In the book To Kill a Mockingbird, why would it be a mistake for Tom Robinson to say that he felt sorry for Mayella Ewell?

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mizzwillie | Middle School Teacher | (Level 1) Senior Educator

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In the book To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Tom Robinson makes a fatal error when he says that he felt sorry for Mayella Ewell.  Because Tom is black, feeling sorry for a white woman makes him sound as if he is superior to the poor white woman.  No matter what, a black man in the town of Maycomb is never allowed to feel superior to a white person because the structure of the town is that black people are at the bottom of the social ladder with any white person, no matter their circumstances, above any black person.  When Tom says aloud in court in front of all the white people of the town who are in the audience, he is saying that blacks really are not inferior to white people because a black man can feel sorry for a white person.