Dear White People: We Are All Atticus Finch

Have you heard the news? Atticus Finch is a racist.

Guess what? So are you. So am I.

I know, it’s hard to square with the images of ourselves we like to project. After all, we just took down the Confederate flag! We recoiled in horror at the images of Eric Garner being strangled! We hated George Zimmerman! We voted for Barack Obama!

But here’s the thing: being racist isn’t only about explicit acts. It includes implicit privilege. It requires complicit silence.

James Baldwin told us this fifty years ago, at the height of the civil rights movement – and just two years after To Kill a Mockingbird made its celebrated debut. “This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen,” he wrote. “That they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.

“It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

The opportunity of the present moment – a moment when it has become undeniable to all but the most sand-headed White people that, even amidst all the progress, Black people are living under siege – is to finally step courageously into a new conversation about race and racism in America.

But that conversation, and the actions that follow, must begin with this admission: we are all Atticus Finch.

Up to now, we’ve taken solace with the idea that we are that Atticus Finch – the first one, the one who was a crusading attorney who stood up for what was right in the face of the pig-fisted brutality of the American South.

For some of us, maybe, sometimes we have been.

But we’re also that Atticus Finch – the new one, just revealed to us via Harper Lee’s eagerly anticipated sequel, Go Set a Watchman. And as the first reviews tell us, that Atticus Finch attends Klan meetings, denounces segregation efforts, and asks his daughter pointedly, “Do you want them in our world?”

Being that Atticus Finch doesn’t require that we attend white supremacy meetings, support police brutality, or poison our own children with hate. It merely requires that we maintain our innocence amidst the maw of institutionalized racism, and mask our complicity in that system via periodic outrages at current events that clash with the saintly pictures we have painted of ourselves.

It is striking that Go Set A Watchman, with its unflattering revision of a beloved, one-note character, should come out now, amidst Charleston, and Baltimore, and #blacklivesmatter. But perhaps, as Alexandra Alter writes in the New York Times, “if To Kill A Mockingbird sugarcoats racial divisions by depicting a white man as the model for justice in an unjust world, then Go Set A Watchman may be like bitter medicine that more accurately reflects the times.”

Harper Lee’s bitter medicine should not taste that bitter to us. As much as we would like to believe it, there are no clear heroes and villains; we are neither one nor the other.

We are both.

We have been born into a society that confers a lifetime of invisible advantages to our families. We have the opportunity to cherry-pick which injustices to our Black brothers and sisters should move us to dissatisfaction. And we have chosen, thus far, not just to maintain what James Baldwin calls “the innocence,” but what The Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “The Dream.”

“The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts,” he writes in his new memoir, Between the World and Me. “The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. The Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.”

“It does not matter if the agent of those forces is white or black. What matters is the system that makes your body breakable.”

What matters is the system that makes your body breakable.

So we are all Atticus Finch. We have beauty and prejudice and ignorance and complacency and privilege and compassion and the chance to do something or nothing. We can be forces for good or a silent and gradual force for community decay and destruction.

Who we aspire to be is not solely who Atticus was. It is not solely who we are, either.

And so we have work to do. And it will require a much more constant vigilance, and honesty, and self-awareness than we have shown so far.

(This article also appeared in The Huffington Post.)

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12 Comments

  1. Posted July 14, 2015 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Sam,

    thank you for sharing this. I was moved when I read John Metta’s recent piece, “I racist” which I think makes a powerful companion piece. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-metta/i-racist_b_7770652.html

    Curious about your thoughts?

    Andrew

  2. Posted July 14, 2015 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Sam,
    thank you for sharing this. I was moved when I read John Metta’s recent piece, “I racist” which I think makes a powerful companion piece. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-metta/i-racist_b_7770652.html
    Curious about your thoughts?
    Andrew

  3. Posted July 14, 2015 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    I was also moved by it, and had planned to include part of it in this piece. So, it was there in spirit if not in body. :) Thanks for taking the time to read and share.

  4. Posted July 14, 2015 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    excerpt from Elile Wiesel, The Perils of Indifference
    you can hear the entire speech here:
    http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/wiesel.htm

    …..So much violence, so much indifference.

    What is indifference? Etymologically, the word means “no difference.” A strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil.

    What are its courses and inescapable consequences? Is it a philosophy? Is there a philosophy of indifference conceivable? Can one possibly view indifference as a virtue? Is it necessary at times to practice it simply to keep one’s sanity, live normally, enjoy a fine meal and a glass of wine, as the world around us experiences harrowing upheavals?

    Of course, indifference can be tempting — more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person’s pain and despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbor are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the other to an abstraction.

  5. Posted July 14, 2015 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Beautiful. Uncomfortable. And so on point. Thanks for sharing this, Marsha.

