fact that there were so many places that I couldn’t go because of the color of my skin.

Isabel Wilkerson:

The head of the school made the connection between the African American experience that he was seeing on the news from the civil rights movement, made the immediate connection and introduced Dr. King as an untouchable from America. And upon hearing that, Dr. King had not made that connection initially and he actually was a little peeved to have been described that way. Didn’t see himself as that. He viewed himself as … The word would have been an American negro at that time. He was very celebrated. So he’d had dinner with the prime minister. He did not see himself as an untouchable. And then he thought about it and he remembered that he was at that very stage in his life advocating on behalf of people who were even at that moment the vast majority of them denied the right to vote. The civil rights legislation would not come until several years after that. They were held, as you described, to the lowest positions. Particularly when they were in the American south, but even when they went to the north they were assigned to the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs in the foundries and the steel mills and the factories.

Isabel Wilkerson:

They were sharecroppers. They literally were assigned to the lowest rung in American society. And he was fighting on their behalf. And he thought to himself, “Yes, I am an American untouchable. And every black person in America is an untouchable.” He made that recognition. I mean, yet another example of someone who was so very lauded and honored, he made the connection too. After being exposed to and seeing how he was viewed by untouchables there, he recognized it as well and he actually gave a sermon on the 4th of July in 1965 at his church, Ebenezer Baptist Church, in which he relayed that story which is one of the reasons that we know about it. He relayed that story about how he came to the recognition that the United States had a caste system and that people like him had been assigned to the bottom of it.

Preet Bharara:

Let’s move to Germany. And I imagine that some people will not love the idea of comparing what you call the American caste system to what Nazi Germany was like, in part because some people I imagine would say, “Well, whatever you say about the caste system in India or the United States and how much exploitation there was and how much death there was, and how much lynching there was, there was not an ideology of the final solution of utter elimination which there was ultimately in Nazi Germany.” But that said, you tell another story. I’m going to be quoting from the book again. You tell another story by at least sort of early in the Nazi regime that I had not heard before and it brings a lot of things home.

Preet Bharara:

In June of 1934 various academics and officials in Nazi Germany were trying to get together because they still cared a little bit about reputation and trying to figure out how they might pass these blood laws and what the language should be to prevent intermarriage. And they needed a prototype. And they sat around and they thought to themselves, “Well, in America we have a pretty good example. We have a pretty good precedent.” And the more they thought about it, some of them you recite in the book said, “We can’t even believe that that’s really enforced in the United States.” But the passage that struck me the most was the following. “Mindful of appearances beyond their borders for the time being at least, the Nazis wondered how the United States had managed to turn its racial hierarchy into rigid law, yet retain such a sterling reputation on the world stage.” How did they manage to do that?

Isabel Wilkerson:

How did the United States manage to do that?

Preet Bharara:

Yeah.

Isabel Wilkerson:

Well, I have to preface this by saying that what propelled me to Germany was Charlottesville which is the way to even get to the answer of what you just asked. And that is that after Charlottesville, that contention over the statues and of the confederate and Nazi symbolism that fused together among the ralliers themselves, and that battle over memory of the Civil War and of slavery and how do we define heroes in America. So the connection was made by the people who were protesting in Charlottesville. They made the connection with the symbolisms, the flags, and the swastikas, the confederate flags and swastikas that they themselves carried and in fact replicated some of the marches that would have occurred in Germany during that time. So the focus for me was not initially the Nazis themselves, but actually how Germany had worked in the decades after World War II to reconcile its history and to atone for it. So what had they done? And that’s what brought me to Germany in the first place.

Isabel Wilkerson:

And the deeper I looked into it, then I came across or made these connections. I discovered these connections that I would never have imagined myself. I had no idea that German eugenicists where in continuing dialog with American eugenicists. That American eugenicists wrote these books that were big sellers in Germany in the years leading up to the Third Reich and it was gut wrenching to see these connections. And then of course having to remind ourselves at all times that the Nazis needed no one to teach them how to hate. Absolutely no one. And of course they carried it further than anyone would ever have imagined. It’s incomprehensible what they ultimately did. But what they did before that moment was they actually sent researchers to study America’s Jim Crow laws and to see how Americans had subjugated and segregated African Americans. And the meeting that you talk about in June 1934, they were debating and consulting American law as they were devising what would ultimately become the Nuremberg laws.

