Atticus Finch and the Good White Man

The shocked response to Harper Lee’s further – or original – portrait of Atticus has people showing a good deal of naïve outrage. How could a white hero like the immortal and kindly attorney, who will always look like Gregory Peck in our minds, express racist views and flirt with Klan membership? How could he speak out against integration? How could Atticus be a racist?

Confusing paternalism with goodness is a common error we make when examining the past, and this is particularly true for the South. Atticus defended a black man who was being railroaded for rape in such a romantic display of heroism that all the black people in town loved him, didn’t they? They stood up for him in the courthouse, didn’t they? And what a rush of warm empathy that gave us all. One brave white man standing up for justice.

To Kill A Mockingbird, as fine a work as it is, stands as a testament to the way white people prefer that the race narrative be shaped in our fiction. At the center of the story, alongside the suffering black victim, stands the fine white hero, the person we all would have been had we been in Atticus’s situation, called upon to stand up for an innocent man, to fight for justice.

We would not be like the evil Ewells who were, after all, the real racists in the book, the poor white trash who caused all the problems.

The world of To Kill A Mockingbird is the world of paternalism, rendered to such perfection that one cannot but love the book and feel better for having read it. The love clouds our vision of what the book really shows: a world in which childlike black people need white Atticus to protect and defend them. But in this new book we are to see another side of Atticus; we are to understand that Atticus, while fighting passionately for justice, nevertheless harbored racist ideas of his own.

There is no contradiction here, only a stripping away of the golden glow that disguises reality. Racist ideas were held (and are held) by all southerners (and all white people) to some degree. Atticus as an attorney can find the railroading of an innocent black man to be abhorrent at the same time that he prefers his public life segregated from black people. He can defend a black man in court and yet see black people as childlike and inferior without any sense of contradiction whatsoever.

This is the truth of the South, that Atticus and men like him flirted with the Klan, opposed integration, and saw dark skin as a mark of inferiority; even good people entertain bad ideas, and even people who rise to heroism have deep flaws. Clearly Harper Lee saw this and struggled with it.

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