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.)