To Kill a Mockingbird
Racial injustice in American history is an issue that has brought millions of people pain, loss, and death. However, it is not solely an American issue. Systems like apartheid in South Africa, and Jewish genocide during the 1940’s are gruesome, contemporary examples of discrimination. Sadly, humans seem to be wired to distrust, and even detest others different from themselves. Nearly every culture and time period in human history has been marred by racial prejudice and segregation. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, takes place during three years of the Great Depression in the fictional "tired old town" of Maycomb, Alabama, and is based loosely on Harper’s childhood experiences. It is written from the perspective of six-year-old Scout Finch, who lives with her older brother Jem, and their widowed father Atticus, a middle-aged lawyer who defends a black man accused of raping a white girl. Based on Atticus’ strong moral standards Scout views all people with the respect they deserve regardless of class or color, thus proving that a broad-minded upbringing results in young adults with ethical views toward society.
When Scout embarrasses her poorer classmate, Walter Cunningham, at the Finch home one day, Calpurnia (their black cook) chastises and punishes Scout for doing so. Atticus respects Calpurnia's judgment, and later in the book even stands up to his sister, the formidable Aunt Alexandra. When she strongly suggests they fire Calpurnia. Alexandra though she would be a better influence on the children. Scout, at only the age of seven or eight, cannot fathom why her aunt would not approve of Calpurnia. Scout and her father have lived with Calpurnia all their lives and they see past the obvious differences in skin color. Atticus is forced to defend Calpurnia in an argument against his sister. “Besides, I don’t think the children’ve suffered one bit from her having brought them up. If anything, she’s been harder on them in some ways than a mother would have been…She’s tried to bring them up according to her lights, and Cal’s lights are pretty good – and another thing, the children love her”(183). This quote demonstrates how superficial skin color is in Scout’s father’s judgment and it typifies his confidence in the importance of character and love. With this philosophy as the regular home environment for Scout, she naturally grew up having the same respect toward all people. The influence of Calpurnia’s “lights”, and her father’s equal treatment of all good people, greatly shaped Scouts positive views toward blacks.
Scout's willingness to fight students who insult Atticus as a “nigger lover” reflects her impulse to defend her father’s actions, even though she may not fully comprehend the meaning of the insult. Atticus is the moral center of the novel, and he teaches Scout that, “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”(107). In this quote we see Atticus trying to edify Scout’s youthful innocence. She does not yet know what this knew insult means, but she still recognizes the tone and retaliates rather immaturely. Atticus goes on to explain that he is a “nigger lover” in that he treats all people with the same amount of respect, and passes on this outlook to his daughter. Atticus is an astute and open-minded man, and thusly he has raised Scout to be this way too. She sees little difference between blacks and whites, and accepts all people from any class, gender, or race as an equal.
While looking through the lens of Scout’s perspective through out the book, the reader is allowed to engage in relationships with Calpurnia as well as the lower class Ewells, the simple yet polite Cunningham’s, and the wealthy Mr. Dolphus Raymond. All of these people are presented in a series of situations in which Scout’s morals and the dogmas of her community clash, testing the strength of Atticus’ teachings. Luckily the children have internalize Atticus' admonition, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it”(39). Scout repeatedly demonstrates that she understands this concept in many instances. She respects and analyses both the Ewells and the Cunninghams. She also is intrigued by Raymond’s philosophies on living with both blacks and whites, and wholly accepts Calpurnia as a member of her family. These views are partly due to her naivety as well as her morally rich upbringing by her father.
Scout views all people with the respect they deserve regardless of class or color as a direct result of Atticus’ strong ethical standards. A broad-minded upbringing results in young adults with moral views toward society. Throughout To Kill a Mockingbird the reader develops empathy for the other diverse characters, who are each the outcome of their own unique upbringing - for better or for worse - and finishes the book understanding that young children have a natural sense of fairness and equality. However, when there is a constant context of racial and class inequality, that natural sense of justice must be nurtured, or it will be lost. Anyone who has ever watched a group of mixed raced toddlers playing on a playground can easily see that in the earliest stages of childhood they have no natural inclination to care about the color of each other’s skin. Racism must be taught.