Literary Analysis: Racism in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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Suffice it to say that the United States has been involved in destructive behavior – racism – throughout the course of its relatively young history. It escalated to the point where racism in American literature was often seen as several authors chose to use their platforms to bring up the subject. One of the most prominent of them all is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Managing to snag a Pulitzer Prize the following year after it was published, it gently opened a child’s eyes to the rampant racism and prejudice in the South.

To Kill a Mockingbird – What is it about?

What is the premise of To Kill a Mockingbird? Nowhere in America is racism more pronounced than in the South. Up until today, the backward attitude of Southern society still allows racism to take precedence over the law. In her novel To Kill a Mockingbird , Harper Lee masterfully explores how racism debilitates progress and harmony in a society wherein white people view blacks as being inherently inferior to them. Lee depicts how society views African American Tom Robinson  as instantly being guilty of the crime of raping a white woman prior to being granted the right to a fair trial.

She illuminates how racism prevents society from taking progressive steps as it keeps the society hopelessly shackled to the archaic and morally corrupt ways of the South. The protagonist in To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch, a lawyer and father to Jem and Scout whom the story revolves around, takes it upon himself to prove that justice hinges on the truth rather than prejudice and misguided notions - that everyone is equal before the law, and in the process turns into a hopeful anachronism in an appallingly racist town.

The title of the novel is based on the idea that killing a mockingbird is a crime as it is innocent, this is also stated in the book itself by Atticus Finch. The novel demonstrates Atticus Finch’s staunch position as the voice of reason and morality as he aims to acquit Tom Robinson. Thereby liberating society from its perverse racial views through the rule of law. Atticus Finch has an unrelenting determination to undermine the insidious racist views that many parts of the South have held on to since the days of slavery.

However strong his compassion and dedication, Atticus Finch loses the trial in the end. Despite the strong closing statement Atticus presented to the jury, they still gave Tom Robinson a guilty verdict. This event exposed his daughter, Scout, that justice is not always served in the courtroom and that there are other ways to receive justice outside the courtroom. It resulted in the siblings Jem and Scout seeking ways to get revenge at first but the novel managed to draw a fine line between that and justice.

To Kill a Mockingbird – On Racism

Lee authoritatively postulates that racism is a major obstacle that Southern society must overcome as it prevents whites and blacks from peaceful coexistence and it prevents students to embrace multiculturalism in the classroom .  Atticus determinedly takes on Tom's case as he believes that equality is fundamental to society.

Contrary to the stereotypical Southerner, he views Tom as an equal that he must fight for in order to save society from succumbing altogether to hate and racism. He faces malevolent threats to his life and reputation as the town’s racist whites attack him for defending a black man. When someone reproaches him for defending Tom, he asserts how he believes in equality: 

You aren't really a nigger-lover, then, are you? I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody... I'm hard put, sometimes—baby, it's never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn't hurt you (Lee 34). 

Atticus Finch stands out from the rest of Southern society as he believes in the shared humanity of all people. He remains unfazed in the face of public anger as he believes that defending an innocent man is the right thing to do regardless of the color of his skin. In reference to the details of the case, Atticus overhears a talk about how a black man sleeping with a white woman implies that he imposed his will on her.

He is aware of how white people so ignorantly imply that a white woman would never want to be with a black man, a perfect exemplification of overt racism. He believes that the law can save society from racial hatred, which he acknowledges as detrimental to every aspect of society. He views the courtroom as a place where equality can subdue racism and hate in order to reclaim the humanity of all people. Atticus tells Scout and Jem that morality is part of treating people justly: 

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.

All throughout the novel, Atticus Finch maintains the view that killing a mockingbird is a sin as he argues that people should see the best in others rather than judge them based on their race. He teaches his children to be compassionate and kind and relates cruelty to the shooting of a mockingbird. He acknowledges that even the courtroom is subject to the pervasive influence of racism and that it can even determine the outcome of a supposedly fair trial.

His belief in the law is founded on how all people are equal before the law, and that Tom is innocent until proven guilty as he shares the same humanity as whites. Atticus is aware of how the members of the jury are the same people who live in a racist society. He believes in the justice system, but he fears that racism may prevent the jury from viewing the law as colorblind:

The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box.

Atticus attempts to convince the courtroom that racism only leads to the failure to commit to delivering justice. When he speaks to the jury, Atticus aims to demonstrate that the law is and should be colorblind as it is separate from people's personal views. In the following passage, Atticus expresses how equality is fundamental to the law as people must look at the facts of a case rather than their own perverted opinions: 

Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard, come to a decision, and restore this defendant to his family. In the name of God, do your duty.

Atticus combats the racial views of society as he tells the jury to do their duty. He believes that the jury should look at Tom as though he were a white man. He implores the jury to look at the evidence without hatred in order for them to arrive at a rational conclusion. The novel focuses on how Tom is a victim of a racist society that still clings to outdated racist notions. The novel portrays how race is the deciding factor in the case as society judges Tom on the basis of his race.

Tom's death reflects how the evils of racism triumph regardless of how he is actually innocent, and how he was doomed from the beginning as the jury’s racial prejudice decided the outcome before the trial even began. Lee depicts how society judged Tom and sentenced him before he even set foot in the courtroom. Racism prevents people from acknowledging that Tom should be treated fairly.

Tom's death is the outcome of a society that refuses to change its backward ways and take steps forward. The society in To Kill a Mockingbird depicts that of a backward-thinking society. The novel focuses on how the humanity that people share allows them to treat each other with dignity and respect. Racism makes Tom's death inevitable as society prefers to punish an innocent man rather than consider the possibility that it has become backward: 

Senseless killing—Tom had been given due process of law to the day of his death; he had been tried openly and convicted by twelve good men and true; my father had fought for him all the way. Then Mr. Underwood's meaning became clear: Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret courts of men's hearts Atticus had no case.

To Kill a Mockingbird delves into how Atticus's children remain hopeful about the future regardless of how racism dominates.


In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee portrays how justice comes into conflict with taught and nurtured notions of racism. Racism causes white people to judge and sentence Tom Robinson for a crime he did not commit. Atticus Finch fights to acquit Tom and thereby liberate society from its racial preconceptions. He believes that punishing an innocent man is no different than killing a mockingbird.

With all might, he does everything in his power to convince the jury that reason must prevail over racial hatred. His view of the law is based on how morality possesses the power to subvert racism as it allows people to live justly and in harmony. For its part, To Kill a Mockingbird remains as powerful as ever due to an unappetizing and disheartening truth enough to make any rational person petrified – racism still runs aplenty in Southern society's veins well into the 21 st century, clearly manifesting modern accounts of racism.  

Harper Lee’s novel became a staple in reading lists in a student’s life ever since it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. High school students are required to submit book reports or book reviews. Reading a book and analyzing its significance takes a lot of time. Students seeking help in their academic writing activities is very common and should not be shamed. CustomEssayMeister is a place where you can find the highest quality of academic writing help. We have a lot of professional writers who are experts in various fields, including literature, and will surely help you with what you need.


Foca, Anna. “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 30 July 2020,

Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006.

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