UW-Madison welcomed journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson as the keynote speaker for the Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium on Jan. 25, 2021.
Wilkerson, author of Caste and The Warmth of Other Suns, is the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism. This event was hosted virtually by the Wisconsin Union Theater, UW-Madison Student Affairs and the Division of Diversity, Equity & Educational Achievement.
The evening began with remarks from Deputy Vice Chancellor for Diversity & Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer Cheryl Gittens as well as Chancellor Rebecca Blank. They discussed the importance of Dr. King’s legacy and how there is still much work to be done in terms of achieving racial equality. Chancellor Blank reflected on Dr. King’s two visits to UW-Madison in 1962 and 1965, as well as the University’s history of student activism on campus.
Wilkerson was introduced by Chelsea Hilton, a UW-Madison senior and Co-Editor in Chief of The Black Voice, a publication featuring perspectives from Black UW-Madison students. Wilkerson discussed her most recent book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, which discusses the unspoken caste system that exists in the United States, comparing it to that of India and Nazi Germany.
Wilkerson began by discussing Dr. King’s trip to India and the parallels he noticed between the caste system in India and the racial hierarchy that exists in the United States.
“Caste is essentially an artificial, arbitrary way of ranking human value in society,” Wilkerson said. “It is what determines one's standing, the access to resources, denial of access to those resources, functions of competence and intelligence and worthiness. Through no fault or action of one’s own, but based upon the hierarchy that was created in this country in the 17th Century.”
Wilkerson compares the fate of George Floyd, who was accused of trying to use a counterfeit twenty dollar bill and murdered by police on video, to the rioters that broke into the capitol building on January 6th, who destroyed the building, threatened the lives of lawmakers, and attacked police officers, with almost no consequence at the time.
“How is it that there are two parallel worlds coexisting in the same country?” Wilkerson asked.
The discussion then turned to a question and answer format.
In response to a question about whether Dr. King would still have the same nonviolent approach to addressing the United State’s current racial climate, Wilkerson said, “He would have to have been heartbroken to see that 50 years after his battles — here we are still. ”
Wilkerson concluded the night by explaining how the racial hierarchy in the United States squanders talent, energy and potential throughout humankind.
She added, “If we could just see how it's holding all of us back, we could have a greater motivation and be more greatly inspired to finally go in and overhaul and repair all the damage that has been done over hundreds and hundreds of years.”
Due to disruption with Ms. Wilkerson’s live stream that made it difficult to hear her lecture, the MLK Symposium will be re-broadcasted on February 9th at 6 p.m. CST as a part of UW-Madison’s Black History Month events.