The Problem with White People
America’s Caste System With Isabel Wilkerson
Jon is joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling author Isabel Wilkerson to discuss race, racism, and America’s caste system.
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THE PROBLEM WITH JON STEWART PODCAST
Episode 22 Final Transcript
Jon: We’ll talk for a little bit and then we’ll bring our more erudite speaker on. Not that Jay and Kasaun aren’t erudite. Kasaun is an interesting runner up for the Pulitzer, I think, what year was that Kasaun?
Kasaun: 1998. I wrote a dissertation on Miss Frizzle.
Jon: Miss Frizzle. Come on. All right.
Jon: Welcome everybody to the podcast. It’s The Problem we’re here with our writers Kasaun and Jay. We had an episode this week. I don’t know if you guys are familiar. Do you have Apple TV+, Jay or Kasaun?
Jay: We do.
Jon: Do you guys?
Kasaun: Yeah, absolutely.
Jon: You have that? OK? Yeah, I have not. I have right now I’ve got Cinemax, and I’m thinking of adding showtime to the package.
Jay: OK, you got to get Starz to Jon.
Jon: Starz is the only one I watch. We had an episode this week, the problem with white people. Turns out, it’s kind of a they were kind of a problem, it was it the episode itself played out as ironically the actual problem. We thought it was going to be relatively productive. But the white people couldn’t handle themselves.
Jay: Well I don’t want to say this is the problem with the culture, but the something. So I think it’s about the breakdown of the white family. There’s just something there.
Jon: Understood. I understand that. I was raised by a single mother. And you know, look it. It affected me in ways that you know that I can’t tell you. You know, I’ve ever been able to get rid of. But I’ll tell you, who’s going to tell us, is our guest today. Journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson is going to tell us. But guys, I want to make sure. Kasaun and Jay. Your work on that episode was phenomenal. I’m really proud of it. I hope you guys are too. You did. You did. Incredible work on it.
Jay: Oh gosh. Thank you.
Kasaun: Thank you, Jon.
Jon: You know, my instinct. You know, for a lot of us, we’re more comic than man. This was about as emotional an episode that we could even put together just in the process of it. We all had to kind of really hear each other in a way that I think is unusual, even for our process. Would you guys agree with that?
Jay: From the beginning, I think that everyone said, OK, if we do this one, let’s make sure that every step along the way we’re checking in and not like in a weird we have to like, bite our tongue way. But in the very least, let’s be honest. Is this funny? Is this helpful? Is this more helpful than funny? Is this funnier than it’s helpful? And when do we kind of pendulum shift?
Jon: Is it precise? Is it what we’re doing? And and you know, look, I relied on you guys. I’d throw a joke out there and I’d look over and I’d just see Kasaun.
Kasaun: All three of those jokes made the show, by the way.
Jon: But you know, what was interesting for me is whenever we got to a point of tension, there was a certain trust and grace that was always in the room that allowed us to kind of chew through it.
Jon: In a way that I was pleased with.
Jay: I think that grace and that ability to understand that we’re all working towards a common goal is something that you wish you could replicate in real life, in real time, in real conversations between people. But as we saw in the episode, make sure to watch the episodes. Sometimes that doesn’t happen.
Kasaun: I almost wish there was a documentary about the discussions we had leading up to the episode because like you said, Jon, like so, so many conversations that didn’t even make the episode that just made this process like so fun.
Jon: That’s right. And big swings, man like this was a big swing it was like, look, because I do think there was that tendency after George Floyd for white people to be like, Is there a problem here or do we have an issue? Is there something going on that you guys want to say to us because they’re-
Jay: White people were literally like, “Let me clean this up.”
Jay: Are you telling me, this is not the America. They’re smudges all over this.
Jon: I thought we were square. I thought everything was, you know, we had a hip hop halftime Super Bowl show. I thought we were square.
Jay: Jon, you’re saying square and hip hop Super Bowl halftime show. That’s a very good impression of the people who like, “I thought everything was cool, Jack.”
Jon: I thought it was cool.
Kasaun: There’s still racism with Crip walking on NBC. What are we doing here?
Jon: Thank you. You got white people, older white people saying, I thought we were croaking. I thought it was OK. I thought everything was. I thought everything was crunk.
Jay: No. [JAY LAUGHS]
Jon: But to do it really was interesting to say, like, maybe we don’t need to be taught. This is clearly and I think the Toni Morrison quote, you know, the idea was, it’s time for us to listen to black voices and just sort of rolling back and showing like they’ve been pretty consistent for like 400 years like this is bulls***.
Jay: I mean, reparations, but also give us some Rourkela. We have been screaming. Black people are hoarse.
Kasaun: That Toni Morrison clip was devastating.
Toni Morrison: My feeling is white people have a very, very serious problem and they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.
Kasaun: As a black person, I was like, I need to sit and talk, I forgot I was black when I saw that clip because it was just like something about Toni Morrison and like Maya Angelou, like these?
Jon: Yeah, power they’ve got such power.
Kasaun: Leave me out of it. I was like, Oh my lord. Leave her out of it, people.
Jon: Yeah. That was a definitive word.
Jay: It makes me wish that I hadn’t used Spark notes when I was supposed to be my book and put our own beloved because I did go back and read it. I did go back and read it, and I watched the movie. But I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Toni. I’m sorry, Queen Toni.
