Five years ago or so, I wrote and published a scholarly piece on To Kill a Mockingbird. I noted Atticus Finch’s “failure of empathy,” and said that white readers could not—would not—empathize with black characters in the book because of a “fear of revelation.” In other words, I was arguing, white people really don’t want to know what it’s like to walk around in the skin of a black person, despite what Atticus claimed in the book.
Strangely, over the past few days, that VERY minor piece of scholarship was discovered by some journalists. I was interviewed (here and here) about my position on both the book and Atticus Finch. I said nothing that many people haven’t been saying for years—that if you read TKAM with an awareness of white supremacy, then it shouldn’t surprise you that Atticus is not a racial justice hero. (This reading, by the way, was perfectly possible when the book was first published, and during the decades since.) I also said that this was the book that has been used for over 50 years to teach white Americans about race—a book written by a white person, about a white family—and inevitably, it has not done a great job doing so.
However, for every post I’m seeing on social media about Go Set a Watchman and TKAM, I’m seeing another asking for a change of subject. “Can we please talk about another book?” “This conversation is getting old.” “I’m tired of listening to people talk about Atticus Finch.”
Fair enough. But here’s why I think it’s important to talk about Atticus Finch.
Atticus Finch has, for more than 50 years, allowed white America to sleep at night. He embodied the heroism that white America believed would keep our criminal justice system clean of racial horrors. White America still believes that a few legal heroes will solve all the problems—will keep the racist wolves at bay.
Atticus Finch enabled a lie.
There are racist wolves. But the racist wolves don’t act alone. They’re backed by a system of racist oppression in our criminal justice system that runs so deep and so wide it is nearly unfathomable. A broken system is, indeed, our society’s worst nightmare. If we can’t believe in the justice of our justice system, then we have nothing left to believe in.
It’s time to stop ignoring the brokenness and to confront the nightmare.
This morning, our worst nightmare killed a woman named Sandra Bland. Our worst nightmare will keep killing until we—all of us—confront it together, instead of relying on false heroes.