  6. Posted July 14, 2015 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Nice piece, Sam very nice indeed. Bernice

  7. Gloria Wall
    Posted July 14, 2015 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    I cannot take on guilt for what other people have done. I’m sorry, but this is really getting old. I am not a racist. I endeavor to live my life responsibly, reflectively, and honestly. My white husband and white me were married by an African American woman minister. I am a teacher who has used my authority in that capacity to remind students that behavior is a result of character, not race, culture or gender. That’s really all I can do. That’s really all anybody can do. JMO.

  8. Posted July 14, 2015 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    This is not about taking on or feeling guilty, in my opinion. It’s not about feeling embarrassed or ashamed, either, as lots of angry responses to the piece have claimed so far. It’s about being aware of the ways race shapes experience and not only objecting when it is safe and easy. As someone said on Facebook, “I haven’t ‘done anything wrong’ so to speak, but I can do things differently with a new acceptance of my own reality in an effort to do things right. Or at least better. Or at least try!!”

    That sounds right to me. Does it sound right to you?

    Thanks for taking the time to read and respond.

  9. Mike
    Posted August 13, 2015 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    So we are all racists? What is your criteria for designating a racist? Is it anyone who disagrees with you? I voted for Obama. I am in favor of taking the Confederate flag from public governmental spaces where it has no significance. I am against blatant police brutality.. But I am strongly against taking the flag away from private people or banning sales of the flag as that encroaches on the freedom of speech rights given to everyone under the Constitution. I believe that police have a right to respond however necessary but appropriately when others shoot at them or refuse to follow their directions. Being Black is not an excuse to be lawless or believe the law doesn’t apply to you. Cussing out a police officer or refusing to comply with their request is not acceptable behavior for anyone. I don’t hate George Zimmerman (I don’t agree with his initial action against Trayvon Martin, but his defense evidently made a strong case. I do think he has serious other problems.) I didn’t cringe in the Eric Garner case—-I disagree with the police actions, but if he had not had a history of criminal behavior, he wouldn’t have been in that situation at all. There are consequences for illegal or inappropriate behavior no matter what the color of your skin may be.

    So how do you define and decide who is racist? Am I racist because I happened to be born white? Am I racist because I am white and have lived a life of middle class privilege? My personal life, my behaviors, my life choices should determine if I may be considered a racist. Not merely the color of my skin or if I agree with someone else or not. I have dedicated my life to teaching and standing up for children with disabilities. I have taught my children to embrace all people (and they have). I do not consider myself a racist in any way whatsoever. I consider myself a realist.

    Your article is the same type of drivel that leads people to act in the very ways that lead to negative consequences and perpetuate negative stereotypes. The riots in Baltimore did more to negatively influence public opinion toward African Americans than the positive actions of African Americans in Charleston did to change people’s minds. Call all white people racists and you affirm the negative opinions (many unfounded) of minority populations toward white people. You are not working to resolve or improve things, just tear a wider rift between races.

    The answer is not in throwing us all into a group and calling us all racists. The answer is a discussion of how to change opinions and yes, that is a very two-sided conversation. Where is the outcry from the African American community toward the victims of police brutality and calls for people to not commit crimes, not shoot at police, not cuss at police, to follow police directions and so on? Where is the call to agree that whether they like it or not, some things such as owning a Confederate flag are protected by the Constitution, that you don’t have to like such things but you don’t have a right to take it away from others and that vandalizing a Confederate monument is illegal and does nothing to improve things? Playing the “racist card” at the drop of a hat doesn’t do anything but make things worse.

    The discussion at the table has to be not I’m right just because I’m a minority and You’re wrong because you’re white. Or because there was slavery 150 years ago, you need to pay and by that fact and that fact alone you are white and racist. Education is the key. Accurate information and not inflammatory exaggerations in the key. An open discussion without pointing fingers or assigning blame for past wrongs in needed. Not name calling and intellectual mongering.

  10. Posted August 13, 2015 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for taking the time to read and respond, Mike. Your reference to the article as ‘drivel’ notwithstanding, we are now in a conversation, which I consider a positive first step.

    My point is this: to grow up in America, regardless of color or economic class, is to grow up amidst the echoes of all that we have been in the past — the fierce commitment to individual liberty and equality, the global heroism of the 1940s, and, yes, the fierce distorting influence of institutionalized racism and class-based inequality. It’s all of the above. That has led all of us to experience different realities, benefits, and burdens. Do you feel the only reason so many black people are dying at the hands of police has to do with their lawless behavior? I don’t, and I don’t think you do either. I also think you can agree with me that what is at the root of that virus is not just a problem for the black community; it’s a problem for all of us, precisely because we are the people who are heirs to the legacy of aspiring to the fullest possible manifestation of human liberty and equality.

    This is what the Black folks I know are trying to tell the White folks they know. To help us transcend our country’s racist legacies, Black people need our help, and they need that help to stretch beyond what we may have been comfortable with in the past. That’s the point Baldwin makes in my article: it is the innocence that constitutes the crime. Which means we must become more vigilant in the ways in which we see, and call out, and refute, the invisible benefits that accrue to us simply because of our own accident of birth.