Jon: It’s so interesting that you got beloved because I was only assigned Schindler’s List and Diary of Anne Frank. Turns out they only assign you the book about your people getting f***ed over. But it was. The whole idea was there’s something holding progress back in white people. And I thought that conversation would be productive and ultimately I thought it was. And I’ll tell you why making Andrew Sullivan, who played the role of the white person who doesn’t understand that this is being taped.
Jay: Give him an Oscar for that role, too.
Jon: Holy s***.
Kasaun: Oh boy, here we go.
Jon: But as you drill down to it, you know, I think the racial construct, they create these layers of distance from their opinion to justify it. And if you just keep peeling one layer after the other one layer after the other, they become trapped in that our culture is better than theirs. Like ultimately, when you really drill down to it, there was no escaping the bigotry of his opinion.
Jay: Yeah, and it took two questions. It took and it took it. All you had to say was, “Go on, continue.” [JON LAUGHS]
Jay: All right, there you have it folks.
Jon: The most powerful question in all of it was. “And why is that?”
Kasaun: My favorite part is watching you trying to end the segment and then him saying we got to figure out culture. And you being like, “Oh, another 10 minutes. All right. Here we go editors.”
Jon: I was so nervous, honestly, of f***ing the whole thing up for everybody that had worked so hard on the show, like because it was such a, you know, there’s one aspect of this where you’re like, don’t platform a guy, and he’s going to derail it.
Kasaun: The point of the episode, literally all we said was white people need to start having this conversation and that that’s what the conversation could sound like at home, at work in the car. Like that? Good. Good luck.
Jon: This isn’t a you didn’t want it like this isn’t some, you know, the stereotype of like a Confederate flag waving David Duke support like this is a relatively mainstream person, thinker who has been out there. And you know, look, we had talked early on like, I don’t want this to be, you know, Geraldo getting his nose broke or the chair getting thrown and two grand wizards like I wanted it to be.
Jay: Yeah, we’re going to keep it classy. [KASAUN LAUGHS]
Jon: But I think it’s important to expose that academic patina that is pasted over bigotry. That idea that this is an authentic and learned and studied point of view that can be justified through some kind of high mindedness and just peeling that away and looking at it for what it is.
Jay: And there’s a new version of I’m helping black people that usually uses that kind of language. They go, “No, I’m helping black people. I’m not looking at them as if they’re any different than you and me, but they are different than you and me.” And you go, No, you keep butting up against your own logic. And so part of the reason that I’m glad that he was part of the panel is that the Andrew Sullivans of the world are so much more common than you think. They are professors. They have degrees. They love black people, at least in their brain, in a very odd way. They do.
Jon: In a paternalizing way, in a way of like, I’ve got to help them overcome their shortcomings.
Kasaun: That’s the reason why I think having Andrew was so important. Why it turned out the way that it did is because I think when we have these conversations so often just stay on the dog whistling conversation and then it just becomes shouting at each other. And I think at some point it got whittled down to the point of, I think they can’t police themselves, I think it’s something about them that inherently makes them poor, makes them violent, and it makes something wrong with the black community. It is their responsibility. And it played out exactly the way the monologue set out.
Jay: And that’s how you go from, like the marriage rate to being like. And then did you know, their skulls are shaped different and you’re like, “No, see, I knew this is where we were headed. Are you going to bring out the pincers?”
Jon: But that is always and this is where I think our guest today, Isabel Wilkerson, she looks at it, not in terms of race necessarily, but in terms. Of cast, but the idea that the mistreatment has to be justified through some rationalization of the mind, whether it’s a eugenics argument or some kind of divine, you know, this is how God intended. But the dominant caste always has to justify the treatment in that way. And it’s have you guys read the book? It’s a hell of a book. It’s devastating.
Kasaun: I have listened to the book.
Jon: Here’s what’s weird about the audio book. Sam Elliott is the one who voices it. Really interesting.
Kasaun: Is that who that was? Oh my god.
Jon: Sam Elliot. Yeah, yeah.
Kasaun: My lord. I was expecting Morgan Freeman and was disappointed. [JON LAUGHS]
Interview with Isabel Wilkerson
Jon: Well, so. So listen, guys, I want to bring in now. Isabel Wilkerson. Isabel, are you there?
Isabel: I’m here.
Jon: Hello. Do I refer to you as professor? How do you wish to be addressed?
Jon: Isabel. All right, Isabel, thank you so much. A Pulitzer Prize winner, New York Times bestselling author of Caste First, African-American Woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in Journalism, former New York Times reporter, author of The Warmth of Other Suns and Caste The Origins of Our Discontents. Thank you so much for joining us. What made you look at the experience of African-Americans in this country through the lens of caste rather than race?
Isabel: Well, you know, it started with that first book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which was about the Jim Crow South and why six million African-Americans would flee, defect, seek political asylum within the borders of their own country. Why would they do that? What were they leaving? And it ended up that they were leaving a world in which was against the law for a black person and a white person to merely play checkers together in Birmingham. You could go to jail if you were caught playing checkers with a person of a different race and maybe the wrong person was winning or they were having too good of a time. But they felt that the entire foundation of southern civilization was in peril and literally wrote down a law making it illegal for black people. White people play checkers together. That’s how extreme and how arcane and how very specific the rules and protocols were of the Jim Crow South. And that actually parallels with a similar impulse and set of rules and expectations within the Indian caste system. One of the pillars is called purity versus pollution, where the subordinated people, the lowest caste people, were not to use the same chalice, the same wealth, the same waterways and the same thing happened here, where actually the water was segregated throughout much of the country, where black people could not use the same pools, the same beaches. In fact, there was a case in Chicago where a teenager waded into what was called the white water.
