Erik Lesser / The New York Times

Pulitzer Prize-winning author dives into her book, drawing on a range of issues in a Wednesday lecture.

October 23, 2020

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author Outlines the Structural and Enduring Legacy of Segregation on Inequality

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Diving into the structural and enduring nature of racism and inequality in the United States, Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson spoke at the Cornell Center for Social Sciences’s Annual Distinguished Lecture Wednesday.

In the lecture, titled “Our Racial Moment of Truth,” Wilkerson drew from her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, comparing racial inequality to that of a caste system and emphasizing the importance of knowing the history behind racism in the United States, which she said is necessary to recognize before progressive change and policy can come forth to address racial inequality.

“We cannot fix what we cannot see. We cannot repair what we cannot name. We cannot heal from what has not been diagnosed,” Wilkerson said.

As an example, Wilkerson described how federal housing policies and the history of redlining disproportionately denied Black people mortgages — an issue that not only caused  homeownership inequality, but also the generational wealth gap between white and Black people.

“If your family was denied the chance to be able to get a mortgage in 1950, then that means all of this time that you were denied, other people were able to [accumulate home equity],” she said. “That’s how you get the 10 to 1 wealth gap that we live with today in this country. That’s caste.”

Wilkerson also said the hierarchy of a racialized caste system is still playing out even during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The essential workers who were at risk of being exposed to the virus were more likely to be Black and brown people: people who were bus drivers, stacking shelves at supermarkets, sanitation workers, package deliverers,” Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson added that Black patients are also typically harmed from the unconscious biases that medical professionals hold.

“Despite the advances in medicine, study after study found that unconscious biases creep into the judgement of medical professionals, such as the long discredited stereotype that Black people falsely experience pain at a lower threshold, which [some] medical professionals still harbor,” Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson was asked whether there is evidence that what she described as a “racial caste system” in the U.S. could come to an end, given that “no culture that created a caste system has ever truly ended or erased it.”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author said she remains hopeful.

“Who is to say that the United States could not be the first civilization to do that. Who is to say that we could not do it. Let’s hope,” Wilkerson said.