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Opinion: ‘Origin’ brilliantly exposes America’s caste system. Here’s how we tear it down

Editor’s Note: Keith Magee is senior fellow and visiting professor in cultural justice at University College London Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose. He is the author of “Prophetic Justice: Essays and Reflections on Race, Religion and Politics.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

In a week when would-be GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis told a CNN town hall, “The US is not a racist country,” and his rival Nikki Haley told Fox News, “We’ve never been a racist country,” the release of the movie “Origin” could not be more timely.

Keith Magee - Arron Dunworth
Keith Magee - Arron Dunworth

Written and directed by the exceptionally talented Ava DuVernay, the film — a masterful adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson’s bestselling book “Caste: The Origins of our Discontents” — unflinchingly demonstrates that the US is indeed a racist country, and has been since its very inception.

And underpinning that racism is what Wilkerson refers to as a caste system so effective at preserving the domination of White people over everyone else that the Nazis were inspired by it. Caste, Wilkerson says, is the system that creates subjugation.

What Wilkerson refers to in her book as “the false god of race” was invented by slave-owning European colonists as a convenient way of identifying at a glance who belonged to which caste — and who belonged to whom.

The movie “Origin, which opened in wide release on Friday, will leave no American viewer in any doubt that they are still living under a system designed entirely for the manufacture, justification, codification and perpetuation of hate based on skin color.

Boldly choosing to turn Wilkerson’s non-fiction book into a biographical drama, DuVernay focuses on the writer’s journey. Struggling to cope with personal tragedy, Wilkerson is horrified by the audio of the 911 call that recorded Trayvon Martin’s killing and feels compelled to investigate what lies beneath racism.

We follow Wilkerson’s travels as she dissects caste, comparing and connecting its devastating impact on those it places at the bottom of the social hierarchy: Dalits (previously known as “untouchables”) in India, Jews in Nazi Germany and Black people in the US.

Allowing her to be the film’s heroine helps advance the movie’s narrative. Drawing hard-hitting depictions of key historical moments and present-day encounters, DuVernay faithfully tells Wilkerson’s story, while the author’s on-screen character, portrayed by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, relates the story of our country’s faulty foundations.

Through its no-holds-barred center-staging of the writer’s journey, “Origin” reminds us of the gratitude we owe Wilkerson and others before her — including W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr. — who don’t just live with the weight of racial injustice themselves but put in the work to understand and expose our collective trauma. Ideas matter, DuVernay is saying. They don’t just spring from nowhere. This is personal.

And let’s face it: it’s not often we get to see a successful Black female intellectual as the main character in a movie. Ellis-Taylor is mesmerizing in the role of Isabel, portraying her as driven, brilliant and dignified while delicately capturing the depths of her grief and her vast capacity for love.

We watch Isabel exploring Germany’s poignant memorials to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, discussing in one scene how successfully post-war Germany condemned its 12-year caste system to the past. The US, however, is not Germany. Here, the battle to overcome hundreds of years of race-based subjugation requires intergenerational stamina.

Nevertheless, efforts to memorialize the US victims of racial hatred are vital and are gaining ground. Movies like this one have a crucial role to play in helping Americans confront their history. But we need to do more than learn about and honor the dead. We need to liberate the living and their descendants.

Of course, we must keep fighting to dismantle systemic racism — what Wilkerson refers to in her book as the “infrastructure” of caste. However, the act of codifying the unjustifiable has created hate that’s embedded deep enough within society to outlast mere legal reforms.

Hard-won and fragile civil rights gains have not yet protected Black and brown Americans from the wide-ranging harms that stem from racial inequality, nor from the unbearable humiliation of being seen as inherently inferior by many of their fellow citizens.

The concept of caste works by dehumanizing members of the group occupying a subordinate position, making it easier for the dominant group to subjugate them. In a quietly significant scene in “Origin,” a MAGA-hat wearing White plumber called to fix Isabel’s flooded basement is initially cruelly dismissive of both her predicament and her recent bereavement. Hurt but undeterred, she asks whether his mother is still alive. In doing so, she touches his soul — he suddenly sees her as another human being.

“It is harder to dehumanize a single individual that you have gotten the chance to know. Which is why people and groups who seek power and division do not bother with dehumanizing an individual. Better to attach a stigma, a taint of pollution to an entire group,” Wilkerson tells us in “Caste. This is why I believe empathy is the real key to overcoming inequality in the US — we must rise above the invisible constraints of caste and simply get to know one another.

But the false social construct of race is a barrier — it tricks us into assuming we can’t possibly understand each other. It stops us from seeing and rejoicing in our shared humanity. If we are to succeed in rehumanizing people who have been dehumanized for centuries, as a nation we must first deconstruct race itself.

I am not suggesting we seek to erase or deny differences — quite the opposite. Culture, ethnicity and heritage are real and precious, and should be cherished. Our rich diversity, in all its forms, should be understood exclusively as something to be valued.

I know it will take a long time to deconstruct race. However, there are reasons for optimism. Among Black Americans, attitudes to race are evolving. Although most Black adults in the US still see their racial identity as being important or extremely important to how they think about themselves, young Black Americans are less likely than their older peers to say this. I suspect this trend will continue, as identity becomes an increasingly complex mix of factors, including ancestry, economic status, faith and sexuality.

At the same time, the racial makeup of the US is changing. According to the 2020 census data the proportion of people who identify as non-Hispanic White is in decline. The good news is, most Americans don’t actually think this matters — the majority of adults (including, significantly, 62% of White people) now see this demographic change as being neither good nor bad for society. So maybe, as we begin to redefine and expand the intersecting communities to which we feel we belong, rather than the castes to which we are assigned, race is gradually losing its hold over us.

I hope DuVernay’s powerful movie will inspire everyone who sees it to defy racism. I would urge you to go and watch “Origin,” then walk out of that movie theater determined to make a connection with someone who is not considered to be of what society could consider to be your caste. Listen to their stories, learn about their aspirations, look for the things you have in common.

If we each do that on a regular basis, we will eventually sweep away the rotten social structures that have divided us for far too long. Together, we can fix up this country, just as Wilkerson fixes up her old house in the movie, by building new foundations based on true equality, empathy and love.

It’s never too late. Every single one of us has skin in the game, for, as Wilkerson points out, the caste system diminishes us all, wherever we may sit in its fabricated hierarchy.

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