Isabel Wilkerson:

And as you said, it was shocking to see that some of them didn’t even believe that the United States would have gone to the lengths that they were discovering that it had. I think that they were interested in finding a way to justify what they were doing and they turned to the United States in order to do that. And also to see what were the possibilities about how they could do it with the what we call anti miscegenation laws. Laws against intermarriage between people of different “races”, which would be equivalent to endogamy. In the Indian context of the language is often endogamy and here it’s anti miscegenation laws. In Germany they were seeking to find ways to maintain whatever reputation they perceived themselves to have had in that early going and to look for ways that other places had done it. And they looked other places, but the place that they turned to finally was the United States.

Preet Bharara:

Do you think it’s in human DNA or social DNA for groups to want to be superior to at least one other group? Is that just an inevitability that we have to deal with? A pathogen as you might say? Or can we outgrow that?

Isabel Wilkerson:

I would like to believe that there may have been a time long, long, long, long ago when humans did not have access to the technologies and advancements that we now take for granted where people were out on the frontier, out in the wilderness, out on the land and were in danger perhaps almost every minute of their lives, that people needed to band together in order to protect themselves. But we have advanced as a species and we are now at a point where we have instant access information that others before us could not have imagined. I would like to believe that because of the advancements and because of in some ways the luxury of being able to sit and to contemplate and to read and to … And we might have a question that comes in our mind and we can instantly find the answer on our devices. We have the luxury of being able to see things differently and not to be fighting each other because there are much greater challenges that we face as a species, that the planet faces, that we should be in a position of coming together somehow to recognize the greater threats to human happiness, human health, human wealth.

Isabel Wilkerson:

The fact that we still have these health challenges that can do such damage to human beings. Why do we not have a cure for cancer? Why do we not have solution to challenges of polluted waters that people are having to deal with for example in Flint, Michigan even to this day? I mean, why are these things … We should be so advanced as a species that some of the things that make life so much more challenging for people, it seems to me that there should be a way to find ways to transcend them. And I would say that one of the greatest tragedies of any caste system, any hierarchy such as those that I’m describing is the lost potential and lost lives of course of people who did not have the opportunity to live out their life’s potential, whatever talents and gifts they might have had, over generations. I mean, speaking of the United States, which is the focus of this book, for 246 years 12 generations of people, African Americans, who were not permitted to live out whatever expertise, ever talent they might have had.

Isabel Wilkerson:

If you think about those cotton fields and rice plantations and sugar plantations and all those different plantations, there were opera singers and jazz musicians and lawyers.

Preet Bharara:

You have a chapter about Satchel Paige, the pitcher, who people know, and he had a little bit of a career in the major leagues but most of it was denied him. You have a lot of real examples like that. This concept of not wanting to be the bottom rung, I think you even have a chapter or a section entitled The Necessity of the Bottom Rung. It helps certain people perpetuate their power and observation you make, I think is an important one as people think about the last election and as they think about power and voting in America now. And it has to do with this observation that some liberals have which is why would some people in America, working white class or poor white citizens, voters, why would they vote against their interest? And you say this in your book. “Why some people on the left keep asking, why oh why were these people voting against their own interests? The questioners on the left were unseeing and yet so certain. What they had not considered was that the people voting this way were in fact voting their interests. Maintaining the caste system as it had always been was in their interest. And some were willing to accept short term discomfort, forgo health insurance, risk contamination of the water and air, and even die to protect their longterm interest in the hierarchy as they had known it.”

Preet Bharara:

What is that longterm interest in a system that is not doing much for them?

