As a white northerner, it’s been difficult to empathize with white southerners about race because I wasn’t raised to. I’ve been conditioned to look at it a certain way: everyone is equal, regardless of the color of their skin, and anyone who doesn’t believe exactly that is racist. As a northerner, you come to think of yourself as tolerant because you don’t judge people based on physical attributes, but that’s not to say that I wasn’t raised a bigot. Growing up, I was taught that I should judge people based on their beliefs. Intolerance towards the intolerant was central to my parents’ thinking. If someone is a southerner, my parents taught me, then they’re bad. It’s as simple as that. They’re probably racist.
I never thought about why southerners think the way they do, I was just taught to wonder how they can not think the way that I do, the way that everyone does in Massachusetts. Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman allowed me to see and truly understand the southern perspective of race in a way that nothing else ever has. This book really opened my eyes to why they think the way they do about race, even if I don’t agree with their reasoning or the conclusions that they draw.
The buzz surrounding this book centered around the fact that Atticus Finch was suddenly a segregationist. Michiko Kakutani’s review of the novel in the New York Times calls Atticus “a racist” and “bigoted.” While the novel does portray Atticus as a segregationist, I don’t think it goes so far as to portray him as racist. The media reacted the same way that Jean Louise did before she talked to her father about his views, the same way that I reacted before reading his explanation.
Atticus’ views in Go Set a Watchman were still far from those of the progressive Atticus Finch that we knew and loved in To Kill a Mockingbird, but his support of segregation stems not from a racial perspective but a cultural one. Never does Atticus say that black people should not have civil rights or be integrated into white schools because of the color of their skin. It is their culture that he deems unacceptable. They are uneducated (Lee 246) and have “made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they’re far from it yet” (Lee 246-247). Atticus believes that “you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia” (Lee 242). His problem is not that they are black, but that they don’t have the same level of knowledge as white people.
Atticus not wanting unskilled and illiterate people running the government is understandable (Lee 246). I disagree that segregation was the way to educate people who had never been allowed access to quality education before, and therefore were ‘less advanced’ through no fault of their own. The only way to get them to the same level that white people were on was to educate them the same way.
Despite still ultimately disagreeing with Atticus, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could follow and understand his reasoning. Atticus was a man who held knowledge and education above almost all else, so his desire to not see white children “going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate” hitherto uneducated children is understandable (Lee 242).
Atticus is also a fierce advocate of states’ rights. He sees the Supreme Court ruling as an infringement on those rights, and therefore dislikes it. He asks Jean Louise if she can “blame the South for resenting being told what to do about its own people by people who have no idea of its daily life?” (Lee 247). This is an aspect of the argument that I had never thought about before, as I was raised as more of a supporter of the federal government than individual states.
Though portrayed as one by the media, Atticus did not turn out to be a racist. He’s a snob, as Jean Louise points out on page 244, but he is not a racist. His reasons for supporting segregation allowed me to empathize with him in a way that I did not think possible before listening to his side. I may still be a bigot, as it’s hard to shake the way that one is raised, but hopefully I’m “just an ordinary turnip-sized bigot” (Lee 267).