White People Need to Reckon With Atticus Finch’s Racism
It's time to learn the uncomfortable lessons of Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman"
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When Go Set a Watchman, the controversial supposed sequel (or prequel, or first draft) of To Kill a Mockingbird, was released in 2015, I thought of the babies. In the novel, which was also haunted by irregularities around its release, righteous lawyer Atticus Finch is shown many years after the events of Mockingbird as an outright racist. The name Atticus first cracked the list of the top 1,000 most popular baby names in the United States in 2004, when the generation of white people brought up with To Kill a Mockingbird as part of the American public school canon started having babies of their own. How awkward for those kids, I thought, to bear this problematic name. Of course, I have no way of knowing exactly how many of these babies named Atticus are white, but I suspect as with all things relating to racism in America, many Black people have long known that something was rotten in To Kill a Mockingbird and have just been waiting for the rest of us to catch up. “I read To Kill a Mockingbird [in school],” said Barnard historian Dr. Kimberley Johnson in a 2015 Vox piece on Watchman, “I was the only black person in my class, and it was a horrific experience.”
I had assumed the name would drop off in popularity after Watchman was released, but that didn’t happen. In 2014, Atticus was the 369th most popular baby name, and it’s gotten more popular every year since. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, it ranked 326th. More than one thousand American babies were given the name Atticus in 2018—which is the most babies named Atticus of any year since 1960 when To Kill a Mockingbird was published.
As a nation, we’ve decided to pretend that Go Set a Watchman doesn’t exist. Or anyway, white people have. Whenever I’ve brought Watchman up in casual conversation with other white people it’s as if I’ve blasphemed: I’ve heard lamentations, denials, howls of dismay. People hate books for plenty of reasons—because they were required reading in a long-ago English class, because they were written by some divisive figure, because they’re about sparkly vampires—but the way that people hate Go Set a Watchman is different. I can’t think of another book that destroys what its predecessor had come to represent the way Go Set a Watchman destroys the fantasy of Atticus and white goodness. But fantasy is all it ever was. The Atticus of Go Set a Watchman is the same Atticus we knew in To Kill a Mockingbird, and if there was any question in 2015, there should be none now. In some ways, there are few books more appropriate than Go Set a Watchman for the current moment in which a national reckoning with racism is unfolding.
Those white people who read and loved To Kill a Mockingbird in their youth, surrounded by white students and led by a white teacher, will probably relate deeply to Scout—now grown, living in New York, and going by Jean Louise—when she comes back as an adult to visit her childhood home of Maycomb, Alabama in Go Set a Watchman. Both start from the same vantage point and both are in for an unpleasant time. Jean Louise and her readers remember Atticus as measured, reasonable, kind to all. He was a man who took a stand for what was right even with a whole town against him. The Atticus that Jean Louise encounters in her adulthood keeps racist literature in the house. He attends town council meetings in the same room where Tom Robinson was tried and sits placid and silent as other men rant hate speech against their Black neighbors.
Jean Louise, like her readers, has ignored race her whole life. Like a lot of white people, she considers herself “colorblind,” even as her racism pervades Watchman. Still, she understands the harm that happens when white people—Atticus in this case—don’t speak up against racism:
She knew little of the affairs of men, but she knew her father’s presence at the table with a man who spewed filth from his mouth—did that make it less filthy? No. It condoned.
Many white people have that one relative they can’t talk about race with, and even more white people have relatives who spend their lives condoning the racism of others. And Jean Louise is, like her readers, really freaked out about it:
The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, “He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a gentleman,” had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.
Her reaction reminds me a bit of that howl of dismay that happens when I bring up Watchman with other white folks. It is, of course, not easy to learn that the people (or books) we love aren’t what we thought. But Atticus’s racism was there all along. Some of us, like Jean Louise and her readers, distracted by his quiet grand gestures and talk of love for all in To Kill a Mockingbird, missed it. Some of us—because our lives are untroubled by the grinding daily racism Black people face in America—had the privilege of missing it.
Among those who didn’t miss it, Malcolm Gladwell pretty thoroughly laid out the case against Atticus in the New Yorker in 2009. In one passage, Gladwell discusses Atticus’s thoughts about Walter Cunningham, a Maycomb man who attempted to lynch Tom Robinson in Mockingbird:
Cunningham, Finch tells his daughter, is “basically a good man,” who “just has his blind spots along with the rest of us.” Blind spots? As the legal scholar Monroe Freedman has written, “It just happens that Cunningham’s blind spot (along with the rest of us?) is a homicidal hatred of black people.”