Isabel Wilkerson:

Well, that’s assuming that the system is not doing much for them. By the standards or even unspoken and even maybe unrecognized when you think of unconscious bias, the unconscious messaging that everyone in a caste system receives that the less one has to fall back on in a competitive, really forbidding economy that has very little in the way of a safety net compared to other western nations, the less you have to fall back on in the way of education, wealth, job security, the more one may rely on inherited status that’s accorded to people in the dominant caste over the history of this country. And that means that there’d be a greater investment. The greater the investment. The less one has to fall back on the greater the investment there would be in maintaining the hierarchy as it has been known because that has been the means by which … As I was saying before, the idea of standing and respect and benefit of the doubt and access to resources that are deeply known by people up and down the hierarchy.

Isabel Wilkerson:

There was a professor, Andrew Hacker, professor who used to ask his white students how much would you expect to be paid if you knew that you would have to spend the next 50 years of your life as a black person in America? How much would you want to be paid? Well, what would you think would be a fair compensation for being transferred into a different caste you might say? And the students would get together and they’d figure it out. In one of his classes they got together and figured out a number. And the number that they came back with was $50,000,000. $1,000,000 for every year that they would have to be black. That they would have to be African American. So people know, they know the value that’s inherited and not of anyone’s doing. No one asked to be at any station in the caste system. I mean, you are born where you’re born and you have nothing to do with it. So this is not about blaming in any way shape or form. This is about recognition that once you see the almost unspoken hierarchy that positions some people above other people, people know that there’s a value to that and I think the students in that professors class get at what I’m talking about here.

Preet Bharara:

There’s this other phenomenon that goes on when people talk about racism and inequality in the country. And that is this. Someone who’s achieved something who happens to be black, either as an actor or an entertainer or an athlete, and says, “Well, the system’s unfair.” And then some folks will say, “Well, I don’t know what you’re complaining about from your mansion and your collection of Rolls Royces et cetera.” And you tell some stories about how fame and success don’t protect you always. There’s a not from as erudite a source as you tend to site in your book, but the comedian Chris Rock I think talked about this in connection with police brutality. He’s like, “Yeah, I’m famous, but not at a distance.”

Isabel Wilkerson:

Right. Yeah.

Preet Bharara:

Respond to the folks … Because again, this is another thing that I think should be very readily understandable, but people keep making this point. Respond to the folks who say Oprah Winfrey or Lebron James or whoever else have no business or right to complain about how black people are treated in this country.

Isabel Wilkerson:

I describe caste as the bones, race as the skin, and class as the clothing, diction, accent, education, the things that one can change about one’s self. And in any society there are going to be exceptions to any rule. And there are some incredibly exceptional people who were born into the subordinated caste or the historically subordinated caste in America and in India as well, who have managed despite all of the odds to persevere with fortitude, talent, all that it took in order to transcend the barriers and to rise very high in their society. There are a lot of things I could say about that. One of them having to do with how caste represents itself in occupations. I mean, in occupations the opening for African Americans has tended to be in sports, in music and entertainment. Because during the originating decades formation of this hierarchy and the caste system, which was actually a legal caste system … There were actually laws that indicated there were attempts to say what black people could do legally and then it extended to the culture so that there are certain fields that have been more opened to African Americans over time. And one of them having to be entertainment.

Isabel Wilkerson:

Enslaved people were often used for entertainment. There’s a famous scene out of 12 Years A Slave in which they were roused from their sleep at two in the morning or whatever to entertain the owner. They were tired from having worked 15 hour days tending to the sugar cane and then they had to go perform. So that actually is a very old through line in how roles that people play percolate through a society. So that’s one thing. One thing is that that has been an area of opening for people that has meaning even in the current day. The majority of the wealthiest of African Americans tend to come from those fields. People where they were among the most talented of humans and of Americans in whoever did whatever they’re doing. And then often became moguls in that field. That that’s where a lot of the billionaires, the wealthiest African Americans tend to come from.

