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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 896

Racial Prejudice

Wells is a fictional community in North Carolina whose residents strongly believe in the segregation of blacks from whites. At the police station, blacks have their own washroom—one without soap or hand towels. At the railroad station, blacks are required to stay in a separate area to wait...

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Racial Prejudice

Wells is a fictional community in North Carolina whose residents strongly believe in the segregation of blacks from whites. At the police station, blacks have their own washroom—one without soap or hand towels. At the railroad station, blacks are required to stay in a separate area to wait for the train. The town itself has a segment meant to contain the black community. The whites in Wells have gone out of their way to ensure that they will never encounter any evidence to contradict their racial prejudices.

Many of the prejudices expressed by the people of Wells are absurd. Unfortunately, that absurdity does not stop people from believing whatever they choose. When Officer Sam Wood stops for his break at a diner on the outskirts of Wells, he and the counterman attempt to explain why so many blacks succeed at boxing. Sam opines that blacks have a different nervous system from whites, and he even suggests that blacks feel pain like animals rather than like humans. Sam’s views are given without any evidence or experience, yet in Wells they are accepted as truth. This is a town where judgment without evidence is the norm.

Ironically, Officer Sam Wood and Chief Bill Gillespie are investigators; their job is to investigate crimes relying on evidence. However, neither Sam nor Bill has any police training, though Sam at least has read a few instructional manuals on police work. Gillespie, on the other hand, relies on his instincts and his intimidating size to keep the population of Wells in line. However, for all his apparent strength, Gillespie’s position as Chief of Police is rather precarious. Gillespie was hired, in spite of his lack of qualifications, because he would not balk at the social prejudices in Wells. When Virgil Tibbs, a homicide investigator from California, is brought in to investigate the Mantoli murder, Gillespie is irritated to find himself relying on a black man to solve the case. Paradoxically, the town council insists that Gillespie solve the case quickly but they also urge the chief to discharge Tibbs.

Fortunately, Gillespie is stubborn, and although he would like to get rid of Tibbs, he ultimately refuses to be told what to do and keeps Tibbs on the case out of spite. This decision forces Wood and Gillespie to spend time with Tibbs, however much they would prefer not to associate with an African American. Although Gillespie is reluctant to credit Tibbs with any accomplishment, Wood is more open-minded and finds himself beginning to respect and admire Tibbs for his education and for his investigative insights. When Tibbs proves that Sam is innocent of murder and seduction, Wood can no longer deny Tibbs’s abilities and even finds himself sticking up for the man he has begun to see as his partner.

By the end of the novel, Wood begins to actively investigate his prejudices and discovers that many of them are false judgments made without evidence. Recalling his earlier discussion about black boxers, Sam asks Virgil whether blacks can feel pain the same way as whites, and Virgil confirms that they do. Sam begins the novel as a relatively incapable investigator but his newfound ability to seek out evidence upon which to base his beliefs leads Virgil to commend Sam’s potential as a policeman. Implied in this resolution is the suggestion that racial prejudice is largely based on a willful ignorance and a determination not to search for evidence.

Progressive Ideas

This call for evidence also suggests a need for progressive ideas. Many of the inhabitants of Wells seek to live a life of isolation, and they distrust strangers who may bring new ideas to North Carolina. Enrico Mantoni, the murdered conductor, is organizing a music festival before he is murdered. However, many in Wells are suspicious of the festival and its new ideas; they claim to have little care for music but reluctantly acknowledge that it might bring prosperity to the community. Ball creates this conflict to suggest that progressive ideas are called for in Wells, a community that seeks to justify its segregation and prejudice in its traditions.

Like most of the people in Wells, Sam Wood is very prejudiced against blacks. However, he finds himself slowly willing to learn from Virgil Tibbs. Although everyone expects Virgil to be uneducated and incapable, he repeatedly proves himself better educated than his peers in Wells. Furthermore, he is more worldly than they are and informs Sam Wood:

It may be hard for you to believe, but there are places in this country where a colored man, to use your words for it, is simply a human being like everybody else.

Virgil’s word choice and phrasing suggests that he is always patient when dealing with Sam and Gillespie. He recognizes that their prejudices have made them ignorant, and he often deals with the policeman as though they were children. Gillespie, with his tantrums and his need to intimidate others, is especially childlike in comparison to the calm, reasonable, and informed Virgil Tibbs. Unfortunately, while Sam largely realizes the errors to which his prejudices have led him, Gillespie remains suspicious of blacks and resists the idea that blacks could ever be considered the equals of whites. Gillespie is a stubborn man; Ball seems to be suggesting through the chief’s beliefs that real change will take time.

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