Isabel Wilkerson

Author Isabel Wilkerson speaks of the nation's 'karmic moment of truth'

October 11, 2022

University News

When Isabel Wilkerson completed her remarks at the University of Richmond, she said she was almost moved to tears by the standing ovation. 

“My father would be so proud to see this moment,” Wilkerson explained. Her father, a Tuskegee airman who fought during World War II, was born in Petersburg. “In everything that I do, I think about my ancestors. It was against the law for my ancestors to read and write, and here I stand with a Pulitzer Prize.” 

Wilkerson, a former New York Times journalist who won two Pulitzers in her time there, is the author of Caste: The Origins of our Discontents. She shared her reflections on the book with the Richmond community at the Modlin Center for the Arts last week. 

The book, a Time magazine 2020 must-read and a New York Times best seller, examines what Wilkerson calls the unspoken system formed by race that has shaped America.   

America’s foundation is damaged because of slavery, she said, which led to a hierarchy of social divisions that still define society today. 

“Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions,” she said. “Slavery became the foundation of a hierarchy built on greed, which mutated to the cracks we see today. This is not ancient history, this is living history. This is something that people alive today are still dealing with.” 

She reflected on the events that have happened since her book was published, including the nationwide protests after the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. 

“This is the country’s karmic moment of truth,” she said. “Slavery was the foundation of our country’s social, economic, and political order. We haven’t addressed, much less reconciled, this history of our country.”

Her books, including Caste, have been removed from schools in some states. 

“I take it as a badge of honor,” she said. “I don’t take it personally. I view this as an acknowledgement that people continue to thirst for knowledge in spite of the efforts that others attempt to use to prevent them from knowing. The thirst for knowledge will prevail over those who prefer to stay in darkness.” 

Wilkerson said she often thinks of the lost potential of enslaved people of African descent. 

“What a tremendous loss to our country,” she said. “We can never get that back. We need to recognize what we’re losing. Everyone loses out when we’re not making the most of all of our talent.”