Isabel Wilkerson:

But the interesting thing is that there’s several things to say. One is that despite these people that we can identify as among the most recognizable and wealthiest people in the United States, the situation for the majority of African Americans is so disparate compared to their white counterparts that despite these people whose names come to mind, we know these are among the wealthiest people among us, even factoring them into the collective wealth of African Americans, with them factored in, African Americans still have only one tenth of what their white counterparts have in the way of wealth. And this is over the course of generations of being legally excluded from the opportunities to build wealth, to live the American dream. Something so basic as getting a mortgage was not available to African Americans. At least a government backed mortgage. Government backed mortgages were not available to African Americans because the redlining meant that the places that the government would not back the mortgages were neighborhoods where black people lived. So black people were not able to make the most of or even make use of the most common form of wealth building in America. It is literally the American dream.

Isabel Wilkerson:

They were denied by law from the American dream until the 1960s. So the idea of African Americans as a whole being able to actually enter the mainstream is very, very new. So in spite of the fact that we have these incredibly wealthy people in that group, the group as a whole is still laboring under the deficits and the deprivations, legally sanctioned deprivations of all the generations that preceded them. And then one other thing I want to say about this is that I say that class is the clothes, the diction, and the accents, the things that we can control. The fact of the matter is if you can … And the way that I look at it, if you can act your way out of it, it’s class. If you cannot act your way out of it, it’s caste. And so the high ranking people, the recognizable people, many of them have examples, I include some in the book myself, of you’re going about your day … And I don’t put myself in the category of these people, but I’m saying any person who is a professional who’s moving about in the world, an African American, could be in an instant reminded of their caste category.

Isabel Wilkerson:

There’s an example out the UK that’s an interesting one that’s just a recent one where the editor of British Vogue, a man of African descent, he was entering his building, he’s the editor of British Vogue, and he’s told by the security guard to use the loading dock, the loading freight elevator in his own office building. And that means here’s someone who would have been dressed maybe better than almost any human. You imagine the editor of Vogue would be very well dressed.

Preet Bharara:

I would imagine, yes.

Isabel Wilkerson:

And told to use the loading elevator, freight elevator in his own building. So you cannot act your way out of that kind of intrusion of caste. Caste being the example of who belongs where. Who is expected to be doing what. What are the boundaries and assumptions about who should be doing what? He was not expected to be someone of that stature and it was the recognition of that on the basis of what he looked like, meaning the very things that you cannot change about yourself. He could change his clothes, he could change his accent, he could change his diction, he could do all of that, but he could not change the signifier of where someone fits in the caste system.

Preet Bharara:

Let’s end with talking about what we do about all this. You are the building inspector. What are your prescriptions for how we fix this old house that is America? And one of the things I’d like to hear you elaborate on is a concept you mention in the book of radical empathy. Where do we go from here?

Isabel Wilkerson:

I have to say that if you’ve bought a house and the building inspector comes in and delivers their report, the building inspector does not tell you what you need to do. The building inspector presents to you the problems that need to be addressed. And that is how I see myself. If I had wanted to take another five years on this I would have done the additional research in order to be able to come up with a 10 point plan about what this would be, but I would say that we’re talking about something that is 400 years old. We’re talking about an embedded hierarchy that we’ve inherited that gets affirmed in billboards and television commercials and who gets killed first in a movie. I mean, we have been exposed to this for so long that even a third of African Americans hold unconscious bias against themselves. So this is long and this is deep and I would never presume to say these are all the answers because the answers have to come from all of us. It cannot come from one person. It will not come from someone who is born to what would be viewed as the subordinated caste. This falls on everyone to first of all do the work to know our country’s comprehensive history, and then to search ourselves and find the ways that we as individuals can do something in our own lives, looking very hard and deep.

Isabel Wilkerson:

And then for others who are in positions of making policy, and I’m a writer not a policymaker, to also do the work of knowing our country’s history and looking clear eyed at the X-ray of our country to come up with solutions to our collective problem because we are all in this building together and generally the building inspector doesn’t make the repairs anyway. It’s the owner. And we are all the owners of this building.

Preet Bharara:

We certainly are. In the epilogue of your book you talk about Albert Einstein who was a great ally in many ways to the so called lower caste. And you write … You talk about how we have all these problems, but then, “And yet, somehow there are the rare people like Einstein who seem immune to the toxins of caste in the air we breathe who manage to transcend what most people are susceptible to.” Do you have an observation as to what the qualities are in people that might make the immune to the toxins of caste?

