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Racism in To Kill a Mockingbird

An Evaluation of the Treatment of Racism in To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird was published in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement was growing and striving to attain equal rights for African-Americans. During this period, racial segregation and discrimination were commonplace throughout the United States, particularly in the Southern states. Although civil rights activity was widespread when Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee chose instead to set the novel during the 1930s in Maycomb, Alabama. Some commentators, such as Tamara Castleman, suggest that Lee chose the 1930s to demonstrate that the civil rights movement was a gradual development that ‘had a long history of making ‘baby step[s]’’.

Although racially motivated organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan were being resisted in the 1930s, racism was still rampant throughout the Southern states. It is not surprising therefore, that Lee’s novelexposes various forms of racism and prejudice that were prevalent at the time. Some reviewers have suggested however, that racial prejudice is not a significant theme in the novel. This position is premised on the fact that Lee dedicates only a small portion of the novel to the trial of Tom Robinson, an innocent black man convicted by an all-white jury of raping a white woman. This viewpoint suggests that the theme of racism only emerges in the novel after Tom Robinson is accused of rape.

However, as Diann L. Baecker notes in her article, ‘Telling It in Black and White: The Importance of the Africanist Presence in To Kill a Mockingbird, ‘there is no one-to-one correspondence between a theme’s importance and the number of words devoted to it’. Nevertheless, these reviewers maintain that the racial themes of the novel have taken precedence over more dominant themes such as the mockingbird metaphor, education, and social classification. These critics fail to recognize that Lee develops the racism motif by connecting it to other equally important issues in the novel, thereby making racism the main focus of To Kill a Mockingbird. This paper will analyze the progression of the racial theme through Lee’s development of the novel’s characters, and evaluate how Lee connects the issue of racism to other themes in the novel such as education, prejudice, and use of the mockingbird metaphor.

The issue of racial prejudice is primarily introduced into the novel through Lee’s depiction of both black and white characters. It is through the manner in which these characters interact that Lee reveals how human behaviour is motivated by preconceived notions about race. There are several white characters in the novel that are clearly portrayed in a negative light. The Ewells and Aunt Alexandra are examples of characters in the novel who freely express their superiority over the black community, and take it upon themselves to perpetuate the segregation of African-Americans.

Bob Ewell specifically shows prejudice towards the black community when he accuses Tom Robinson of raping his daughter Mayella. Although Tom Robinson did not commit the crime for which he was accused, Bob Ewell incriminated Tom Robinson because Mayella had ‘tempted a Negro’ and in doing so had broken a ‘rigid and time honoured code’. It is important to note, however, that although the Ewells are members of the white community and by default are socially above the black community, they live on a garbage dump and are regarded as white trash. As Lee writes, ‘All the little man on the witness stand had that made him any better than his nearest neighbours was that, if scrubbed with lye soap in very hot water, his skin was white’.

Aunt Alexandra also expresses her distaste, and Maycomb’s contempt, for the black community in various ways. For instance, Aunt Alexandra refuses to let Atticus’ children visit Calpurnia’s home because it would be inappropriate for white children to interact with the black community in their neighbourhood, let alone their house. According to Aunt Alexandra, black and white people can never be on equal footing and she attempts to impose this view on the Finch family. As Claudia Johnson notes in ‘The Secret Courts of Men’s Hearts: Code and Law in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, ‘Aunt Alexandra brings with her a code that delineates very narrowly ladies and gentlemen, black and white people, ‘good’ families and trash’.

Although Lee clearly depicts these characters as ‘true’ racists such that everything they do and say is aimed at segregating and degrading the black community, there are different shades of racial discrimination amongst other white inhabitants of Maycomb. For instance, although the editor and printer of Maycomb’s town newspaper, Mr. Underwood clearly despises the black community, he is prepared to protect Atticus from the white mob which attempts to lynch Tom Robinson. In addition, after Tom is killed during his attempt to escape prison, Mr. Underwood writes a compassionate editorial wherein ‘He likened Tom’s death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children…’.

Mr. Dolphus Raymond’s character is sharply contrasted with the other white characters in the novel through his opposition to racial segregation, which is demonstrated by his living with a black woman and having mixed children. He expresses his contempt for the way in which black people are treated in Maycomb noting ‘the hell white people give coloured folks, without even stopping to think that they’re people, too’. Although Mr. Raymond appears to resist the racist society in which he lives, he feels the need to excuse his behaviour by pretending to be drunk: ‘Secretly, Miss Finch, I’m not much of a drinker, but you see they could never, never understand that I live like I do because that’s the way I want to live’.

