What is ironic about Miss Gates's explanation for why Hitler is able to treat Jews so poorly in Germany in To Kill a Mockingbird?

Miss Gates's explanation for why Hitler is able to treat Jews so poorly in Germany is ironic because she, along with many other residents of Maycomb, is prejudiced against African Americans. Miss Gates believes that prejudice and persecution in America is impossible because it is a democracy. Her explanation is ironic because her comments after the trial of Tom Robinson reveal her own prejudice.

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When her students, including Scout, wonder how Hitler can legally persecute Jews, Miss Gates explains it away by stating that the difference between America and Germany is that America is “a democracy and Germany is a dictatorship” (chapter 26 ). Miss Gates, a white woman with some privilege,...

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When her students, including Scout, wonder how Hitler can legally persecute Jews, Miss Gates explains it away by stating that the difference between America and Germany is that America is “a democracy and Germany is a dictatorship” (chapter 26). Miss Gates, a white woman with some privilege, believes that this difference in government protects the rights of all citizens. Like many people of privilege, she does not understand that her experience is not universal.

Miss Gates continues, “Over here we don’t believe in persecuting anybody. Persecution comes from people who are prejudiced” (chapter 26). This explanation from Miss Gates is ironic because she—and many of the other residents of Maycomb—is prejudiced against African Americans. Scout does not understand Miss Gates’s perspective, so she talks to Jem. Scout says,

Well, coming out of the courthouse that night Miss Gates was—she was goin’ down the steps in front of us, you musta not seen her—she was talking with Miss Stephanie Crawford. I heard her say it’s time somebody taught ‘em a lesson, they were gettin’ way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us. Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home— (Chapter 26)

Scout’s memory is of the night of Tom Robinson’s trial, when a black man was tried and convicted of harming a white woman. Scout perceives an inconsistency in Miss Gates’s opinion. She understands, on a basic level, the similarity in the dehumanization and persecution of African Americans in the Deep South of the 1930s and the dehumanization and persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany. Both eras contained government-sanctioned prejudice that was established and fulfilled by its citizens, regardless of the leadership structure. Therefore, both Scout and the reader understand that Miss Gates’s explanation is incomplete and ironic.

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The irony is that Maycomb is every bit as steeped in prejudice as Nazi Germany. It's just that the town happens to be part of a democracy instead of a dictatorship, so no one's able to make a connection.

Miss Gates' extraordinary statement that there is no prejudice in America flatly contradicts the nation's history as well as the widespread racial oppression that persists in Maycomb itself. There's no sense that Miss Gates is being disingenuous in her remarks; she clearly believes every word she says. It's just that she shares in the widespread indifference towards racial injustice that persists in 1930s America, especially in the Deep South. Miss Gates waxes eloquent about the appalling treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany. Yet somehow she remains blind to what is happening right under her nose with the blatantly unjust treatment of Tom Robinson, hauled up before a court on a trumped-up charge of rape and assault.

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In chapter 26, Cecil Jacobs brings in an article about Hitler's persecution of the Jews for an activity about current events in Miss Gates's class. Scout listens as Miss Gates explains that Hitler is able to persecute the Jews because Germany is a dictatorship, and he has complete authority over the government. Miss Gates then explains to the class that America is a democracy and says that "we don’t believe in persecuting anybody" in the United States. She also comments that there is no prejudice in the United States, which is why nobody is persecuted. Miss Gates's explanation is ironic because racial prejudice is present in the United States and persecution does take place in America—poignantly in Macomb's own case of Tom Robinson's trial. The fact is that persecution and racial prejudice takes place in both democracies and dictatorships. Scout recognizes Miss Gates's hypocrisy and is aware that African Americans suffer from racial discrimination in her prejudiced community.

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Miss Gates says that Hitler can round up Jews because Germany is a dictatorship, but Americans don’t believe in prejudice.

In a demonstration of hypocrisy, people of Maycomb often pity the disenfranchised around the world, while paying no attention to the conditions of the poor African Americans in their community.  Scout’s class has a discussion on current events that includes Cecil’s description of Adolf Hitler’s abuses in Germany.  He is not really old enough to understand what is happening, but he is disturbed by what he does understand.

“Nome, Miss Gates, it says here—well anyway, old Adolf Hitler has been after the Jews and he’s puttin‘ ’em in prisons and he’s taking away all their property and he won’t let any of ‘em out of the country and he’s washin’ all the feebleminded and—” (Ch. 26) 

Cecil informs the class that Hitler has begun rounding up all of the Jews, and one of their classmates asks Miss Gates, “How can he do that?”  She tells them that Hitler is “the government,” and that’s why he can do it.

She tells the class that Germany is a dictatorship, and not a democracy like America.  America is better, she says, because Americans are not prejudiced.

“Over here we don’t believe in persecuting anybody. Persecution comes from people who are prejudiced. Prejudice,” she enunciated carefully. “There are no better people in the world than the Jews, and why Hitler doesn’t think so is a mystery to me.” (Ch. 26)

The irony is that the town demonstrated that it is prejudiced with the Tom Robinson case.  A black man was accused by a white woman, and the town went crazy because Atticus was appointed to defend him.  Then during the trial, the prosecution was based on Robinson's race, while Atticus tried to prove that Tom was innocent and there was no evidence that the crime he was accused of ever occurred. 

The white jury convicted Tom Robinson simply because he was black.  There was no other reason to convict him.  Maycomb demonstrates prejudice against blacks constantly, despite Miss Gates’s proclamation that Americans are not prejudiced like the fascists in Germany.  Scout may have only been in third grade, but she recognized irony and hypocrisy when she heard it.

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