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Racism & Discrimination in To Kill a Mockingbird

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  • 0:03 The Stage Is Set
  • 1:30 Racial Discrimination
  • 3:04 The Trial
  • 5:12 Gender
  • 6:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

Harper Lee tackles large and controversial issues in 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' She takes the reader on a journey where racial discrimination and gender bias are front and center. We will consider these issues and their impact.

The Stage Is Set

Harper Lee made bold choices when she decided to take on social issues involving race and gender in To Kill a Mockingbird. Set in the 1930s in the Deep South of Alabama, discrimination because of race and gender ran rampant. Lee was likely influenced by experiences in her own life, especially two trials where black men were accused of raping or sexually assaulting a white woman. She grew up in Alabama, her father was a lawyer, and she lived during the height of several key historical events.

The Civil Rights Movement was the umbrella description given to social efforts to end discrimination and support improved acknowledgment of the civil rights of minorities, including blacks and women. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a year-long protest by blacks against the public transportation system in Montgomery, Alabama, beginning in December 1955. The integration of schools picked up speed after the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, marking the end of formal racial segregation of schools in America. These experiences helped Harper Lee infuse strength and a moral code of ethics into characters such as Scout (a young girl), Atticus Finch (an attorney and the father of Scout and her brother Jem), and Tom Robinson (a black man on trial, defended by Atticus Finch).

Racial Discrimination

Calpurnia is the black woman who looks after Scout and Jem. She is like a mother figure to them, and Atticus holds her in high esteem. Although she is treated well, she is not an equal. She calls Scout 'ma'am' and Jem 'sir.' Scout tells us about her relationship with Calpurnia: 'Our battles were epic and one-sided. Calpurnia always won, mainly because Atticus always took her side.'

Scout confuses Calpurnia's stern behavior for dislike. Calpurnia is hard on her; she is demanding, and she rules with an iron hand, but Scout realizes that Calpurnia loves her in the way Atticus does. Scout and Jem go to church with Calpurnia, and Scout is confused by the way Calpurnia speaks when she is among her friends; it is different than when she is in the house with Scout and Jem. Calpurnia explains it this way:

'Folks don't like to have somebody around knowin' more than they do. It aggravates 'em. You're not gonna change any of them by talkin' right, they've got to want to learn themselves, and when they don't want to learn there's nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut or talk their language.'

In that moment, probably for the first time, Scout realizes Calpurnia has a life outside the Finch family. As readers, we can relate to Scout's revelation. We all remember the first time we saw a teacher out in the world instead of the classroom. We were shocked to think that they had a life, that they actually went grocery shopping. Scout shares that same surprise when she spends time in Calpurnia's world.

The Trial

When the novel takes us to Tom Robinson's trial, the apex of the action in the book, we witness what happens when a black man is accused of raping a white woman. But we also see subtle forms of racism. When Scout and Jem and Dill arrive at the court, the seats are taken. Three blacks give up their seats so the kids can sit and watch the trial.

Each party in the trial plays a different role. Bob Ewell, Mayella's father, is the embodiment of a poor white man with no education or class. He is racially prejudiced and extremely ignorant. We are led to believe Mayella has probably been involved in an incestuous relationship with her father. There is little about Bob Ewell we find likable.

Ewell is the exact opposite of Atticus Finch. Atticus stands for everything that is good, and he sees everyone as equal. Atticus Finch is the face of justice and morality, and we believe in him because he has qualities we admire.

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