Isabel: And water has no color.
Isabel: And yet he was stoned to death for having waded into what was perceived as the white water. And that set off one of the worst race riots in our country in Chicago in 1919. So I came to the idea of looking at our country, focusing in on a system of hierarchy that was enshrined in this country, going back to the 17th century that created a hierarchy that put primarily British people at the very top. And anyone who looked like them. And then at the very bottom were people who were brought in to be enslaved and to build this country for free. And then, of course, that all began with the theft of the land and the genocide of the people who were here to begin with and the indigenous people. So all of this was creating a hierarchy, and we live with it to this very day.
Jon: Isabel, I’m curious if it was purposeful in the sense that if you’re building a new country, do you believe hierarchy then is a necessary element? Must there be in a society, a dominant caste and a subordinate caste? And is this something that all societies suffer from? Just not to the obscenity and perversion? I mean, to give people a sense of it in terms of perspective, the Nazis, when looking to institute their dominant versus subordinate caste, look to America’s racial system of segregation and caste and thought it too severe. I mean, reading that was devastating.
Isabel: It is gut wrenching to realize that, that the Nazis did not need anyone to teach them how to hate that they had down pat. But when they were looking for justification and jurisprudence and a legal framework on which to build reasoning, presumably rationality to do what they were ultimately going to do, they actually look to this country, first of all, for the definition of race.
Isabel: It turned out that our country led the world, sadly, in finding ways to categorize people on the basis of the of the social construct known as race.
Jon: Mm hmm.
Isabel: And through those laws, I mean they had these blood laws, the laws that said, you know, if you have one drop of black blood, you were black. For other cases, they would say one for one quarter of Chinese blood made you Chinese. The United States had extensive jurisprudence. The Nazis looked all over the world, and it turned out that they had to come to this country. Also, interestingly, we often look to South Africa as a as a country that has an extreme case of racial hierarchy, but they actually look to the United States as well. Apartheid followed Jim Crow. Jim Crow was set in motion in the 19th century, and so we were the leaders —
Jon: Not the great like, we’re number one to shout. Not one of those where you want to get on the hilltops. But it does make me wonder because it seems pretty clear that the founders of this country valued. The union over the ideal whatever our founding documents said they valued the creation of that union far more than they valued following the high minded rhetoric. And do you know, was that explicit in their discussions and negotiations? And how did this legal framework come into place? Was it borrowed from an English framework? Who were the designers of this incredibly restrictive prison that we built?
Isabel: Interestingly enough, they actually broke from English tradition when they created this, what I would call, caste of people who were forced to be enslaved by tying the status of an individual of a child, not to the father, which is what the English law would have said, but to the mother. And what that did was that allowed the the founders, the slaveholders, the people who are creating a basically a slave ocracy to take possession of any child born to a black woman and to make sure that that child, any black child, would automatically assume the status of the mother, which would be enslavement. So that’s how you had generational inheritable slavery and servitude that was built into the identity of anyone who was of African descent in this country. So in a way, they actually veered from it and created a new framework for the hierarchy.
Jon: But it shows, though this wasn’t happenstance, this wasn’t a condition that developed out of some sort of extreme condition, and it grew. It was designed. It was purposeful, which makes it. I’m not saying it would have been any better if the intention had been different, but then the cruelty of it. Is that much more? Our country is that much more culpable?
Isabel: Well, I think that in a way, the intentionality kind of in a way it diverts us from the end result. I mean, in a way, it doesn’t matter why the person is whipping this individual at the moment. I mean, if they truly believe that this is their God given right that they were born to dominance, they’ve been programmed to believe that they are over these people, that these people are not even humans so they can do anything they want to them. So in a way, it becomes so encoded for so long passed down through the generations that it becomes the perceived wisdom, it becomes the convention, it becomes what you expect to be the case. In other words, you come to accept it because it’s been in place for so long passed down to the generations. Even the idea of race itself is a social construct. We’ve come to believe it to be what it is, but this is a construction. When people arrived from parts of Europe. They might have arrived thinking of themselves as Polish or as Irish or as Welsh, or as German. Whatever they might have been, they were not thinking of themselves in terms of their current day language of race. But once they enter it into the hierarchy that was created in this country, they had to shed that and they were joining into a preexisting hierarchy in which they were characterized as something that would have had no meaning back in Europe, but had tremendous meaning of power, influence and entitlements in this country.
Jon: Who invented this? Somebody must have made the invention because I think you just hit on something which is you think of yourselves as ethnicity, certainly and or tribal where certain tribes or certain things. Where did this idea of race then enter the conversation, is it at that time of subjugation or is this something that was a theory that had been talked about and was deployed for the benefit of this dominant caste?
Isabel: Well, of course, it evolved over the decades of the 17th century, where clearly they were bringing in people who look different from themselves, and they used what should have been the neutral physical characteristics which have no meaning other than just the beautiful range of human manifestation. And they converted that into a value. Into a value of hierarchy in which, based upon what you look like, it would be determined whether you could own property or be property. And that was that was the emerging hierarchy that was built out of the fact that they perceive themselves to be needing to build a country out of wilderness. They first tried to enslave indigenous people. They killed off so many indigenous people, drove them from the land. And then, of course, the indigenous people had some ways of being able to evade because they knew the land.
Jon: Right, they knew the landscape.
Isabel: And it turned out that they tried to do this with Irish indentured servants and others from Europe. But those people could also escape and blend in with the landowners and the powers that be who were the British. And so they found that here were a group of people who could not escape. They were readily visible. They turned these otherwise neutral characteristics into a value that determined who could do what in the country.
