In Ohio State lecture, Isabel Wilkerson expounds on how caste plagues American society
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer says ‘ranking’ is at the root of racial divisions
While African Americans have made strides in the century and a half since slavery was abolished, collective action by Americans of all backgrounds is necessary to bring about true equity, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson says.
Wilkerson spoke about the civil rights gains that have been achieved in the past 156 years and the progress yet to be made during her Dec. 1 keynote address for The Ohio State University’s 23rd Annual President and Provost’s Diversity Lecture and Cultural Arts Series.
“Slavery lasted so long that it will not be until next year – 2022 – that the United States will have been a free, independent country for as long as slavery lasted,” Wilkerson said.
The lecture, held virtually this year, was presented by The Ohio State University Office of Diversity and Inclusion in collaboration with the College of Education and Human Ecology, the College of Dentistry and the College of Engineering.
“Programs like the President and Provost’s Diversity Lecture and Cultural Arts Series provide an environment where we learn from the most distinguished authors, scholars and thought leaders,” Ohio State President Kristina M. Johnson said while introducing Wilkerson.
A Washington, D.C., native, Wilkerson studied journalism at Howard University and interned at the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 1994 as the New York Times’ Chicago bureau chief – making her the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for journalism.
Wilkerson is the author of “The Warmth of Other Suns,” which chronicles the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North in the 20th century. The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Lynton History Prize from Harvard and Columbia universities, and the Stephen Ambrose Oral History Prize, among other honors.
Wilkerson’s latest book, “Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents,” explores the concept that a ranking of individuals has existed in the United States since the nation’s inception, similar to formal caste systems of countries such as India.
The caste system in the United States is based on racial and socioeconomic factors that perpetuate inequality, Wilkerson said.
“Caste is an arbitrary, artificial, graded ranking of one’s standing in society,” she said. “Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions.”
Beyond slavery, one of the starkest examples of how caste has manifested in American society, Wilkerson said, is the system of Jim Crow segregation that lasted from the late 19th century through the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. The Jim Crow system denied African Americans rights such as voting, equitable schooling and housing, and restricted their use of public facilities such as drinking fountains, swimming pools and public transportation.
Wilkerson said civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. commented on the parallels between American segregation and India’s caste system. When King visited India in 1959, he was asked how it felt to be an “untouchable” in the United States – sparking a realization that was, indeed, the status of African Americans at the time.
“What we have seen shows us that Dr. King’s mission has not been fulfilled,” Wilkerson said. “It will be up to all of us to make it so, not only for our children and grandchildren, but for the species and the good of the planet.”
During a question-and-answer session with attendees following her lecture, Wilkerson offered advice for aspiring writers. She said she received the most valuable advice on how to succeed as a writer when she was interning at the Washington Post. Dorothy Butler Gilliam, the Post’s first African-American female reporter (and mother of Ohio State Provost Melissa L. Gilliam), told Wilkerson, “Whatever you write, make it memorable.”
“I took that to mean that whatever you write, it needs to be so powerful that people never forget it,” Wilkerson said. “And that’s what I strive to do in my work.”