Isabel Wilkerson:

I haven’t given a tremendous amount of thought because I’ve just finished the book, but being asked this by you and I’d like to explore this more and think this through more because I think that that is something that this work does allow us all a window into. But I would say that first of all, what I see consistent among the people who I would identify as being like Einstein would be people who have an essential comfort within themselves about who they are and what their own talents and abilities may be. In other words, how self actualized are you to begin with? How comfortable are you with yourself? If you have insecurities, if you feel easily threatened, if you feel that others are gaining on you, doing things that they don’t deserve because you should be here and you’re not where you wish to be, that would be one of the things I would say would make it harder for you to have the generosity of spirit toward others. And would make you more likely to be invested in keeping things the way that they are for whatever benefit may be coming to you whether you have a name for it or not.

Isabel Wilkerson:

So one of them would be a sense of self actualization and an awareness of one’s self and a sense of contentment within one’s self that you don’t have to prove anything to anyone else. You feel that things are going well for you personally and you do not need to see anyone beneath you in order to feel good about yourself. I mean, here is someone who is one of the smartest men who ever lived and he was being told that people who looked a certain way, people who were African American were beneath him. And he, as one of the smartest people who ever lived, looked at them and said, “No, I see them as like me. I see the things I have in common with them.” And that means that he was very confident in himself clearly. And intelligence alone does not mean that you’re confident. He just was. I think that he had a sense of empathy, a sense of connection with others. He had himself escaped Nazi Germany just before the Nazis actually came into power. He barely escaped. But he could see the injustices that were brewing. He could see the ethnic tribalism and hatreds that were brewing. He could see that and he could see the dangers of that and he recognized how wrong that was.

Isabel Wilkerson:

He recognized the dangers I should say of that kind of thinking and could see even then how that could lead to something. And then I would say an essential sense of recognition of our common humanity. I mean, a recognition that we do have things in common and that you can learn and grow from knowing other people, seeing other people for who they really are. And a lack of a need to be better than someone else, a willingness to see that all of us have something to offer. Even the short conversations that we might have when we’re on say a shuttle bus to get from point A to point B and you can have a lovely conversation with someone on a train, and you never know where the beauty in life might be. The beauty in humanity. Seeing the beauty in humanity and feeling that you are rooting, not for your team, but for the species as a whole. That we all win. A belief that there is something that we all gain when everyone is at their very best.

Preet Bharara:

I think that’s a good note to end on. Isabel Wilkerson, thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations on this very important book. It really is a must read.

Isabel Wilkerson:

Thank you.

Preet Bharara:

I really think it is. And if anyone needs any further encouragement to read the book, just pick up the New York Times review. It’ll knock your socks off.

Isabel Wilkerson:

Thank you.

Preet Bharara:

Often I end the show talking about some bit of obscure news that maybe has been overlooked and didn’t get enough attention. Today I’m going to talk about something that everyone knows about and that has gotten an enormous amount of attention. And that is former vice president Joe Biden’s selection of his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris of California. And although a lot of people thought that she would be the pick, over time it seemed that maybe he was wavering, there were other people on the list. I wasn’t sure how people would react to that choice. And it became clear in the minutes and hours after that the historic nature of Biden’s selection was clear. So first let me say that I think Kamala Harris is smart, compassionate, inspiring, experienced, qualified. First as the San Francisco DA, then as the attorney general in California, and now a United States senator. And people will be debating her positions and her policies and there will be an actual debate between her and Michael Pence in a few weeks and that’s all well and good. But if you’ll allow me for a moment, I just want to speak personally about Kamala Harris.

