Re: To Kill a Mockingbird: Chapters 25 - 31
I was surprised by this comment as I had assumed that opposition to racism and discrimination was a key part of the personality of Atticus Finch. Looking back through the book, there are several incidents that support this anti-racist interpretation.
Chapter 3: Atticus instructs Scout to learn to see things from another person’s point of view. This is something that racists resolutely refuse to do. Instead they assume only their own perspective is legitimate
A key episode is in Chapter 9, where Scout asks Atticus if he “defend niggers”. His response is “Of course I do. Don’t say nigger, Scout. That’s common.” To Scout's rejoinder “‘s what everybody at school says,” Atticus replies “From now on it’ll be everybody less one—”. The thoroughly racialised environment of the education system is then illustrated by Scout's question “Well if you don’t want me to grow up talkin‘ that way, why do you send me to school?” My father looked at me mildly, amusement in his eyes.
For Atticus to ban use of the term ‘nigger’ as ‘common’ reflected a strongly anti-racist perspective in 1930s Alabama.
Next comes the family altercation, where Scout’s cousin sets out the racist perspective, saying “If Uncle Atticus lets you run around with stray dogs, that’s his own business, like Grandma says, so it ain’t your fault. I guess it ain’t your fault if Uncle Atticus is a nigger-lover besides, but I’m here to tell you it certainly does mortify the rest of the family—”
It is quite complicated to see how someone like Atticus could be generally viewed in this way and yet still be racist.
There are more examples, most notably his whole conduct of the court case, which requires remarkable courage on his part including standing up to a lynch mob. The book title means it is immoral to punish the innocent. Thinking that through, any act of racial discrimination involves punishment of the innocent, so the entire premise of To Kill A Mockingbird
is the moral critique of racism.
On the other hand, there is the sense that Atticus is just standing up for the core values of western civilization, embodied in his name, which is Roman for Athenian, and so symbolises the tenets of democracy, urbanity and freedom. But Athenians were totally racist against those they condemned as barbarians. The Athenian economy ran on slavery, so it is entirely possible that a modern American depicted as holding Athenian values could be racist, based on the relative priority they give to ethical concepts of human rights as against concepts like imperial stability.
The touchstone of racism is whether a person pre-judges another person's capacity on the basis of skin colour or family background. I’m sure it is correct that no one in Alabama a century ago could have avoided such prejudicial assumptions, as the explicit philosophy of anti-racism only gradually evolved.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-racism
explains that “although many Abolitionists did not regard blacks or mulattos as equal to whites, they did, in general, believe in freedom and often even equality of treatment for all people.” This illustrates that it is entirely possible to oppose the injustice of slavery or lynching while holding the racist view that blacks are intrinsically inferior to whites. I don’t read anything in To Kill A Mockingbird
that suggests Atticus held that racist view, but nor is there anything to explicitly show he did not.
Thanks, that illustrates how Lee’s thinking evolved, since To Kill a Mockingbird
has no avowal of any racist sentiments by Atticus except this strange comparison to the racist senator that prompted this discussion. Perhaps the editor saw that the dramatic power of the book would be enhanced by toning down the original idea of Atticus as holding the same values as his community.
Moral legitimacy always requires a sense of divine mandate, a belief that values are part of the natural order. Racism cannot survive unless racists sincerely believe their views are good, since no community can endure with a view of itself as evil.
This is a good point, illustrating the gradual evolution of prevailing thinking about race. It is important not to impute modern views into people living a century ago. Atticus supports the principle of justice, meaning the right to a fair trial. That does not indicate he understood justice to require abolition of legal inequality based on race.