Race and Discrimination in To Kill a Mockingbird

As of late, we are reminded that racial discrimination remains an issue in our country. It is apparent that there are still important conversations to be had. However, progress has been made, as is evident when we compare today with the time and society portrayed in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Atticus Finch fighting discrimination
Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson

Published in 1960, Lee’s novel takes place in fictional Maycomb, Alabama—a small town in the deep South, struggling to recover from the Great Depression. Throughout the book the narrator, 6-year-old Scout Finch, learns the value of empathy and the importance of kindness. She watches her father, Atticus Finch, defend Tom Robinson—a black man accused of raping a white woman. Robinson’s innocence is clear, but it’s the color of his skin, not his actions or character, that dictates his fate.

Fighting a Tradition of Discrimination

Lee received the Pulitzer Prize for Mockingbird in 1961—and though the novel is beloved by many, widely read and a standard in school curriculum, it’s also a source of controversy. Every so often, parents and teachers challenge the book in attempts to ban it from school curriculum. They take issue with its description of rape, its dark themes, and its prominent use of the n-word. “Negro” appears 54 times in the novel, and the n-word appears 48 times.

It’s important to remember that, while Lee was writing about a time when discrimination was rampant, she was also writing during such a time. In the 1930s, when the book takes place, racial segregation was alive and well. It started with the passage of the Jim Crow laws in 1887, and didn’t begin to end until 1954 when segregation was no longer legal. Meanwhile, mixed marriages were still illegal when Lee wrote Mockingbird—laws prohibiting them weren’t invalidated until 1967.

The Uncorrupt Minds of Children

In Maycomb we see a town divided. Most townsfolk can’t fathom the idea that Maycomb’s black residents are equal to its white ones. But others—Atticus, Miss Maudie, Judge Taylor—treat everyone equally, with respect, kindness and reason.

Yet it’s not through these characters that we see Tom Robinson’s trial. We watch from the balcony through the eyes of the children—Scout, Jem and Dill. We see them learn the law and the unwritten rules of society (two concepts that aren’t always in alignment). Scout and Dill, in particular, are blank slates. We see them develop ideals of equality and become repulsed by the cruelty and hypocrisy of some men. At one point Dill must leave the trial because he’s sickened by the way people talk to Robinson.

The subject matter of racial discrimination in To Kill a Mockingbird may be a difficult one for a book aimed at youths, but it’s also an issue that’s necessary to confront. Through Lee’s treatment of the unfortunate, ugly truth of discrimination, we learn that, where there is empathy, kindness and reason, there is also hope. Children then and now must face this problem early and honestly in order to affect change.

How do you feel about Harper Lee’s treatment of racial discrimination in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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