In What Way Does Harper Lee Present Racism in the Community of Maycomb in To Kill a Mocking Bird?
In her most famous literary work To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee effectively juxtaposes the social constructs of class and racism, portraying the idea that despite the fact that social class governs most aspects of human life, racism nonetheless transcends the barriers determined by class structure. Through careful placement of subtle plot details, Lee demonstrates that class hierarchies are impervious to the social force of racism.
Several of the novel’s main characters, namely the children of Atticus Finch, Scout and Jem, explore the social separation of their small, rural town of Maycomb, Alabama. Before the novel reaches the central conflict, the racist prosecution of Tom Robinson, Jem and Scout describe the social classes of Maycomb. At the very bottom of the social pyramid rests the Ewells, a racist, villainous white family at the heart of the unfounded legal strike against Robinson for his alleged rape of Mayella Ewell (Lee 16).
Oftentimes, those at the bottom of a social class structure are more likely to sympathize with other ostracized members of a community (Anwar). Despite the Ewells’ placement at the bottom of the Mayberry class structure, they are depicted as one of the most racist families in Mayberry. The Ewells, much like the other white families at the bottom of the Maycomb social hierarchy, do not seem to empathize with Maycomb’s black citizens, another alienated group of individuals.
Lee also utilizes the structure of the county courtroom to depict the fact that racism transcends even the powerful force of social class structure. In the courtroom where Tom Robinson defended himself against Mayella’s allegations, the black citizens of Maycomb are forced to spectate from the colored section in the balcony of the room (Lee 87). Even if a black spectator were to be incredibly wealthy, earning them a position atop of Jem and Scout’s social class pyramid, they would be unable to sit below with the white citizens of Maycomb. Despite Jem and Scout’s placement at the top of the Maycomb class structure, they sit with and are welcomed by the black individuals watching the Robinson trial unfold on the balcony.
Overwhelmingly, American juries are designed to constitute a balanced mix of community members belonging to a variety of levels on any particular social hierarchy (Mazrui 354). At the climax of the novel, the jury verdict itself supports the transcension of racism over social classes. Despite Atticus’s production of incontrovertible evidence of Tom’s innocence, a jury comprised of white Maycomb citizens convicts him for the crime of rape (Lee 112). Hypothetically, this jury should have consisted of members representing all levels of the Maycomb social class. In the face of overwhelming exculpatory evidence, the lower, middle, and upper levels of Jem and Scout’s proclaimed social pyramid allowed their racism to influence their decision to wrongfully place Tom Robinson in prison for a crime that he did not commit.
Undoubtedly, Lee depicted the social behavior of racism through numerous vehicles in To Kill a Mockingbird. By opening the novel with a description of the Maycomb social class structure, Lee later successfully demonstrates that racism permeates through those constructs.
Anwar, Yasmin. “Low-Income People Quicker to Show Compassion.” Greater Good, University of California-Berkeley, 20 Dec. 2011, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/lower_income_people_quicker_to_show_compassion.
Forde-Mazrui, Kim. “Jural Districting: Selecting Impartial Juries through Community Representation.” Vanderbilt Law Review, vol. 32, Mar. 1999, pp. 353–404. Westlaw.
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. Script City, 1964.
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