The Quotes about Racism in “To Kill a Mockingbird”
“To kill a Mockingbird” is a great educational book that is written in easy language and shows lots of very important problems of prejudices and self-identification through the kid’s eyes. One of the major and most common problem of that time is, surely, racism. The questions about race are raised very often in the book. From the one side the children, who are still innocent and unaware about such prejudices ask outright armor-piercing questions. From the other side, the adults who already got used to take racial prejudices as granted, have to re-think them over while answering to the kids. Here we will have a brief look through the main racism quotes in “To kill a Mockingbird”.
One of the most prominent quotes about racism is quite a long one, a dialog between Mr. Atticus and his little daughter Scout, when she asks him what “nigger-lover” word means and why people offend each other with it. The answer of her father is just brilliant.
“Scout,” said Atticus, “nigger-lover is just one of those terms that don’t mean anything—like snot-nose. It’s hard to explain—ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody’s favoring Negroes over and above themselves. It’s slipped into usage with some people like ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody.”
“You aren’t really a nigger-lover, then, are you?”
“I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody… I’m hard put, sometimes—baby, it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you.” (Chapter 11)
Not only Mr. Atticus answers her question, he also shows his attitude so clearly and it is so encouraging that I can hardly think about a better way. He shows Scout that foul words mean nothing and one can freely name themselves like this if they don’t feel it’s offensive. We clearly see the horrified girl, who heard this word describing her father and wants him to restore his authority saying that he is not a “nigger-lover”.
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But Mr. Atticus restores his authority in a better way, showing Scout that he is so above such petty offences that he can’t feel anger, only pity those who said that. This example will definitely be extremely helpful for the girl in the future. We see throughout the book that Scout indeed learns the lesson and never lets anyone to distract her from what she feels is right just trying to taunt her and insult her self-respect.
Soon both Scout and her brother Jem experience racism themselves. It is quite a strange thing for two white children from a good family to be shunned away because of the skin color, so this reversal makes them both feel weird and strangely offended for nothing, for some trait that they are not responsible of and didn’t have a chance to choose by themselves. The woman talking about them like that behaves like the kids aren’t even present, or they are inanimate objects – in a way that masters treated their black slaves before.
This encounter absolutely convinces them that racism has nothing to do with laws or even something relatively right. Great that it was only one black woman who treats them like this for entering the church for black people. The local garbage collector apologizes for her – not because Jem and Scout are white, but just out of good attitude to the kids. So immediately after the example of racism the siblings see the restoration of justice.
Lula stopped, but she said, “You ain’t got no business bringin’ white chillun here—they got their church, we got our’n. It is our church, ain’t it, Miss Cal?” (Chapter 12)
The kids continue to investigate the nature of racism and the next questions they encounter are: why the people who don’t look black are considered such? What is halfblood and quarterblood? When do people start and stop being black? But suddenly they understand that the actual skin color doesn’t matter. It is something much more subtle, that can’t be measured. The black blood is considered filth that spoils everyone who has even a drop of it and gives others the right to treat them as inferiors.
They can be perfectly sweet and good people, they can’t even know that they had black people in their lineage (that is fully possible, even if long ago), but still it is a dark secret that may ruin their life if revealed. Jem bitterly admits that even going as far in time as to the Old Testament and finding a drop of black blood may cause this. He adds that recently he thought that it didn’t matter. Jem, as a future young adult, starts to learn the socially acceptable behaviour of the white man in his town and this knowledge clearly upsets him.
“Well how do you know we ain’t Negroes?”
“Uncle Jack Finch says we really don’t know. He says as far as he can trace back the Finches we ain’t, but for all he knows we mighta come straight out of Ethiopia durin’ the Old Testament.”
“Well if we came out durin’ the Old Testament it’s too long ago to matter.”
“That’s what I thought,” said Jem, “but around here once you have a drop of Negro blood, that makes you all black.” (Chapter 16)
The whole court process is the hymn to racism. But the defence speech delivered by Atticus is crushing. Using all the basics of racism (inferiority of black people and impossibility to mix blood or have serious interracial relationships) he makes the girl responsible for what happened. She is the white one and she should be in charge, but she decided to tempt a black man who, due to common worldview, can’t refuse, because he isn’t quite a person.
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Also, Atticus mocks the society itself, saying that incest with her old Uncle was absolutely okay for the people until they maintain a picture of a good family, but a woman, kissing – just kissing! – a handsome man of her age is so scandalous. He doesn’t accept the Mayella’s role as a victim. Actually, we see a brilliant attempt to hijack the social beliefs, using them against themselves. He hopes that the audience will be caught into a paradox – it is Mayella who broke the rules, but Tom, as an obedient black man, was following them obeying the white mistress. Too bad that the judge doesn’t buy that. But still it is remarkable, though quite controversial, try to talk with racists in their language for the greater good.
“She was white, and she tempted a Negro. She did something that in our society is unspeakable: she kissed a black man. Not an old Uncle, but a strong young Negro man. No code mattered to her before she broke it, but it came crashing down on her afterwards.” (Chapter 20)
Still, despite all the attempts of Mr. Atticus, he loses and poor Tom is condemned. Atticus himself is shaken with it, not only as a lawyer who lost the case, but as a person, whose beliefs are shattered against the solid wall of social ignorance.
Before he learned that court is a place where the blind Justice reigns, where nothing matters: neither color of the skin, nor social status. But this time his faith is crushed and he tells Jem – almost an adult young man – that life isn’t fair or just at all and there is something in people that doesn’t allow them to look at the others unbiased.
They may be good people, they may try hard to be honest, but still there are prejudices instilled in them and they are unable to overcome them. The only hope for Atticus (we don’t see it from this quote, but can read about it later in the book) is that his children and the children of some other people will be free of these prejudices and will teach the others to treat people without looking at their skin color. Atticus wants to believe that if people aren’t able to break free from this mindframe they at least will leave it behind the doors of the courtroom.
“There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads—they couldn’t be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life. […]
“The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box.” (Chapter 26)