With the recent shooting of Trayvon Martin, I thought it would be an appropriate time to critique the way Harper Lee’s canonical novel To Kill a Mockingbird is taught in high school today. Teachers ought to be congratulated on their truly acrobatic efforts to avoid discussing race while reading novels like this.
For those who need a refresher, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) is a pseudo-autobiographical Southern Gothic bildungsroman about a white girl’s experience of prejudice and racial tension in the south. Tom Robinson, a black man wrongfully accused of beating and raping a white woman, is one of the ‘mockingbirds’ in the novel, a motif symbolizing innocence. Atticus, our protagonist’s father, explicitly describes the injustice:
“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” (220).
As a tutor, I’ve read dozens of papers from high school students on To Kill a Mockingbird. All essentially repeat the standard line ‘racism is bad,’ tuck it away as a “that’s how it was back then” moment, and move on to their biology homework. Because this is all different now, right? We live in a post-racial world, right? We would never let race affect our court decisions, right?
From the Death Penalty Information Center:
After controlling for levels of crime severity and the defendant’s criminal background, the average death sentencing rates in Philadelphia were .18 for black defendants and .13 for other defendants, which amounts to a 38% higher rate for blacks (coincidentally, these rates were approximately the same as the unadjusted rates on p.8). The disparities for various racial combinations of defendant and victim were even wider and are shown in the table below.
It’s not only black criminals discriminated against in the justice system; a recent study published in the NY Times found that blacks are routinely blocked from serving on juries in the south.
The Drug Policy Alliance reports that African Americans comprise 14% of regular drug users, but are 37% of those arrested for drug offenses — and then of those arrested, they are incarcerated at higher rates as well. A report by the Marijuana Arrest Research Project (jointly released by the NAACP) found that blacks were arrested for marijuana possession at up to 12 times the rate of whites across the state, despite evidence showing that young whites use marijuana at higher rates than young blacks.
NY Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries estimates that the “marijuana arrest explosion” in New York City costs the taxpayers $75 million per year. From the Assemblyman’s website:
Many of those arrested for possession of small quantities of marijuana were targeted by the NYPD’s out of control stop-and-frisk practices that disproportionately impact young black and Latino men. As a result, more than eighty percent of the people arrested for possession of small quantities of marijuana are black or Latino, even though studies consistently show that younger and more affluent whites use marijuana in equal, if not greater, numbers.
If being arrested unjustly, condemned to death disproportionately, and excluded from jury panels arbitrarily wasn’t enough, blacks are also more likely to be the targets of police brutality. And even though Los Angeles supposedly discontinued its racial profiling policy, black motorists are still six times more likely to be asked to submit to a search. In 2012, 87% percent of NYPD street stops — “stopp[ing] people and question[ing] them” — were black or latino.Despite the fact that there is virtually no voter fraud in America, Republicans in the states have pushed through a series of “reforms” that will make it more difficult for African-Americans to vote. Coincidence or the new Jim Crow laws?Colbert ReportAnd I guess the great irony is that it’s unlikely that black students will be reading much Harper Lee, since schools with a high percentage of students of color are 74% more likely to lack textbooks for students to use for homework. From the ACLU:
Compared to schools attended by mostly white students, schools with a high concentration of African-American and Latino students are – 11 times more likely to have a high percentage of under-qualified teachers; 73% more likely to have evidence of cockroaches, rats or mice; 74% more likely to lack textbooks for students to use for homework…
It’s easy to see why teachers would want to avoid talking about race in the classroom — but as a country, we can’t afford to sit back and comfortably assure ourselves that Harper Lee described a different America, one that doesn’t exist today. White privilege comes with responsibilities. One of them is to open your eyes and recognize that while it may have become a little more subtle and a little more institutionalized, racism is alive and kicking today.