Jon: And once established as it sunk in and you talk about this, it takes on its own momentum, its own inertia, you know, and you talk a little bit in the book about these scientific experiments where where the blue eyes are given, you know, dominance over the brown eyes and how those experiments play themselves out. But they set it up as sort of this bifurcated system, whiteness and blackness. And then they start to expand whiteness.
Jon: When they need that. And how does that play into the perpetuation of a system like this?
Isabel: It’s actually like diabolically brilliant because what it does is it creates the uppermost group is them because of the power wielded by those in the uppermost group. Not everyone. But the group itself, the society and the structure is built around the needs of those who are in the upper group and are the dominant group. And then that means anyone entering that society has to figure out How do I survive in this hierarchy? How do I survive in a world in which people who look like this are at the very top and they control and own virtually everything? And then those who are at the very bottom have no rights, not even over their own bodies? And how does someone coming in figure out where they fit in and how will they survive? Then that creates this desire to or that sense. In order to survive, I must exceed to and be in the good graces of those who are at the very top. It creates this natural human impulse to want to be more like those who are in power in order to survive.
Isabel: In some ways, I don’t blame people for the natural response to survive. I’m just saying that what it does is it programs everyone into the belief system and to act and accord with what is required in order to survive in a preexisting hierarchy such as ours. And that’s been going on for so long. It’s 400 years in the making that it has been so set and the ways in which we move about that, we don’t even see it. That’s the power of it. It’s almost invisible.
Jon: And you even talk about how it’s also absorbed by the caste that has been designated as lower that the people in that caste start to absorb the lesson. Of them being lesser.
Jon: And the dominant caste even relies on perverting some in that caste for their aims to police the others, you know, on plantations and in concentration camps and things like that. How do you elevate a group that’s been subjugated like that? How do you begin to dismantle it? And is it something you know you talk about in India? It’s there for thousands and thousands of years, and it’s not race based. It’s just sort of they’ve decided.
Jon: The experiences you have at conferences where an upper caste Indian woman and you can spot her, you can spot that she is upper caste in the way that she talks to somebody who is giving a presentation, who has studied the Dalits, or studied the untouchables and walks and just thinks nothing of stepping in and correcting it.
Isabel: Yeah. This is the way in which we have all been programmed. I mean, this is the programming in every sphere of our society. It’s from, you know, it’s from the billboards and the commercials to who dies first in a movie. You know like it’s everywhere.
Jon: Right. And one of my favorites was the scholar that you went to. And I can’t remember where the conference was, where you met him. He was, I think, a Brahmin. He was somebody from a caste there and he would say, like, “I’m from the warrior class and” you’re like, he’s like, he’s like, you know, five, seven, one hundred and thirty pounds.
Jon: That’s fair enough. That’s if that’s your caste. That’s your caste.
Isabel: He was a geologist.
Jon: Boy, does it show you, though just the arbitrary and incredibly strange nature of all this.
Isabel: It’s everywhere. So we have all been we’ve all been programed as to who is valued in our society and who must be protected at all costs and whose lives do not matter as much as we have Black Lives Matter movement as a result of the recognition of the ongoing quest for for equity and recognition of the humanity of people who have been subjugated for so long. This actually, I mean, what it means is that everyone becomes, in some ways, a participant, whether we choose to or not, because this is what we’ve inherited. I mean, one of the things that I I say one of the the metaphors that I like to use to help us to see this is, you know, in recent years, it’s not been. I usually hear people say, say something to the effect of, you know, this is not America or I don’t recognize my country or this is not, but this is not who we are. Well, that means that we, as the majority of Americans, have been deprived of the opportunity really to know our country’s true and full history. And if you knew our country’s true and full history, you would realize that our country is like an old house, you know, it’s like an old house. And if you inherit an old house, if you take possession of an old house, you did not build the uneven pillars and joints and beams. You did not build the frayed electrical wiring. You did not build the corroded pipes that you’re now having to deal with. But when you take possession of an old house, guilt and shame are not going to help you fix it. You, you know, you have to look at that building inspector’s report and see what is it that we’re dealing with. And then you don’t get emotional about it. You roll up your sleeves and you get to work and fixing that. And you know while you didn’t build those uneven pillars and joints and beams and the frayed wiring and the corroded pipes, any further deterioration is on the hands of those who are in possession of that old house now. It is on people who are here now to take responsibility.
Jon: And that’s where it diverges somewhat because and that’s such a great metaphor about the house. And now imagine that the people who live in that house become resentful and decide that it’s actually your fault that it’s like this and they’re going to let it go to more decay. You know, that’s the thing that is so hard to wrap your head around that just the basic, you know, you have a founding document that states the inalienable rights given to all humans of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that all men are created equal. And for a subjugated group. To ask for that, as though it is a negotiation, the document says granted by God, not by Senator Calhoun of South Carolina like the idea that that has been an ongoing negotiation is the real. Shame of this years later that everybody thinks now, like, Hey, man, you got your Civil Rights Act. So we’re done here. And where does that resentment come from?
