9-12 Summit Learning

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste

This inquiry leads students through an investigation of Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 book, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents. The central thesis of her work is that American racism is built on a caste system. She builds her argument by highlighting Nazis Germany and the Indian caste system as she defines the central pillars of caste. Ultimately, she argues America exhibits each of the pillars by noting historical and modern examples of each. This argument caused a stir when the book was released and elicited conversation and disagreement. This inquiry asks students to engage with the conversations around this book by arguing why it “hit a nerve” as they learn to engage and evaluate secondary sources.


Compelling Question:

Why Does Isabel Wilkerson’s 'Caste' Hit a Nerve?

Staging the Question:

View Margaret Bourke-White’s The Louisville Flood and come up with an alternate title for the photograph and explain your reasoning for the new title.

Supporting Question What is Wilkerson’s central thesis to her book, Caste?

Formative Task Define the central thesis in Caste.

Sources Source A: Wilkerson, 2020, Caste, Chapter 2: An Old House and an Infrared Light.
Source B: PBS Newshour, ‘Caste’ author Isabel Wilkerson on America’s race and class hierarchy.


Supporting Question What is a caste system?

Formative Task Identify and describe the Eight Pillars of Caste according to Wilkerson.

Sources Source A: Wilkerson, 2020, Caste, Part III: The Eight Pillars of Caste.


Supporting Question How similar is American society to a caste system?

Formative Task Cite evidence of an American caste system based on the Eight Pillars of Caste.

Sources Source A: Wilkerson, 2020, Caste, Part III: The Eight Pillars of Caste.
Source B: New York Times, Amy Cooper
Source C: NPR, Black Babysitter
Source D: ABC News, Unite the Right Rally
Source E: NPR, Loving V. Virginia Audio
Source F: Jim Crow Museum, Anti-Black Imagery
Source G: Reuters, Modern-day Lynching


Supporting Question How have people responded to Wilkerson’s claim that America has a caste system?

Formative Task Evaluate reactions to Wilkerson’s book.

Sources Source A: ForeignPolicy.com, Yashica Dutt
Source B: The New York Times, Dwight Garner
Source C: The Wall Street Journal, Tunku Varadarajan
Source E: The Commentary, Christine Rosen

Summative Performance Task

Argument: Why does Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste hit a nerve? Construct an argument (e.g., detailed outline, poster, essay) that addresses the compelling question and includes specific claims, relevant evidence, and addresses counterclaims.
Extension: Pick a book review you disagree with and write a response addressing their argument and offering your take on Wilkerson’s Caste.

Taking Informed Action

Understand: Research other secondary sources whose argument hits a nerve.
Assess: Evaluate that work’s argument and communicate why it hits a nerve.
Act: Write a book review addressing the central argument and why you think that argument hits a nerve.