And that’s not even close to all of it. Atticus tells Jem that their neighbor Mrs. Dubose—who screamed racial slurs at his children daily after learning that Atticus would defend Tom Robinson—is a “great lady” and “the bravest woman I ever knew.” Atticus waves away the activities of the KKK in Maycomb of just a decade prior as if they were ancient history—another humorous anecdote about wacky old Maycomb. He tells his children that no matter what the outcome of the case, no matter what racist feats the people of Maycomb next conjure, they will still and always remain friends: “Remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home,” he tells young Scout. But good feelings and neighborliness can’t stop racism—in fact, they encourage it. As long as white people passively condone the casual racism of people like Mrs. Dubose, racism in all forms will continue to flourish. The only evidence we need of that is American history.
When Jean Lousie finally confronts Atticus about his participation in the town council meeting in Watchman, he says:
Honey, you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people…They’ve made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they’re far from it yet. They were coming along fine, traveling at a rate they could absorb, more of ‘em voting than ever before. Then the NAACP stepped in with its fantastic demands and shoddy ideas of government.”
Compare this to a scene from Mockingbird in which Atticus explains to his children that the worst possible thing a white man can do is cheat a Black person:
Atticus was speaking so quietly his last word crashed on our ears. I looked up, and his face was vehement. “There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance.”
To the Atticus of both books, Black people aren’t fully realized individuals, they’re children who need protecting.
Atticus’s character arc over the two books not only feels true-to-life, it’s practically modern. After all, this grand public stand for what’s right while double-dealing private racism offstage is the natural mode of many white people, whether they’re aware of it or not. Atticus’s behavior is no different than that of white people who praise diverse schools and communities and then pay tens of thousands of dollars and drive miles out of their way to send their children to private school. It’s no different than white people who march for Black lives but won’t live in Black neighborhoods.
White people have been bamboozled by Atticus because his lessons are ones we’re inherently drawn to—the ones that tell us we don’t need to do anything differently, we’re doing just fine the way we are. How comfortable to have to respect the beliefs of others even if those beliefs are abhorrent. How nice to not have to break ties with those in our community who believe Black people deserve less. How easy to go on living our lives just as we want to. This is the stuff that underlies systemic racism and allows it to continue. If Atticus is a champion of anything, it’s not justice or equality but comfort. And white comfort is always going to be the enemy of Black people in America.
White people have clung to the myth of Atticus, and objected to the book that tears it down, because we want it to be possible for a person to be so morally correct, so anti-racist, so willing to stand for justice in the face of everyone and everything. We want this to be true because it means we could be just as good—we would be just as good were we in his place. As John Oliver said in a recent episode on the failures of the American public school system: “The less you know about history, the easier it is to imagine you’d always be on the right side of it.” In truth, some of the people who love Atticus would have opposed integration. Some of the people who love Atticus would have voted to convict Tom Robinson. Just as Atticus cites the so-called ignorance of Black people as justification for holding them back from equality, some of the people who love Atticus turn to myths like Black-on-Black crime, welfare queens, and absent Black fathers to justify their racist thoughts and actions in the present day. Wherever and whenever Black Americans strived for equality and equity, masses of white people opposed it and masses of their white friends let that opposition go unchallenged.
Go Set a Watchman may seem easy to dismiss because it is a bad book in many ways. It’s a book about race that tries to convince its reader it’s about something else entirely. Its pacing is weird, and it spends way too much time on flashbacks that don’t have much to do with anything. It helps that it was published under shady circumstances, that Harper Lee most likely never intended it to see publication in its present form, or at all. But the one thing Watchman does successfully is make Atticus’s racism undeniable.
A baby’s name is a wish about what he will become at a moment when all possibility extends before him. When thousands of American parents named their babies Atticus, they were naming them for the myth—the hero Atticus, the Atticus who would stand up to anyone and everyone. We can read Atticus then as a hopeful name, a name that says white people want to do better and be better, even though we have often failed. In 2015, white people weren’t ready to accept a racist Atticus Finch. But perhaps now, in the post-George-Floyd world, when slightly more white people are beginning to understand that we are the crux of the problem, we’re ready to understand the truth about Atticus and ourselves. One day, all those little Atticuses are going to grow up. Maybe one of the ways they can fulfill the optimistic dream of their problematic name is to serve as a reminder of all the ways we’ve grandstanded, condoned, and ignored—and all the ways we’re going to learn to do better.