Race and class politics are near the core of Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
To help us identify the political issues in the text, we can pose questions like:
- "How do the issues in the novel reflect or comment on social policies?"
- "What specific issues and attitudes presented in the novel reflect issues affecting the culture at large?"
Reading the novel a half-century after it was published, a student is challenged to imagine the world as it once was and to understand the social issues that existed at the time. Yet, this is one of the most compelling qualities of Lee's novel. It clearly portrays the moral values and political values that informed a situation of racial discrimination and which also fueled sensitivities about class.
While on one level, To Kill a Mockingbird can be read as a novel that is very literally and non-politically about prejudice (i.e. committing to judgement before attaining all the facts), it directly engages with issues of race politics, racist judicial bias and racism in general. Thus the novel uses the story of Tom Robinson as a political platform, making observations providing an overt commentary on the issues of race and justice .
"Maycomb County is a depiction of the 'Old South' where blacks are still barely citizens, and where fear and suspicion reign over understanding and respect" (eNotes).
The story also places Atticus in a position to make a politically oriented decision about whether or not to adequately defend Tom Robinson in court.
"Atticus is openly addressed as a 'nigger lover' because he wants to find justice, even if that justice finds Tom guilty" (eNotes).
In presenting Tom Robinson as a political being, subject to the impersonal and systemic race bias of the South, Harper Lee does more than tell a story against a political background. She explicitly makes politics an integral element of her novel.
Again, the novel's political elements can be seen as fitting inside a broader moral perspective put forward in the novel. Taking a stance against racial prejudice is only one example of the ways the novel decries prejudice of all sorts. Equality is, to a significant extent, an undercurrent of the novel relating to class and race specifically. But there is a somewhat deeper philosophy at work that must be considered when we include Boo Radley in our considerations of the novel's moral perspective.
Regardless of color and class and regardless of rumor and hearsay, people should be allowed to be judged (if judged at all) by their actions alone.
“I think there's just one kind of folks. Folks.”
To Kill a Mockingbird is political primarily due to its portrayal of racial prejudice in the South during the first half of the twentieth century. Harper Lee utilizes powerful characters such as Calpurnia, the Finch family's cook/housekeeper, and Tom Robinson, a black man who is accused of rape to illustrate the unfairness of the treatment of black people.
During Tom Robinson's trial, he is represented by Atticus Finch, who does an excellent job of proving Robinson's innocence, or at least providing the jury with definite reasonable doubt as to his guilt. However, the jury fails to acquit Robinson, choosing instead to find him guilty based on his race.