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Isabel Wilkerson wants to change how we understand race in America

The award-winning author on living in the shadow of America’s caste system.

Civil rights activists around the time of the 1960s Memphis sanitation workers strike are blocked by National Guard members brandishing bayonets while trying to stage a protest on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee.
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Isabel Wilkerson is an intimidating interview. She’s a former New York Times reporter, Pulitzer Prize recipient, Guggenheim fellow, and hands-down one of the best writers of our time. Her 2010 book The Warmth of Other Suns, a beautiful narrative history of the Great Migration, was a landmark achievement, and remains one of the all-time most recommended books on this show.

Wilkerson worked for years on her new book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, which grapples with a question that has become all the more relevant in recent months: What does America look like when the myths we tell ourselves about who we are, who we’ve been, and what we’ve created fall away? How should we understand the way the racial hierarchies of our past still shape our present?

Caste is a book built around a big theory: that America is a caste system and that, to understand it, we need to drop our sense of exceptionalism and analyze ourselves the way we analyze caste systems in other countries. But it is also a book built around dozens — hundreds — of smaller stories.

Wilkerson’s genius as a writer is her ability to connect the macro and the micro, to tell you the big story of what happened but to make that story matter by linking it to the lives of those who survived it. That is, to me, her unique contribution: What in the hands of another writer would feel like an abstraction attains, in her work, the vividness and emotional power of lived experience.

This is a big conversation, and it’s not always an easy one. But it is one you will not forget.

You can listen to our discussion by streaming it here, or by subscribing to The Ezra Klein Show wherever you get your podcasts.

Isabel Wilkerson’s book recommendations:

Annihilation of Caste by B.R. Ambedkar

Deep South by Allison Davis and Burleigh Gardner

The Heart of Man by Eric Fromm

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