Isabel: Well, you know, there are a whole lot of answers to that. I mean, one of them is that I think that we are in an existential crisis in this country, in part because of twenty forty two or twenty forty five. That’s the year in which the United States has been projected to have a demographic configuration different than anything any of us have ever known, which would mean that we no longer would have the historic majority that all of us have grown accustomed to would no longer be in the historic majority. That is a configuration that no one alive knows or has experienced ever. This affects everybody up and down the hierarchy and all segments of our society. And I think that there is this recognition that this is impending and this is a challenge. There is language that political scientists use, which is dominant group status threat, which means it’s another way of talking about the existential crisis of what happens when we are all accustomed to a particular configuration as to who is in power, who has this and who’s to be where. And then that changes. And then what happens when those who have been subjugated and that everyone has grown accustomed to seeing at the bottom what happens when they rise? What happens when there’s opportunity for them? What happens when there’s a sense that if people who’ve been at the bottom begin to move up, then that diminishes. And there’s this view that it diminishes. It’s not true, but it’s a view that diminishes the role and power and value of the people who have been programmed to see themselves as dominant all along.
Jon: Which is literally the American dream.
Jon: The literal interpretation of the American dream is that. Is it, doesn’t matter where you were born or how you were born or who you are that in this country you can rise up and go beyond that. And it turns out to be. A fallacy. But I wonder, you know, when we say, oh, in 2040 or 2050, when the demographics change, we won’t know what will happen. I feel like we know what will happen because it’s what’s happened from the very beginning. And I would say the formation of the union, the compromise that was made with the southern states that black slaves would count as three-fifths, but they can’t vote. But you can count them. There has always been a redistribution of power to the white elite. And it happened every time right after the Civil War. What happened? Black people began to rise up. They began to get economic power. They began to get legislative power. They began to live the dream that this country is supposedly made of. And so what did they do? Chaos.
Isabel: There’s a backlash and there’s a sense of threat that again, dominant group status threat when the historic configuration seems to be challenged and people take it personally. And I also believe that this is a response to manufactured scarcity, the sense that there’s not enough for everyone. The sense that it leads to the insecurities that are part of what happens when you have a caste system that pits people against one another in order to survive. And this is here and all over the world. And so that’s what we’re looking at. But what? Twenty forty two or twenty forty five, whichever year ends up being is an opportunity for us as a country to reimagine who and what we can be. It’s a chance to incorporate all of the pieces of our identities and incorporate it and make it into a stronger union. I mean, that’s the opportunity that we have. What will the country do? Well, people get transfixed on fear and insecurity and the threat, or will they see this as an opportunity to truly lead the world in finding a way to have a true multiracial democracy, a true multiracial society that offers, you know, justice and liberty for all of us? And that’s the goal. And that’s what we’re facing. If we can rise past it, if we can recognize, first of all, you know what? We need to start talking about African-Americans as if they have not been in this country since before the country was founded. We need to recognize that this is not when we talk about slavery and Jim Crow. We’re not talking about African-American history. We’re talking about American history. This happened as a result of the laws, the protocols, the actions of the state and of individuals in power to keep an entire group of people in a fixed place at the very bottom of society excluded from the body politic, excluded from the fruits of the economy, excluded in every sphere of life. And that also need to remind ourselves that this idea of African-Americans being mainstreamed into our society is a very new proposition. We’re in the adolescence of this effort to reach equity and equality in this country. It only goes back to the 1960s. Anyone born before 1965 was not even born into a democracy because the majority of African-Americans with the Voting Rights Act were not permitted to vote after the majority of African-Americans were prohibited from being able to vote. So that means that this is very new. This is very, very new, and we have barely begun to make progress in the ways that we need to. And as soon as there is any progress, then of course, as you mentioned, there’s this backlash. There’s this, there’s this retrenchment, there’s this sense of fear and threat that —
Jon: And denials as fact. So much of it is denial.
Isabel: And I also wanted to say that when it comes to that house. So if you stop looking at what’s wrong with the house and you start trying to blame people, then the house is not going to get fixed. We’re all in this house. That means that all of us suffer if we don’t fix this house. I mean, we all suffer.
Jon: That’s a beautiful point. And that’s the thing that the resentment I think never begins to address. And it’s so interesting that the idea that history stops in 1964, 1965 and that scaffolding is in place is really embedded in people’s minds. And we just had it on the show, you know, name one systemic issue of racism. You know, a lot of people can be bigoted, but name one systemic thing and you name the Homestead Act, GI Bill, New Deal, subject change. You know, they don’t. The idea that if you build something that intentionally over 400 years, you have to dismantle it with the same intentionality. And that doesn’t mean like three extra points on your college admission test. Like, that’s not it.
Isabel: Well, the issue is that we as a country, most people have not had a chance to know how we got to where we are. I can say that as a result of when, whenever people respond to the books that I’ve written about, Warmth of Other Suns and Caste. One of the things I hear time and time again is “I had no idea.” I had no idea this happened in our country.
Jon: They’re trying to make it illegal. They’re trying to make it illegal and they don’t have an idea. That’s what’s crazy.
Isabel: And not having an idea has consequences that affects how people view their fellow citizens. It affects how they view policies it affects how they vote, I mean, it affects everything, affects where they send their children to school, where they choose to live. It affects everybody. So it’s time that people have an idea, it’s time that we all have an idea. But you know, these are challenges that as a country, if we don’t deal with them, they’re not going to go away. I mean, one of the things that I make reference to a lot is the idea that our country is kind of like a human being, a body that has a preexisting condition like heart disease or diabetes or alcoholism. Whatever it might be. When you have inherited a chronic condition, you don’t expect that you take one pill. I’ll do this one thing and I’ll be good. I don’t have to think about it again. You don’t. You don’t expect that there will be one thing you will do or that you did something back in 2012 and you don’t have to think about it anymore. I mean, if you have diabetes or alcoholism, you don’t say, “OK, I watch my diet and I didn’t drink, you know, last year. So I’m good, I can do whatever I want now.” No, it’s constant work. It’s vigilance. It requires constant awareness that this is a chronic inheritance, a chronic condition that we’ve inherited and that it requires constant work. Just like that old house. You don’t change out the, replumb or get a new furnace and then just think, “I’ll never have to do anything on the house and I’m done, I’m good. We’re fine.” You wouldn’t do that.