Preet Bharara:

A number of the people who ran for president, I had the good fortune to know a little bit. The person I knew best was Kamala Harris. I first met her in 2007, 13 years ago, at a legal event. And the legal event was the South Asian Bar Association of the United States. And there was a dinner in San Francisco where she was the district attorney. And when I say 13 years ago that she got out in front the audience of almost all Indian Americans, it is an understatement to say that she wowed them. And ever since then people have been following her career. I followed her career. Once I became the United States Attorney, my phone rang one day and it was the Attorney General, Kamala Harris. And she literally just called to say, “I’ve been following the work at SDNY and I think it’s great what you’re doing. And in particular you guys are focusing on something that I’m focusing on, namely cyber crime and the cyber threat.” This was back in 2012.

Preet Bharara:

And she said, “Look, we should do something together. We should figure out a way to work together. Whether it’s on a case or some initiative or public education.” And one thing led to another and I found myself in January of 2013 sitting next to Kamala Harris at Stanford University in an extended conversation and discussion of how America can deal with the cyber threat, moderated by Stanford professor Joe Grundfest. And we developed a professional relationship and a friendship in the years since. So for whatever it’s worth, there are going to be a lot of biographies about Kamala Harris. What I know of her is that she is genuine, sincere, cares about public service, and has leadership qualities you would want. And for a change I know that about someone who’s on the ticket from close up.

Preet Bharara:

The other thing I want to acknowledge is how special this election is for so many people in this country. For black Americans, for black women in America, and also for Indian Americans as everyone has now learned Kamala Harris was born to a Jamaican father and an Indian mother who was very vested in doing breast cancer research. So if Kamala Harris is elected to the vice presidency, she will not only be the first black American, but also the first Indian American. And that’s not nothing. I noticed on Twitter yesterday that the term Indian American was trending. I’m not sure that that’s ever happened before. And there was a delightful reason for that trend yesterday. As I tweeted yesterday, “The most excited person I talked to today was my Indian mom because she cannot wait to vote for Vice President Kamala Devi Harris.” And it’s true. I was driving to the city yesterday and my mom called me and all she wanted to talk about was Kamala Harris. So it’s an exciting thing for lots of people.

Preet Bharara:

And sometimes you don’t know how fired up you’re going to be about something until it happens. And that’s how I felt yesterday. By the way, let me end on a trivial point. Not so trivial depending on your perspective. I’ve seen there’s already been some discussion about the correct way to pronounce Senator Harris’ first name. Most people in the acceptable way of pronouncing her name it seems in America is Kamala. An unacceptable way to pronounce her name, and some people have suggested this is what’s being done on Fox, it’s a thing that I’ve experienced in my own life. Sort of intentional mispronunciation of somebody’s name, especially if it’s an unusual name. The incorrect way to pronounce her name is Kamala and anyone who does that should be corrected immediately. But if you want to pronounce her name in the traditional way it would be pronounced in India, because it is an Indian name … Kamala means lotus in Sanskrit. The Indian way to pronounce her name is Kamala.

Preet Bharara:

The most important election of our lifetimes, and this time it’s really true, is in just 82 days. So, I don’t know about you, but I am going to cast my vote very excitedly for President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Devi Harris.

Preet Bharara:

My conversation with Isabel Wilkerson continues for members of the CAFE Insider community. Insiders get bonus Stay Tuned content, the exclusive weekly podcast I cohost with Ann Milgram, the United Security podcast, co-hosted by Lisa Monaco and Ken Wainstein, recordings of weekly notes by Elie Honig and me, and more. To get a two week trial for free, head to café.com/insider. That’s café.com/insider.

Preet Bharara:

Well that’s it for this episode of Stay Tuned. If you like what we do, rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Every positive review helps new listeners find the show. Send me your questions about news, politics, and justice. Tweet them to me @preetbharara with the hashtag #askpreet. Or you can call and leave me a message at 669-247-7338. That’s 669-24-Preet. Or you can send an email to [email protected] Stay Tuned is presented by CAFE. The executive producer is Tamara Sepper. The senior audio producer is David Tatasciore. And the CAFE team is Matthew Billy, David Kurlander, Sam Ozer-Staton, Calvin Lord, Noa Azulai and Geoff Isenman. Our music is by Andrew Dost. I’m Preet Bharara. Stay tuned.

Preet Bharara:

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