Lee contrasts these white characters with the black characters in the novel by presenting the black members of Maycomb in a positive light. However, Lee does manage to demonstrate that prejudice on the basis of race does not itself have racial borders. Just as the white community discriminates against the black community, Lula, a black female character, criticizes Calpurnia for bringing white children to their all-black church: ‘You ain’t got no business bringin’ white children here – they got their church, we got ours’. Lula’s reaction to the white children can be viewed as her acceptance of the town’s view that black people should be segregated. In fact, it can be argued that all the main black characters in the novel are depicted as passive creatures who silently assume the roles the white people have delineated for them.

For instance, Tom Robinson is physically presented as a strong, powerful young black man, but when cross-examined by Bob Ewell’s lawyer, he is portrayed as being subservient, scared, frail and timid. Calpurnia’s place in the Finch household is also clearly indicative of race relations during the 1930s. Although Calpurnia performs all the duties and functions of a mother, her role is clearly defined and she is not viewed as an equal member of the Finch family. In casting the characters in this manner, Lee appears to have suppressed the African-American voice and their fight for equality. Issac Saney in his article, ‘The case against To Kill a Mockingbird, elaborates on this view stating that, ‘the most egregious characteristic of the novel is the denial of the history of agency of Black people. They are robbed of their role as subjects of history, reduced to mere objects who are passive hapless victims; mere spectators and bystanders in the struggle against their own oppression and exploitation’.

In spite of these criticisms, the characters in Lee’s novel, both black and white, contribute to the novel’s discourse on racial prejudice by drawing attention to overt examples of racism and attacking various misconceptions and stereotypes about black people. As Carolyn Jones states in her piece, ‘Atticus Finch and the Mad Dog: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the trial of Tom Robinson and the accusation of rape against Mayella Ewell threaten the racial dichotomy in Maycomb and bring to the forefront the idea that white people can accept change, and that black people are not as the white man depicts.

In addition to the author’s use of racialized characters, Lee also explores the role of racial prejudice through the theme of education. In the novel, there are examples which reveal that racism is a result of ignorance, and that education is the key to understanding and accepting diversity. However, Lee does not seem to be advocating for academic teaching but rather informal education that is taught by one’s parents and peers. Lee contrasts the type of education that Scout receives in school with the moral teachings she receives from Atticus. For instance, while Scout’s teachers show disgust for the unruly upbringing of some of the poorer children in the class, Atticus teaches Scout to accept people for their differences by learning to walk in their shoes. Scout therefore learns important lessons about misjudging people and criticizing others for being different through her interactions with Atticus. It is this type of moral education that assists Scout to overcome her misapprehensions about the ‘Other’ in society.

Lee’s emphasis on education as an essential tool for overcoming racial discrimination is also evidenced in Jem’s discussion with Scout regarding the type of folks that make up Maycomb. According to Jem, there are four kinds of folks that make up their society, the ordinary kind like the Finches and their neighbours, the Cunninghams, the Ewells and the Negroes. In attempting to understand what distinguishes these groups and why they do not get along, Jem decides that ‘background’ is the distinguishing factor - the ability to read and write. Jem’s analysis is echoed in Miss Maudie Atkinson’s words when she informs Aunt Alexandra that the people in Maycomb with ‘background’ have taken a stance against racial prejudice and see black people as their equal.

Counter to the idea that education is a cure for racism is the fact that Lee shows, through Scout and Jem’s character, that naivety is a means through which one can truly see the injustice of differentiating black people and treating them as less than equal. For example, Atticus states in response to Jem’s question as to how the jury could convict an innocent man, ‘I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it – seems that only children weep’. It could be reasoned however, that Jem and Scout are able to obtain this unique perspective on racism, not because they are innocent children, but because they are Atticus’ children. As Atticus’ children they learn valuable life lessons and are taught to respect other people for their differences.

Yet it is through the introduction of Dill’s character that Lee seems to again suggest that innocence, not education, is the key to overcoming racial oppression. During the trial, Dill, a young boy who spends his summers in Maycomb, manifests Jem’s indignation towards Tom Robinson’s persecution when he states, ‘I don’t care one speck. It ain’t right, somehow it ain’t right to do ’em that way’. It could be argued however, that Dill’s reaction to the unfairness of Tom Robinson’s trial, is a result of his interaction with the Finch family rather than his ingenuousness; it is through Jem and Scout that Dill learns to view the world through Atticus’ colour-blind lens.