Jon: First of all, now I just feel like I’ve got to go look at my house and see what’s gone wrong because I’m sure there’s all kinds of things that are falling apart. But but the other side of it, I wonder if how much the immune system of the country like our information mechanisms, like the news because you you wrote something in the book that was really interesting about the skewed vision we have of African-Americans through the news media that there was a, you know, 11 percent of crime committed by African-Americans on white citizens. But if you watch the news, it’s 42 percent. So those who would consider themselves the guardians of our context and of our perspective and would probably consider themselves good liberals, good, nice, moderate liberal white folk that want to do right are actually exacerbating and exaggerating this conflict and making it harder to move past these entrenched feelings.
Isabel: Well, this is where the unconscious biases come in, where people who are of presumably good intentions and see themselves as fair and just people have been still programmed by unconscious biases. And it’s interesting how we want to act as if we don’t have these biases when we are human to be human means you have your experiences. You have a ways in which you’ve been exposed to everything from the time that you were born on until the current moment, and that gives you a particular window onto the world. However, when we’re driving our cars, we recognize that we have blind spots. We have rearview mirror side mirrors, we’ve mirrors in the back, we’ve got cameras in the back. I mean, we have all these protections, but we don’t do that for the more significant aspects of what it means to be human in our society, to recognize that we have these unconscious biases and that we need to have ways in which we can can fill in for those biases and recognize that we have them as opposed to denying them and then making us endangering ourselves further as a result of it.
Jon: But is there a more formal process that we can go by that we haven’t done through scholarship and and through communication that can start this?
Isabel: You know, to do this book I spent a lot of time in Germany. I made many, many trips to Germany to understand what they had done in the decades after the war and how they have built into everything, and that society and education and the ways in which they remember history is they acknowledge what has happened and acknowledgement as the first step toward reconciliation. In other words, they have converted the places of horror and to places of learning. You know, you go into Berlin, there’s this massive, massive structure that takes up the center of Berlin, a major world city, and that is the that is the monument to those who perished in the Holocaust and that all of the monuments you see are to those who either perished or suffered as a result of the Holocaust or those who resisted the Holocaust.
Jon: No big Hitler statue on a horse with a plaque.
Isabel: They are addressing their history and they are continuing to reconcile with their history. There, for example, because of their history, there is no there was no death penalty. I remember speaking to a German woman who said, we don’t have the death penalty after what happened during the war. We cannot be trusted with that. As stunning and it’s a crime, a very serious crime to display any of the any of the Nazi symbolism.
Isabel: So they have, they have taken proactive steps to protect against this recognizable condition that they’ve inherited. We, on the other hand, have not reconciled that we can’t even necessarily agree on what was the cause of the Civil War. We cannot agree on what should happen. How should we remember the Civil War. Remember our history. We’re still, we’re in the middle of conversations and discussions and contentions about what to do, how we should even tell the story of our country. So we have not done that. I believe that we should have a truth and reconciliation commission. I think that all of us need to be given the opportunity to know our country’s true history. How will we know what is possible if we have not had a chance to know what actually happened?
Jon: Do you think, Isabel, it’s possible that this is because we lack humility? Germany was humbled.
Jon: They, there was an arrogance, obviously, to Hitler’s and the Aryan philosophy and a eugenics philosophy. And ultimately, they were humbled in an incredibly destructive and devastating way, and only maybe through that humility, and I’ll guarantee you and you probably know this from being in Germany. There’s also an underlying resentment.
Isabel: Oh yeah.
Jon: There’s a lot of “It’s enough already. We’re OK. We screwed up. Leave us alone.” But I think without that humbling, it’s hard to put this country on that path because we tell ourselves this tale of exceptionalism. We are a shining city on a hill bathed in the glories of the Greek and Roman philosophers that and democratic republics and freedom and liberty. And without that humility. Boy, it’s hard to imagine us tackling it in the honest way that you speak of so well.
Isabel: Well, I think that humility is an important part of this. I agree. Humility could be fostered if we came to a realization of how we actually compare even to our peer nations. I mean, one of the things that I think is important in terms of looking towards solutions as to what we need to do is to recognize that we are all as a country suffering. As a result of this, we do not rank well. We believe ourselves to and there’s a obviously, there’s a tremendous portion of our country that is outrageously wealthy and having the best that any human being who’s ever lived could ever have.
Isabel: At the same time, we as a country do not fare well against our our peer nations. I mean, we have the highest maternal mortality rate among our peer nations. We have the highest infant mortality rates. We have one of the lowest life expectancies we have among the highest gun deaths. The graphs that show our peer nations and ourselves, if you want to have the gun deaths, you can’t even get all of them on us on the same page, the same graphic because it’s so extreme and we have to have the lowest life expectancy means it’s literally a matter of life and death that these divisions and this history is costing us. And I would I would say, you know, one of the things that I was, I I included in this in the book, this, these interviews that were conducted of people in London who were asked to —
Isabel: Try to guess what is —
Jon: How much?
