The Unspoken White Supremacy of To Kill a Mockingbird

Gregory Peck and Brock Peters in the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird.

“All rise!” shouts Scout Finch, the principal narrator of Aaron Sorkin’s new stage adaptation of the socially-minded To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a command that demands something of us to be sure, but for what purpose and for whom are we supposed to “rise”? Are we to stand for justice and if so, what does justice look like?

Sorkin’s adaptation of the 1960 Harper Lee novel is currently doing boffo business on Broadway with a $22 million advance sale and with overwhelmingly positive critical reviews to support it. The book, of course, is a beloved American classic, often taught in high school (when I last read it) and cherished via its 1962 movie adaptation with Gregory Peck starring in his iconic role as small-town defense lawyer Atticus Finch who defends Tom Robinson, an African American accused of raping a white woman. It’s clear why the book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, has endured. It champions the principles of racial tolerance and understanding and calls out the ways in which whites have so egregiously destroyed black lives. But without taking anything away from the power of the book or challenging its message, a question remains. What does a 1960 book about race and racism have to say to theater audiences in 2019? Is its message still relevant or does it inadvertently support a different type of racism that has entrenched itself in America in the last 50 years or so since the Civil Rights movement begin?

In adapting the work for a contemporary audience, Sorkin has stated that recent racialized moments since the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president impacted his approach to the play. That’s most obvious in the characterization of Bob Ewell, the town’s most vicious and violent racist who spews hatred about having to protect “the white race.” His diatribes would be right at home with many of the participants who attend Trump rallies or the “fine people on both sides” who showed up at a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2018. While other characters, including Mrs. Dubose and Ewell’s daughter, Mayella, also speak from a place of intense, rabid racism, Ewell is the embodiment of hatred and when he is killed at the end of the play, we’re meant to feel that justice has been served.

Ewell is of course a despicable character as is everything he has to say, and while it’s true that Trump has sadly ushered in a new moment in which hate speech is both condoned and tolerated, if we look at the history of racism and race relations in this country, the truth is that racism has changed a great deal since the first part of the twentieth century. Yet this adaptation would have us believe otherwise. To not see To Kill a Mockingbird as a work of its time misses all that has transpired since 1960. When the book first premiered, Brown v. Board of Education, which would end segregation, was only 6 years in the past, Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington was still 3 years away, and Loving v. Virginia, which would strike down laws banning interracial relationships, was far off in 1967. Lee’s book, as part of this era, would be instrumental in helping white America change its feelings about African Americans. The 60s were a period in which the form of racism was beginning to slowly change from a primarily individualistic type of racism to systemic institutionalized racism. Yet the book and play would have us think that the only type of racism is the raging, mad dog, seething kind that Ewell embodies. Theatrically, that makes for exciting, visceral drama as it’s the easiest type of racism to identify, understand, and condemn. It’s also the easiest type of racism for white liberal audiences to see as not having to do with them.

When segregation was still the law of the land, racism, in addition to all the social and economic inequalities imposed on African Americans, was constructed mainly as individualistic attacks that could range from a verbal derogatory comment to being lynched. Racism was proud, forthright, vehemently angry, and corporeal. Do moments of that still exist in our society? Of course, but society has also changed in substantial ways. While there are pockets of neo-Nazis and white supremacists who rage in our society, in general, such manifestations of racism are now seen as socially unacceptable. Younger generations tend not to manifest the outwardly racist behavior of their forbears (Scout Finch and her friends are emblematic of this changing tolerance), and while there is still inter-racial work that must be done to aid understanding, race relations in 2019 look and are different than they were in 1960.

While this has led some individuals to state that racism is over or that we’re living in a post-racial society (we’re not), the type of racism that Bob Ewell represents has been replaced by a more subtle if more insidious form of racism: systemic white supremacy. The term “white supremacy” is most commonly thought of in conjunction with neo-Nazi rallies, but racial theorist George Lipsitz argues in The Possessive Investment in Whiteness that “whiteness has a cash value: it accounts for advantages that come to individuals through profits made from housing secured in discriminatory markets, through the unequal educations allocated to children of different races, through insider networks that channel employment opportunities to the relatives and friends of those who have profited most from present and past racial discrimination, and especially through intergenerational transfers of inherited wealth that pass on the spoils of discrimination to succeeding generations. . . white Americans are encouraged to invest in whiteness, to remain true to an identity that provides them with resources, power, and opportunity.” These actions have deep systemic racial overtones, but they are much harder to see, point out, eradicate, and in the case of theater, dramatize. While verbal threats and physical violence wound and hurt, systemic racism works silently to uphold white supremacy by keeping people of color at a sustained place of disadvantage.

Watching To Kill a Mockingbird with a mainly white audience (at least the night I saw it) is an interesting experience. As Bob Ewell yells his racial and anti-Semitic obscenities at Atticus and Tom, white audiences were audibly appalled, gasping at his language and behavior. After all, good white liberals (the ones who see plays about racism on Broadway) would never say such things. And in creating a separation between themselves and the actions of Bob Ewell, the play, inadvertently perhaps, makes the audience feel good about themselves while leaving the issue of system white supremacy untouched and unchallenged.

At the end of the play, and spoiler alert for anyone who has never read the book or seen the play or movie, we learn that Boo Radley, a white reclusive neighbor, has protected Scout and others from an attack by Bob Ewell, killing Ewell in the process. Should Boo be charged with a crime? Narratively, the answer is no. Ewell’s murder is karmic justice. Tom Robinson, after all, has been found guilty of rape even though it’s clear the evidence against him is false. But what the play and book leave untouched is the systemic white supremacy that enables Boo to escape the legal system. The town’s judge and sheriff are willing to look the other way at what Boo has done, mainly because they believe Boo to be mentally disabled. But what’s left unspoken is that Boo is white and therefore he gets a pass by the system as a white man, a system in which Tom, a black man, does not. I question, if Boo were black, would he have been treated the same way? Such are the questions facing police officers around the country who are often given a pass by institutionalized racism that enables white officers to kill black men and boys and get off scot-free.

To Kill a Mockingbird, while correct to call out racism in all forms, provides audiences with answers to racism that are unfortunately too easy and too pat. When Scout tells us to “all rise” at the end of the play, we do. We rise to give a standing ovation to the cast and dare I say it, to ourselves as well, as white people. We are standing to congratulate ourselves for being more liberal and open-minded than the disgusting racism of Bob Ewell without realizing the ways in which we, as white people, might be consciously or unconsciously supporting the ongoing system of white supremacy. Indeed, the ability and “privilege” to be able to buy tickets to a Broadway show nowadays, especially one like this which has no need for discounts given its selling power, speaks to the ways in which race and social class give whites certain advantages over people of color. Perhaps one day, the call to “rise” will be a call to take a real stand against social injustice and not a congratulatory round of applause for ourselves.

Warren Hoffman is the author of The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical and The Passing Game: Queering Jewish American Culture.

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