Lee therefore uses Atticus’ character as a means by which to show that it is only through moral education that people can learn to embrace diversity and overcome the ‘evil assumption -that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted…’. As Jones states, ‘Atticus, through his defense of Tom Robinson and by his very presence, brings into question these assumptions, forcing those ideas to become conscious and, perhaps, to be articulated’.

While the issue of race is undeniably a prevalent theme in the novel, some critics contend that the story is more about Boo Radley than the trial and death of an innocent black man. As Baecker explains, ‘If contemporary scholars sometimes minimize the importance of race in the novel, it is small wonder, considering the fact that the author does so, too. As more than one reviewer has pointed out, Lee’s novel begins and ends with Boo Radley’. Baecker maintains however, that there are many similarities in the novel between Boo Radley and Tom Robinson, and suggests that Lee contrasts these two characters in order to highlight the ‘racial element of the novel’. Boo Radley, like Tom Robinson, is discriminated against and misjudged on the basis that he is different from everyone else in Maycomb. Although Boo Radley is part of the white community, he too is unjustly accused of being dangerous and cruel.

The mockingbird metaphor is also used by Lee to draw a connection between Boo Radley and Tom Robinson. Atticus explains to his children that it is a ‘sin to kill a mockingbird’ because mockingbirds are gentle harmless creatures. Both Boo Radley and Tom Robinson are described in the novel as calm, good-natured individuals who have never harmed anyone but are consistently discriminated against. Boo Radley is persecuted through the town’s gossip as well as being the subject of the children’s ridicule, continuous harassment and attempts to make ‘Boo Radley come out’. As Castleman notes, ‘The children treat Boo with as much prejudice as the town shows Tom Robinson. They assign characteristics to Boo without validation; they want to see Boo, not as their neighbor, but as a carnival-freak-show-type curiosity.’ Similarly, Tom Robinson is victimized and mistreated for having shown pity and compassion for a white woman. Tom’s death and the harassment that Boo endures are depicted in the novel as a ‘senseless slaughter’ akin to ‘shootin’ a mockingbird’. As Kevin Hardacre states, Tom Robinson and Boo Radley are portrayed in the novel as ‘‘mockingbird’ figures that are needlessly tormented by society’. Thus, Lee uses the mockingbird image and the town’s prejudices against Boo Radley to draw attention to the issue of racism thereby making it a central theme in the novel.

Racial prejudice is deeply rooted in various aspects of To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee uses a variety of different characters and their reactions to the prejudice prevalent in Maycomb to highlight the racism issue and stress its importance in the novel. Lee also uses several characters to emphasize the remedial role of education by demonstrating that racism can be stopped if one learns to consider people from a different perspective. More importantly, Lee, by establishing a relationship between racism and other forms of prejudice in the novel, is able to address the racial inequalities prevalent in the Southern states in the 1930s, and at the same time reveal that the civil rights movement began with a step, maybe ‘it’s just a baby-step, but it’s a step’. As R.A. Dave states in his article, ‘though not a tragedy, it is…one of the most effective expressions of the voice of protest against the injustice to the Negro in the white world’.


Baecker, Diann L., ‘Telling It in Black and White: The Importance of the Africanist Presence in To Kill a Mockingbird,’ The Southern Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 3 (Spring 1998) pp.124-132.

Castleman, Tamara, Cliff Notes On Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, (New York, Wiley Publishing Inc., 2000).

Dave, R.A., ‘To Kill A Mockingbird: Harper Lee’s Tragic Vision,’ Studies in American Fiction, (India, MacMillan Press, 1994), pp. 311-323.

Hardacre, Kenneth, Brodie’s Notes on Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, (London, MacMillan Press, 1990).

Johnson, Claudia, ‘The Secret Courts of Men’s Hearts: Code and Law in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Studies in American Fiction, vol. 19, no.2 (1991), pp. 129-139.

Jones, Carolyn, ‘Atticus Finch and the Mad Dog: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird,’ The Southern Quarterly, vol. 34, no. 4 (Summer 1996) pp. 53-62.

Lee, Harper, To Kill a Mockingbird (United Kingdom, The Random House Group Ltd., 1960).

Saney, Issac, ‘The case against To Kill a Mockingbird, Race & Class, Institute of Race Relations, vol. 45(1) (2003), pp. 99-104.

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