George Floyd, Racism and the Enduring Relevance of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.
This past week has been plagued by horrible news of any sort. We still are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, as lockdowns are still in place worldwide. The USA — the hardest hit country in the world — has no comfortably surpassed 100,000 deaths from the virus, with no signs of slowing down. It has been a difficult year for us all.
COVID-19 in America has become the plague that we all fear, the plague that we all talk about especially in the context of this once great nation. But the other piece of horrible news from this past week has brought to surface, once again, the other disease that plagues America and our world: Racism.
George Floyd, a middle-aged black man, was killed whilst being held in custody by police in Minneapolis this past week. The incident is just another in a string of racially-motivated killings against black people in America by the police. And we have to call them what they are: racially-motivated.
I wrestled with the idea of sharing my thoughts and beliefs on this topic. Am I speaking out of turn? Or out of place? What do I know about systemic racism? I live in Australia where police brutality is at a minimum and our officers, for the most part, do not kill and discriminate based on appearance or skin colour. However, I could not remain silent. My convictions were strong enough to tell me that something needed to be said, even if everything currently is being said. There is still so much more to say.
When tossing up in my head about what to say, I decided that there is no point in divulging too deeply in the details of the case and its aftermath. We know what happened: George Floyd had the police called on him, was restrained to the ground and the officer drove his knee — bearing all of his weight — onto Floyd’s neck, eventually causing strangulation, traumatic asphyxia and death. The thought of it, the image and the video of it is haunting. There lay an innocent and helpless man, unable to breathe nor defend himself because of the prejudice, the ill-judgement and mind of those who swore to protect and serve their community. The police force let a citizen of their country down and we can only hope and pray that justice is brought upon them.
In the aftermath, riots and protests have been taking place across America. Now, I despise violence and destruction. Do not let it take away from the real cause. However, this has happened for far too long, and though I disagree with the rioting, the intention behind the genuine, peaceful protests and the right to protest is something we have to understand. How many more incidents like this do people have to endure before there is significant systemic change?
What’s unsettling is that just before all this took place, I myself had finished what many consider to be an all-time literary classic: ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. A quick summary of the meat of the plot, and what’s relevant to our current predicament: Tom Robinson, a black man living in 1930s Alabama, is accused of rape by a white woman and her father, Mayella and Bob Ewell, of low socioeconomic standing. Atticus Finch, the finest lawyer in the county, is tasked with defending Robinson much to the ire of the whole town.
For context, 1930s America — and Alabama in particular — was racist as hell. Segregation was still rampant, black people were denied any real opportunity to do anything and the ‘N-word’ was thrown around like nothing, by white people and black people. That is why in the book everyone in the town was against Atticus defending Tom, because a white man shouldn’t be defending a black man, and obviously this black man is guilty of raping this white woman. What case is there to defend?
SPOILER ALERT FOR THE BOOK!
There shouldn’t really be a Spoiler Alert. The book was released in 1960, right in the heart of the Civil Rights Movement in America, for added context.
In his summation, Atticus implores the jury (consisting entirely of white men) that in the eyes of the Founders of America, “All men are created…equal.” He explained and went through the evidence to suggest that the accusers were lying about the rape case — and they were — hoping that the jury would see common sense and acquit Tom Robinson. As he put it to them, “In the name of God, do your duty.”
Tragically, the jury let hatred and prejudice override them and they found Tom Robinson guilty, despite overwhelming evidence suggesting the fabrication of the accusation by the Ewell family. The book doesn’t have a happy ending. Tom Robinson is later killed while trying to escape custody and the town loses its innocence after this monumental event.
So why is this now 60 year old book still relevant? It’s quite simple. A black man had to contend with a system that was built to be against him all the way, despite the best efforts of good samaritans to see past and attempt to work past this unfortunate state of affairs.
Early in the book, when talking to his daughter Scout (through whose eyes we read the book) Atticus imparts on her the immortal piece of wisdom that the book will forever be remembered for, “You never truly understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” This matters now more than ever.
Racism exists because of people’s ignorance and unwillingness to climb into someone’s skin and see things from their point of view. For the racist cops that killed George Floyd, and many other black men and women in America and the cases of racial injustice around the world, this stems from their inability to climb into the victim’s skin and realise that, beneath skin colour, beneath facial structure, language, creed, accent…beneath all of that is a human being, a human being who can think, laugh and cry all the same as anyone else.
Atticus Finch teaches us throughout ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ to always empathise and to always consider things from someone else’s point of view. When I first asked my old history teacher about this book, he called it “the best book ever written.” I’m inclined to agree. There’s a reason it’s still taught in classrooms the world over. There’s a reason it, and its accompanying film, are still so beloved, because they teach us and embody the most virtuous and beautiful human qualities. If you ask any lawyer, particularly in America, they will cite Atticus Finch as their inspiration for these reasons.
In a society now where there is no empathy, no consideration for the other person’s feelings…where hatred and division rule the day, Atticus Finch is much needed.
George Floyd, like many others, was murdered, because the police behind this heinous act lacked those inherently human qualities that we desire in authority figures. Like Finch, we should seek to understand why police systematically and routinely discriminate against black people, and those with racist feelings should seek to understand the ramifications their unfound and unjust prejudices have on those they seek to do harm and horror against.
May God rest George Floyd’s soul. May God rest the soul of all victims of hatred and intolerance. May God grant wisdom and guidance to the misguided, with hate in their hearts. I hope for strength in all of us to aim to improve the world and develop a better world for all to live, where people are not judged nor killed for the colour of their skin.
In the immortal words of Martin Luther King Jr., “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”