Racism in “To Kill a Mockingbird”

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Racism in “To Kill a Mockingbird”


Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is usually seen as a modern classic, as well as one telling two different kinds of stories.  On one hand, it is a coming-of-age story. The reader grows up with Scout and Jem Finch, seeing the world through their eyes as they face new and scary realities.  At the same time, the novel is seen as making a powerful statement about racism. Tom Robinson, the poor black man, is unjustly convicted of rape, even though the real evidence clearly has him innocent. These ways of viewing the novel are correct, but there is a larger message than the evil of racism in it, and it goes as well to Scout and Jem’s growing up.  The novel is really about how people allow ignorance of others to blind them to the truth and make them unkind, and this is what the story of Boo Radley tells. Boo is as much of a victim of blindness and discrimination as Tom, and their stories reflect one another. The true point of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is that people must look beyond what they think they see, or they will do great harm to others who deserve only decent treatment.

The Book

Tom Robinson appears in the novel long after the town and the major characters are presented.  The reader first comes to know the good lawyer and widowed father, Atticus Finch; his children Jem and Scout; their new and unusual friend, Dill; and a variety of other characters in the Southern town of Maycomb.  All of this is presented in an appealing and realistic way. There are ordinary issues and problems, such as Scout’s early trouble at school and Jem’s embarrassment at his father’s not being more of a typical man. It is the introduction of Robinson, and as a victim, that seems to give the novel its core and its momentum.  Mr. Ewell has charged him with the rape of his daughter and, as the trial makes plain, the charge is false. Tom is convicted in spite of the evidence because this Alabama town is largely based on racist feeling. The racism is so strong, in fact, that Tom must be a scapegoat for the cruelty and perversion of Mr. Ewell, which the town knows.  Tom is then the “mockingbird” of the title: harmless and innocent but doomed because of the stupidity of others.

At the same time, a longer thread in the story parallels Tom’s.  A great deal occurs to the Finch family because Atticus is representing Tom, and much of this causes Jem and Scout to rethink the life of their home.  Raised by a loving and just man, they are still within a larger community where those values do not seem meaningful. Robinson is completely innocent of any wrong but the people of Maycomb are out to hurt him just as children shoot at harmless mockingbirds.  The same injustice, however, also applies just as strongly to the character of Boo Radley. Both these men are innocent, as both men are victims of blind discrimination (Johnson 9). Early in the book, and through Jem and Scout’s eyes, the reader understands how and why Boo is in such a feared situation.  The story is that years earlier, he stabbed his father’s leg with scissors. The family, too proud to have him committed, kept him home. With the passing of time a legend grew: “When people’s azaleas froze because of a cold snap, it was because he breathed on them” (Lee 13). When the town’s pets are found mutilated, Boo Radley is suspected even after the real criminal is known.  Just as with Tom, there is no real reason to believe Boo is dangerous but the legend has become accepted as truth. This is then another way bias and discrimination work.

It is not only white hatred of blacks that the book addresses.  The bias against Boo is also followed in a way that directly connects him to Tom Robinson.  These are spectacular examples in “To Kill a Mockingbird”. The children refer to him as a “spook,” and this is a racial slur against blacks (Meyer  131). It seems that Lee, setting the case of Boo Radley up early, is creating a foundation upon which Tom’s situation will be mirrored.

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In both Tom and Boo’s stories, there are different layers of meaning and interpretation.  In Tom’s case, the situation is more overt. Racial hatred is creating the threat to him, and racial hatred is what is then causing problems for Jem and Scout.  What is interesting here is that the injustice against Tom is not only about the alleged crime. Lee is challenging all views on racism.

Because it becomes known that Mayella Ewell desired Tom Robinson, the real issue goes to Finch challenging ideas that whites and blacks could not have relationships of any kind (Sachleben, Yenerall  128). The feeling is that the town understands this as a possibility but, thus it runs against their racist thinking, the basic humanity of it is unthinkable. This, in turn, reflects Boo Radley’s case.  It is seen throughout the book that he appears as a kind and helpful person. When Scout is watching Miss Maudie’s house burn down, it is Boo who places a blanket around her shoulders. It is also Boo who repairs Jem’s pants, torn by a fence.  The children know all this, but their bias against him is so deep, they cannot see the human being beyond the misconception. As the story moves on and as Scout and Jem mature, the truth slowly dawns on them. The treatment of Tom Robinson opens Jem’s eyes in particular, and he begins to make an important connection:  “I think I’m beginning to understand why Boo Radley’s stayed shut up…It’s because he wants to stay inside” (Lee 376). This is the best racism quotes in “To Kill a Mockingbird” The wider issue of racism in actual practice acts as a kind of lens, and the children can truly understand the real message of Atticus’s statement from his own father.  Simply, to harm others, either directly or by biased ideas excluding them from humanity, is a great sin, and this goes beyond racism.


To Kill a Mockingbird” is a classic story for several reasons.  It is a warm and honest narration that brings to life different time and place, and it lets the reader come to know interesting and valuable characters. It also introduces the ugly reality of what may happen when racism goes to an extreme, as in the case of Tom Robinson.  Tom’s circumstances, however, reflect another story just as important to the novel, because the discrimination of Boo Radley is just as harmful and unjust. In both cases, essentially decent men are abused because people are unwilling to see beyond the biases they have built up regarding them.  In my essay, I strongly believe that the real point of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is that people must look beyond what they think they see, or they will do great harm to others who are guilty of no wrong at all.

Works Cited

Johnson, C. D.  Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historic Documents.  Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1994.  Print.

Lee, H.  To Kill a Mockingbird.  New York: HarperCollins, 1993.  Print.

Meyer, M. J.  Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: New Essays. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2010. Print.

Sachleben, M., & Yenerall, K. M.  Seeing the Bigger Picture: Understanding Politics Through Film & Television.  New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2004.  Print.

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