Isabel: How much do Americans pay for basic things? So they were at, like one woman says, “How much do you think it costs for an American to have a baby?” And when she was told it was like six thousand dollars, whatever the number was, she said “What to have a baby?” And then someone else was asked, How much do you? But first of all, they never got them right. Right off the bat, they never. The one person was asked, How much does it cost if, if, if an American has an accident and needs to have or gets very, very ill and needs an ambulance to take them to the hospital? And the man’s response was, “they charge for that?” I mean, they could not believe that this is a peer nation. We are alone and the and the lack of generosity and magnanimity toward our fellow citizens because a caste system, a hierarchy such as ours, actually pits people against one another and makes people believe that they have no stake in the wellbeing of their fellow citizens. So we are at odds, we don’t see how this hurts actually hurts every single one of us to live in a society that is actually harsher than it needs to be because of the inherited divisions that we have yet to overcome.
Jon: It’s like going to a doctor and he checks you out and you say high blood pressure, Atherosclerosis, pleurisy, you know, bad skin. You’re good 100 percent, right? You’ve diagnosed all these things, and it’s so evident and true. And yet we walk out of it thinking clean bill of health. We’re number one.
Isabel: These are ways in which we are. If we’re wise, we’ll look deeper and to find out how is it that we got to this place? We need to see ourselves clearly for what we’ve inherited and who we actually are.
Jon: We need to see ourselves clearly should be the headline of all of this because man, truer words were never spoken. I cannot thank you enough, Isabel Wilkerson for spending the time with us. The book is Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. It is a difficult and necessary read. Really a remarkable work. You have to come back and talk to us again. It’s just you’re really incredible. And we really appreciate it.
Isabel: Thank you for having me.
Kasaun: Sheesh, I mean, goodness.
Jon: Yo, yo.
Jay: Right? So hard to be on mute and not be like, “Yes. Keep going. Don’t stop. Another one.” I just wanted to be DJ Khaled the whole time.
Jon: Another one.
Kasaun: There were so many inward Arsenio Hall hoots. It was hard to contain.
Jon: When you’re in the presence of someone who has that kind of facility to communicate and that knowledge base.
Jay: Also, imagine she is the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, not because she’s the first black woman to be qualified. It’s because it took that long. That’s the amount of black firsts that we still see are like mind blowing.
Jon: And you think like that wasn’t Ida Wells? No?
Jay: Yeah, right?
Jon: OK, we got to wait? OK, fair enough.
Kasaun: It’s also wild the stories that she didn’t tell.
Kasaun: Like there are personal stories in a book where I’m like you, I would tell that story every chance I get.
Jon: K, that’s such a good. I f***ing wish I’d gotten to that. It’s that idea of place that if you are not in your place, there is always this friction because she tells a lot of stories about like a plumber would come to her house and be like, Is the, are the owners of the house here? Like that kind of stuff?
Jay: When she talked about how, like anyone born before 1964, doesn’t understand just how fundamentally different America is, and this is a point that I bring up sometimes. I was the first person in my immediate family to go to an integrated kindergarten. My mom, my grandma, my great grandma. All of them were alive when I was in kindergarten, and I never knew why it was so crazy. But in the 90s, we’ll say the 90s in case casting wants the 18 to 34.
Jay: In Jackson, Mississippi. I was the first person in my immediate family to go to an integrated, fully integrated elementary school, elementary, middle and high school that was me in the 90s.
Jon: That’s crazy.
Jay: That’s how close it was.
Jon: Well even when she talked about, you know, they were trying to do research even into this. It’s like having to sneak people into North Korea. She said there was the two researchers, one African-American couple and the white couple and the white couple. They had to drive out to the woods to exchange research because nobody in the town would understand why they were discussing things together. And this was postwar America.
Kasaun: Yeah, she told the story in the book about her going to Chicago to do this interview. And she walks into the room and the guy says, “I’m sorry, you’re going to have to leave. I’m waiting for the New York Times.”
Jon: Yes, that was bonkers.
Kasaun: And never got to do the interview because he just something, it just didn’t click, connect, and there’s an interview with her and Bryan Stevenson, where they’re just kind of like sharing stories together.
Jon: That’s right.
Kasaun: You think of Bryan Stevenson, you’re like, “Oh, Michael B. Jordan played him in a movie. He fought all of these things.” But then you also hear him tell stories about how like he goes into a courtroom and the judge tells him, “I don’t want defendants in my courtroom yet.” And in order to protect his client, he has to laugh it off, as the judge and the prosecutor are both. It’s like. This isn’t something that —
Jon: What does that do, though, to the psyche and how much emotional damage, how much trauma is wrapped up in that element.
Jay: Because for a defendant to casually just being black person means that we’re definitely going to get a fair trial now. [JON LAUGHS]
Jon: You’re where you’re supposed to be, sir. [JAY LAUGHS]
Kasaun: You know, the most devastating part of that story is that if the judge that day when Bryan Stevenson told that story, he’d be like, “We all laughed, had a good time.” Like i n—
Jon: That was so funny. Remember that time that I thought you were a drug dealer and not a lawyer? Ha ha ha ha ha.
Kasaun: For their POV, it was a good laugh.
Jon: And the other thing is like, there’s the psychic trauma there. But then also there is a threat of it being a fatal encounter. Ahmaud Arbery, like he was killed because he was out of place. That guy that was in Times, or no, Central Park. He was bird watching. You can’t do something whiter than bird watching in f***ing Central Park.
Jon: And that woman tried to call the cops on him. And that could have been a fatal encounter. Like not only is it that psychic trauma, but then it’s that physical trauma that fear you’re almost living in a kind of a war zone at that level.
