“But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal . . . Our courts have their faults as does any human institution, but in this country our courts, are the great levelers, and in our courts, all men are created equal” ― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
I’ve read the novel countless times. I plan to see the play when I next visit New York. Set in the Deep South during the 1930s, To Kill a Mockingbird is a searing portrayal of race, bigotry, and prejudice in America. Many Americans believe we have become a post-racial society, yet, here we are in 2019, and ‘Mockingbird-type’ injustice still permeates the fabric of our society.
Two characters are symbolic of the mockingbird – Tom Robinson, a black man wrongfully accused of raping a white girl and Boo Radley, a mentally disturbed recluse. Both are judged in a backdrop of bigotry, prejudice, and hearsay. Still, both are innocent. Boo is representative of many people, misunderstood by society and discriminated against because he is different from the norm. Tom is representative of injustice directly attributable to racism. Atticus Finch, Tom’s attorney, presents an impassioned case, a strong evidentiary case, and still loses. Why? It is because racial bias wins the day—the jury is comprised of white men, like-kind bigots, who turn a blind eye to compelling evidence of innocence, and, instead, focus on the color of Robinson’s skin.
By bringing these issues to light, Harper Lee played a significant role in shaping the 20th Century narrative of racism in America. The country took a great leap forward from 1868-1870 and made significant strides in 1964, but the long-term results have been underwhelming. Despite modest superficial gains, racism, bigotry, and other forms of discrimination still rear their ugly heads in the land of the free. Sadly, the themes and issues of To Kill a Mockingbird are still relevant in our society.
As readers, were we surprised when Tom is found guilty? We want to believe in the justice system, that people will do the right thing, and that protagonists can win. However, when Tom is found guilty, it is less of a shock and more of a disappointment.
In my opinion, Lee wrote from historical context—realism required Atticus Finch to fail. In 21st Century America, are we surprised when minorities have their day in court and injustice results? Unfortunately, we are not at all surprised, and worse, in our current political climate, we have become numb to injustice. When a white police officer shoots an unarmed black man, or a white nationalist attacks a mosque or a synagogue, are we surprised? Not especially. These acts are ignored by our leaders and happen way too often.
In America today, citizens of color and religious minorities continue to be victimized by hate crimes – criminal expressions of bigotry that terrorize entire communities and fray the social fabric of our country. People are still judged by the color of their skin, the religion they practice, their sexual preferences, or their political ideology. They are too frequently robbed of their rights by men and women and systems duty-bound to protect them.
In recent years, deadly police shootings of unarmed citizens have sparked fervent national protest but failed to shock our country. The vast majority of these cases have involved young African-American men. Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, and Antwon Rose were all unarmed black men shot to death by police officers. Each of their killers was acquitted, despite solid evidence of guilt, in stark contrast to Tom Robinson, who was found guilty, despite substantial evidence of his innocence.
Other minorities face discrimination and mistreatment. Immigrants seeking a better life are detained at the border. Young children are separated from their parents and locked in cages. Even those who have lived and worked in this country for decades, remained law-abiding, with no criminal record, face deportation. The LBTQ+ community is continuously confronted with discrimination and mistreatment— stripped of rights afforded others. Like Boo Radley, they are discriminated against because they are different than the norm.
True justice is blind, not biased. So, why then is discrimination still prevalent today? Human beings are biased and our laws are sometimes imperfect. Imperfection is why America has required twenty-six amendments to our Constitution, particularly the Fourteenth Amendment. The beauty of the Constitution is that it allows for adjustments. The greater challenge is to find legislators brave enough to support sensible change.
Harper Lee did not sugarcoat the trial results in To Kill a Mockingbird. America should not expect a happy ending to our current injustice issues. The poor and innocent will continue to be treated worse than the wealthy and guilty, a major reason for our disproportionate prison population. To Kill a Mockingbird addressed these problems head-on, and so must we, no matter how difficult the task may seem. Atticus Finch’s daughter, Scout, a 1930’s child, was able to recognize and question the scourge of hate and prejudice. When will America be able to view these pressing societal issues through the eyes of a child?