    I called you a racist to get your attention, mostly. But it’s not entirely a ploy. This, too, is the larger point to me: to really change the game for the better, we need to step out of our comfortable notions of our own progressive social-mindedness (I teach poor kids, I have Black friends, I volunteer, etc.) and get a little dirtier in the fight for social justice. That means we need to call out the ways privilege exists and has been stacking the deck unfairly for generations (as this cartoon powerfully and simply illustrates — http://www.vagabomb.com/This-Comic-Will-Forever-Change-the-Way-You-Look-at-Privilege/). And it means we need to speak up even when — especially when — it’s the instances of privilege that are literally privileging us and our families.

    I don’t think that’s name calling or intellectual mongering — and I suspect you agree. Which leaves the only question that is left to matter: what, then, is to be done? That’s a question only you can answer for you, and me for me. But I would say this: if your answer and your actions don’t feel inconvenient and uncomfortable, you’re probably not going far enough.

    My $.02. What do others think?

  11. Erika
    Posted August 13, 2015 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    Hey there, Mike and Sam

    Two quick thoughts. First, I feel like the term “racist” generates more heat than light so I try to avoid it. I talk instead in terms of “racism” and “racist systems,” as in, “I, a white woman who means well, nonetheless participate in and benefit from a bunch of racist systems, even when I don’t want to or mean to.” (See Peggy McIntosh for examples of white privilege). If I were to call myself or anyone else a “racist,” that would be distracting, because when people hear “racist” they hear “a horrible, morally bankrupt person who goes around intentionally hating and attacking black people.” And that’s not what I mean by racism at all.

    Which brings me to my second thought. Racism isn’t about individual feelings or actions. Instead, it arises from of a lot of unequal systems—laws, services, economic practices—that tilt the playing field. A lot of these systemic issues (the wealth gap, neighborhood segregation, segregated schools) have roots that stretch back to Jim Crow and slavery (Ta-Nehesi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” explains the historical dominoes very clearly). And if you look at the evidence, you’ll see that it’s not that black people on average make worse decisions than white people, or behave more criminally—on average it’s that law enforcement monitors black people more closely, and the consequences are much worse (just one statistic from the NAACP: “5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites.”)

    Racism is such a painful topic for everyone. I love our country and I hate its foundation of racism. People of color have to think about it, but I think Sam’s point is that white people have historically chosen to avoid that pain through “innocence”—and we can’t afford that innocence any more.

  12. Tomas
    Posted August 14, 2015 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Sam,

    After reading Metta’s piece, I was tempted to respond defensively. In fact, in a fit of frustration, I typed out an entire paragraph about being a teacher and fighting for my students and blah blah blah. You can imagine the rest. Thankfully, I deleted it. That was about a week ago. Since then, I’ve read and reread the article as well as your response and even some of the responses to your response. I asked Monica to read it. She did. We argued. I read it again. After all this, I’m still left feeling confused. Not so much about Metta’s claim or the personal experiences that laid its foundation. I’m confused about what to do. I would imagine many reflective, honest white people feel the same. At one point in the article, Metta essentially says, “I’m done talking race with white people.” I don’t know what this means. Maybe he said this purely out of frustration because he pulls a complete 180 by the end of the article. I suspect what he meant was that it’s worthless speaking with white people because they aren’t ready to accept some personal responsibility. However, I’m still left confused. You say, “…being racist isn’t only about explicit acts. It includes implicit privilege. It requires complicit silence.” I agree. Metta seems to agree as well. He seems dissatisfied with empty dialogue. This leads me to believe the only way to get the ball rolling so to speak is through explicit acts by folks in the privileged class aka the self proclaimed “innocents.” He fails however, to expand on this. Even you Sam, conclude your piece with, “…it will require a much more constant vigilance, and honesty, and self-awareness than we have shown so far.” This doesn’t go far enough in my view and it isn’t prescriptive. When someone tells a group of privileged people who’ve believed for their entire lives that they are color blind, that they are in fact racists due to the simple fact that they reap the benefits of being in a privileged class, that person ought to suggest alternative actions or else it’s just name-calling.

    I’m about to sidetrack briefly to illustrate my point: The world was outraged over the killing of Cecil the lion. Folks were raging on Facebook and Twitter. The vast majority was just raging. That’s it. Very few could actually boycott this guy’s dental practice so they took to Twitter to just vent. Very few likely did anything proactive. They just raged. I was dissatisfied so I proposed people boycott Jimmy Johns. The CEO does and continues to do the exact same thing. We’ll see where that goes but I’m not holding my breath. The collective outrage revealed a nasty truth: black lives are worth less than lion lives. Now I’ll come full circle. As a member of a privileged class, how can I ACTIVELY take advantage of my position to facilitate meaning change?

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