Kasaun: Did you ever see the clip? You guys ever seen a clip of the little white guy who’s getting arrested in the airport and on his way down? He’s like, “You’re treating me like a black guy. Come on.”
Jay: What was the biggest takeaway for me when you were talking about the breakdown of the caste system is also a divine reason, like the introduction of like a mythology and an otherworldly power. A great chain of being that says, “Oh Black people —
Jon: The curse of ham.
Jay: Which, the curse of ham, which is just hypertension. The actual curse —
Jay: The actual curse of ham is high sodium. That’s what the curse of ham is.
Jay: But you think black people are slaves because no one’s son saw his dad drunk and naked?
Jon: And that held for how many hundreds of years? But you know, what’s funny, though it just shifts. It just shifts. That’s the thing. The caste system can move the goalposts. That’s what you. The caste system is incredibly rigid when it comes to place, and incredibly flexible when it comes to justification. Boy, it’s evasive.
Kasaun: That’s why I think Isabel’s metaphor of the preexisting condition is perfect because I think responsibility of like, I don’t own slaves, you’re not enslaved. We’re supposed to be good, which makes the conversation so evasive. But now when you think, when you bring diabetes into a situation, now, now we all seem to understand.
Jon: We go like, “Oh, we got to take care of this.”
Jon: I don’t want to lose a foot. I gotta take care of this.
Jay: But people get very, very scared. People get very upset. I don’t want to talk about the hat while wearing the hat while attempting to put on another hat. But people are going to say that Jon’s talking to a lot of black people. Do you have any white voices on this thing? And that’s the threat of dominant like loss that she was talking about. The loss of dominant group status is very scary just visually to people.
Jon: But it’s been also made scary, and I think that the mythologizing of it has been made scary because now you do have this thing of like, it’s almost like a doomsday clock for white people that this idea that in 2050, when that clock ticks over like run for the hills because it’s over, it’s it’s been turned and mythologized into this negative where it’s just like, no, it’s just a composition of the same ideal.
Kasaun: If there is a silver lining is that in the NAACP, you only have to change color to Caucasian and you can keep.
Jon: You can keep all the swag the same.
Kasaun: The National Advancement —
Jon: All the bumper stickers, all the sweatshirts?
Kasaun: The National Association for the Advancement of Caucasian People, it still sticks.
Jay: No, K, we can’t give them the life hacks. Why we helping?
Jon: Let me ask you guys, what do you guys have planned for us? I just want to know what you have planned for us.
Jay: Jon, I think —
Jon: And our Jews flexible enough that I can jump to the other when you guys become dominant castes. Can I jump on that? Look at this skin tint. Come on. Olive.
Jay: Jon. I just want to say I think it is beautiful that you think you will still be here, but also.
Jon: That’s so f***ing funny and correct. I wasn’t even thinking of that. But damn, Jay. Damn.
Jay: We can posthumously redraft you.
Jon: Thank you. That’s all I’m asking.
Jay: We can also do, we can pull what we did with Babe Ruth, where we just look at the photos. We go, “Nah, if you look at his nose, I’m actually thinking we just got a black and white photos.”
Jon: That’s fine. That’s fine.
Jay: You know what? Just go ahead and put them in.
Jon: I’m down with that.
Jay: We even did it with Hoover. We did It with J. Edgar Hoover. We were like, “Nah, that’s the best curl pattern.”
Kasaun: That’s a fact.
Jay: Jon doesn’t know this.
Jon: I did not know this.
Kasaun: That Hoover is —
Jay: J. Edgar Hoover. Yeah, there’s a — it’s the same way that a lot of people who are like, very Italian, you’re like, Oh, you’re Italian. What part of North Africa are you from?
Jon: Yeah, that’s right. And when did the Moors visit your town by chance?
Jay: Yeah. Yeah. Don’t get mad.
Jon: And that’s how it shows the whole ridiculous of the whole f***ing thing is, we probably all are like every, you know, and if you believe in the Bible, we’re all we come from one person anyway. Like, what the f***?
Kasaun: Thank you, Jon. To our original point we were trying to get to at the end of this episode.
Kasaun: Black on black crime is American crime. Thank you. [JAY LAUGHS]
Jon: And with that Kasaun rode off into the distance,
Jon: Good s***, guys, thanks to Isabel Wilkerson, Kasaun and Jay. Great f***ing job.
Jay: Thank you.
Jon: Hope you guys enjoyed it. For more. More content, check out the newsletter. Subscribe to the problem dot Com. Check out the Apple TV+ version. A link is in the episode description. Also, guys, Apple News has a little In Conversation podcast. They were nice enough to interview me, covered a lot of topics from the show, and I really enjoyed talking on it. So if you get a chance to check out that as well, this is the last podcast for a little bit. We got a little break coming up and going to take a little break, drop some bonus episodes in the coming weeks. You guys want to do some, well, we’ll do a couple of bonus episodes. We’ll miss each other. We got to do it, in the meantime. Tell us what you think of the show, Twitter and where else do people tell you what they think? Twitter. I don’t know. A hotline. I think we have a hotline.
Kasaun: If you haven’t been to —
Jay: We do have a hotline.
Kasaun: There are. There are YouTube comments, Jon.
Jon: Tell us there, too. Tell us on, on YouTube there. All right. We’ll be back very, very soon. Thanks a lot. And we’ll see you guys. Buh bye.
Jon: The Problem With Jon Stewart Podcast is an Apple TV+ podcast and a joint Busboy Production.