The theme of racism in Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird"

Term Paper 2019 9 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works


Racism Theme in To Kill a Mockingbir

In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, the theme of racism is highlighted in various interactions between the characters. The story is narrated through the eyes of the protagonist, Scout, who resides in a fictional town in Alabama named Maycomb with her father Atticus and brother Jem. In the novel, various aspects of the vice are depicted, mainly in the conflict between the whites and the African-American community. Most of the misunderstandings in the town are caused by stereotypes that are told by members of opposing races. The narration thus details how prejudices and injustices along racial lines can impede social harmony.

The discrimination against individuals based on their race was a common phenomenon in the 1930s. In history, people of color, particularly the blacks, were not accepted in white society. The white majority exercised supremacy over the black minority, and the latter was mainly involved in manual labor. According to Lee et al., the discrimination against the black community primarily affected the African-Americans because they were the largest ethnic population in the white society (13). To Kill a Mockingbird highlights the practice in a small town of Maycomb through various characters who exhibit different views on the topic. Scout's family, including her father, Atticus, brother Jem, and cousin Francis are portrayed as being neutral to racism in a community that is highly divided along racial lines. For instance, Scout's Cousin Francis depicts Atticus as a "nigger-lover" and makes it sound like a terrible abuse. Scout admits that she does not understand what it means; however, she does not like how Francis used it. Atticus explains that the term means nothing: "Nigger-lover is just one of those terms that don't mean anything-like snot-nose….it's slipped into usage with some people like ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody" (Lee 113). The term was not only derogatory towards people of color, but it was also a disparaging term meant to depict the Whites who supported them.

To Kill a Mockingbird was set in the 1930s, a period that was characterized by the Great Depression and economic hardships. Maycomb was a small town occupied by people in the lower social class and from various ethnicities. The society in which Scout lived was fanatic and selfish, only favoring their own. Since the whites were the majority, many atrocities were perpetrated against African Americans. Nonetheless, Atticus's family did not consider an individual's color as a socially divisive element. The family coexisted with other races, often displaying sympathy and respect for the oppressed. Atticus even volunteered to offer his legal services in an alleged rape case against a poor black man, Tom. This decision prompts the anger of the Maycomb society. In chapter nine, Cecil, Scout's classmate proclaims that Atticus is defending a "Negro." "Do you defend niggers, Atticus?" I asked him that evening. "Of course I do. Don't say nigger, Scout. That's common" (Lee 79). The assertion leads to a fight between Scout and Cecil. Scout felt so humiliated with such racist claim that she loses her temper and confront Cecil. Critically, the incident coincides with several connotations in the book. After slavery was abolished in the nineteenth century, the colored members of the society were considered to be equals with their white counterparts, although separate from each other. As a result, segregation continued through inequality in the facilities offered to various ethnicities. The minority groups were perceived as being inferior, and hence, their rights were violated, just like Tom's case in the novel. Tom was accused of rape by a white father and daughter and eventually convicted, even though he did not commit the offense. It can be said that he was unfairly convicted just because he was black.

In the book, Lee takes an anti-racial approach to condemn injustices against minority groups by an overly prejudiced society. The irony is equally applied to further the theme and depict the ignorance among some community members. Atticus is partially blind in his left eye, and he requires glasses to see clearly. Despite being partially blind, he has the best insight on equality in Maycomb. Kids like Scout, Jem, and Dill are impartial to all community members, regardless of their color and despite their lack of knowledge of various societal virtues. Therefore, the author mentions that those who turn a blind eye to racial differences can live in harmony with everybody despite their ethnicities. The people in the town of Maycomb have racism ingrained in them to a point where people of different colors alienate themselves from activities that would involve socializing. Scout, at some point in the book, questions her father why he settled on representing Tom Robinson in court since he was from the black community. Atticus replied, "For several reasons … The main one is, if I didn't I couldn't hold up my head in town, I couldn't represent this country in the legislature, I couldn't even tell you or Jem not to do something again … every lawyer gets one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one's mine, I guess" (Lee 80). The incident demonstrates how Atticus perceived the subject of racism. He believed that all people should be treated equally, irrespective of their color.

Unlike Atticus' case, the color-line problem mostly leads to discrimination towards a given ethnicity. Therefore, oppression is exercised on the community that seems most vulnerable, and they are deprived of opportunities, amenities, and justice. The authors remark, "People of nonwhite skin color have been under the Whites' oppression because they were known as uncivilized and inferior by Whites due to their difference in skin color" (Rezazade et al. 48). Black people were always regarded as uncivilized and inferior, as well as savages and criminals. The depiction implies how the various societies maintain stereotypes of their counterparts as is the case in To Kill a Mockingbird. Racism is, therefore, a topic whose definition coincides with the novel's primary theme.

According to the novel, Maycomb could be considered a microcosm of modern society's racism practice. The author's multicultural approach and choice of character traits seem to stand the test of time as it remains relevant in the contemporary world. Although there have been numerous global efforts to foster equity, racism and stereotyping still exists in some regions and among some individuals in the community. Similarly, although Lee uses Maycomb town to pass an anti-racism message, it could equally be argued that the book encourages white supremacy that may lead to prejudice. Atticus and his family are considered heroes mainly for their efforts to save Tom from rape accusations. But they had experienced a threat from the angry society of Maycomb. At this, Scouts respond to angry individuals with a remarkable answer. The situation signifies the racist mentality of the people of that period. According to Macaluso, "Atticus, a white man, is the hero and Tom, an African American man, is the helpless, crippled victim" (280). The plot further develops around Atticus's family heroics, which might be criticized as the author's bias towards undermining racial diversity in the book. However, the critical perspective might not hold much water as To Kill a Mockingbird conveys the intended message of Maycomb's population, which is relatable to most modern neighborhoods.

It is notable that Scout, Jem, and Dill are fascinated by Boo, a shy character who lives with Mr. Radley. Weird stories about Boo drives the three kids to his yard to try and steal a glance of him. When Radley sees Jem's shadow, he mistakes it for a person and shoots at it. The people of Maycomb then presume that he had shot an African-American, and they predispose that "Mr. Radley shot at a Negro in his collard patch" (Lee 11). The racist individuals accuse the "blacks" of any crime in the town and perceive them as being inferior people. In contemporary societies, there have been similar incidences where people from minority groups are mistakenly killed or injured because of their ethnic appearances. Recently there were protests on "Black Lives Matter" following cases of African-American youths being slain particularly by police officers without a real reason. Some studies have also revealed that individuals from certain races are more likely to be treated differently than their white counterparts in similar situations. "Whites imagine themselves as more developed and more human in comparison with the darker skinned "others" (whether African or indigenous) whom they dominated" (Salter et al. 153). In 2018, a young Mexican lady, Claudia Gomez, was shot by an officer who presumed she was armed because she was in the company of other migrants. The prejudicial events leading to the killings match those that were witnessed in Maycomb orchestrated by some residents.



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Title: The theme of racism in Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird"