School News

Dismantling the Caste System with Isabel Wilkerson at the Handleman Lecture

By Nicholle Cardinal

At the root of many societal issues is an unspoken caste system that can be traced back through history. However, according to Isabel Wilkerson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, business has the power to disrupt that system.

Wilkerson delivered her message at the 2022 Handleman Lecture, an annual event established in 2008 by a gift to the Ross School of Business from the Joseph and Sally Handleman Charitable Foundation. The lecture series focuses on important issues in business and society in order to expose students to emerging business challenges and opportunities. 

Castes through history

Wilkerson spoke on The Caste System and How Business Can Disrupt It. She defined “caste” and described examples of inherited history and hierarchies in the United States, from enslavement to the Jim Crow era and the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. She noted that while Americans alive today did not build this country, they have inherited and taken possession of not just its present-day appearance, but its history and preexisting conditions. Therefore, she argued, Americans are responsible for the country’s healing, repairs, and maintenance.

Wilkerson drew parallels through history to more recent events, including the Jan. 6 insurrection, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the murder of George Floyd, to demonstrate how the caste system still exists in society today.

The event ended with a moderated discussion between Wilkerson and Sharon F. Matusik, Edward J. Frey Dean of Business at Michigan Ross. Wilkerson addressed how she is inspired by individuals who break out of their expected roles and how business can be used as a tool to disrupt the caste system.

“We are looking at so many crises on the planet, we don't have time to be divided. It's urgent that we recognize how much we have in common and how much we need each other,” said Wilkerson. 

I think the responsibility of business is to find the best talent, make use of the best talent, and lift up the best talent so that we can solve the problems of our time.

Isabel Wilkerson

About Isabel Wilkerson

Photo credit: Joe Henson

An acclaimed journalist, historian, and gifted storyteller, Wilkerson is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Humanities Medal. She is also the author of two New York Times bestsellers, The Warmth of Other Suns and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Wilkerson has lectured at more than 200 colleges and universities across the United States. She is known for her passionate research and ability to connect with audiences across backgrounds in an effort to bring the struggles of the marginalized to light.

In her latest work, Caste, Wilkerson examines the unspoken and often unacknowledged caste system in the United States, demonstrating how inherited hierarchy and social division still define the lives of Americans today. Overall, Wilkerson’s work demonstrates how understanding America’s history can shed light on the current era of upheaval and help us to heal.