Isabel Wilkerson concludes Creighton Presidential Lecture Series
Isabel Wilkerson remembers a video she saw circulating shortly after the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
A group of custodial staff – all of them masked, all of them Black – cleaning up the mess made by rioters, supervised by a single, unmasked, white police officer.
For Wilkerson, the scene was a stark illustration of a reality that few in this country have ever considered in such terms: The existence of an American caste system.
“Had people who looked like the janitors in that group, seen working late into the night, deigned to burst through police barricades, deigned to break into the United States Capitol, well, we all know what would have come of that,” Wilkerson said. “They would not have lived to tell the tale.”
Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize- and National Humanities Medal-winning author of The Warmth of Other Suns and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, spoke to a virtual audience Tuesday during the final installment of Creighton’s Presidential Lecture Series. The series, which this year centered on the topic of race, featured previous presentations from nationally renowned authors Edwidge Danticat, Damon Tweedy and Colson Whitehead.
Wilkerson spent most of her talk, and the following Q&A moderated by Sarah Walker, PhD, Creighton's vice president for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, discussing her latest book, Caste, released in 2020. The book examines racism in the United States through the lens of the strict caste system, more commonly associated in the West with countries such as India.
“Caste is an artificial and arbitrary graded ranking of human society,” encompassing assumptions of competence, worthiness and intelligence, Wilkerson explained. The early American colonists chose to base their system of human value on race, she said, creating the Transatlantic slave trade and initiating the widespread subordination of people of color that continues to this day.
“Too many of us speak of slavery as a sad, dark chapter of our country’s history,” Wilkerson said. In fact, she said, slavery existed in America for more than 240 years – at least 12 generations.
“How many greats have to be added to the word grandparent to begin to conceive of how long slavery lasted on this soil?” she asked the audience.
That legacy of subjugation – of the American caste system – endured after the Civil War, through Jim Crow segregation and the Civil Rights Movement. Today, Wilkerson said, it’s on full display in high-profile incidents such as the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Now, Wilkerson said, the country has reached a “karmic moment of truth,” in which all are challenged to open their eyes to the country’s true story. On the one hand, she said, tens of millions of Americans are more willing than ever to understand America’s brutal legacy of systemic oppression and are doing all they can to learn more about – and reconcile with – that legacy.
On the other, she said, a vocal contingent has dedicated itself to obstructing that reconciliation through banning books, restricting language used in classrooms and eroding faith in Civil Rights laws once seen as sacred.
“We’re in a fight that we didn’t even see coming. We are in a fight for history itself and truth itself,” Wilkerson said. “And one of the ways that I really believe is a way to manage this is to strengthen each family, to strengthen each other.”
She continued: “Those of us who value history, those of us who feel that things can be learned from history … We can continue to do the reading and the research and work on ourselves. We can talk to others and hope to influence those and encourage those and help those in our sphere of influence.”