In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, on what grounds does Aunt Alexandra forbid Walter Cunningham from coming over for dinner? What does this tell us about her character, and perhaps what she has in common with the twelve men on Tom Robinson's jury?
In the fictional but sadly realistic town of Maycomb, Alabama, racism is a way of life. Harper Lee, herself a product of the American South -- specifically, Monroeville, Alabama -- saw in her region the disease that was tearing it apart. To Kill a Mockingbird, her novel about a young girl, Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, and her relationship to her father Atticus, her brother Jem, their friend Dill, and a host of other characters, is also about racism and the injustices it caused.
Racism constitutes a major theme of Lee's novel, and class distinctions are also an element of her narrative. At the center of this particular theme is the story's main antagonist, Bob Ewell, the virulently and violently racist "white trash" who forces his daughter, Mayella, to accuse an innocent African American named Tom Robinson of rape despite the latter's obvious physical disability. While Ewell represents the worst of Maycomb, it is the equally desperately poor Walter Cunningham who exemplifies the victimization of those who fall below the socioeconomic border between haves and have-nots. Walter is, at the start of the novel, a six-year-old classmate of Scout's. Walter stands out for his state of economic destitution. Walter is introduced to the reader in Chapter Two of To Kill a Mockingbird. The new teacher, Miss Caroline, notices that Walter does not have a lunchbox, or shoes. This is her -- and the reader's -- introduction to the state of poverty in Maycomb. This abject poverty, along with the judgmental nature of many of Maycomb's residents, provides the context for Aunt Alexandra's scathing comments when she learns that Scout intends to invite Walter Cunningham to their home:
She looked at me over her sewing glasses. “Jean Louise, there is no doubt in my mind that they’re good folks. But they’re not our kind of folks.”
The Cunninghams, as noted, are extremely poor. They are also, Atticus emphasizes, fine human beings, loyal to a fault. Young Walter's sole sin, in the eyes of the judgmental Aunt Alexandra, is his family's socioeconomic status. This passage occurs in a chapter in which Atticus and Jem engage in a very serious discussion of racism and the law--a conversation that further illuminates the depth of racial tensions in the American South and the tragedies that invariably befall people of color solely on the basis of their ethnicity. Aunt Alexandra's disparaging comments about the six-year-old Walter Cunningham reveal the extent to which she is every bit as prejudiced as those who condemned Tom Robinson to prison for a crime everybody knew he did not commit.
In Chapter 23 when Aunt Alexandra forbids Scout from inviting Walter Cunningham to dinner, she says that it is not because they aren't "good folks" or because you can't clean Walter up and put him in nice clothes but that even if you do, he "won't be like Jem." She also complains that there's a tendency to drink amongst the Cunninghams. She goes on to call the Cunninghams "trash" and say that that is the reason why he cannot come over to dinner.
Even though it might be different than judging someone by the color of their skin as the jury seems to do, Aunt Alexandra judges Walter simply by the fact that he is a Cunningham and as such is not really the same as the kind of people she wants to associate with. By doing so, she puts herself in the same light as the members of the jury who convict Tom based simply on the fact that he is an African American.