Study Guide

To Kill a Mockingbird: Quotes about Race

By Harper Lee

Race

Chapter 11
Atticus Finch

"Scout," said Atticus, "n*****-lover is just one of those terms that don't mean anything—like snot-nose. It's hard to explain—ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody's favoring N****es over and above themselves. It's slipped into usage with some people like ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody."

"You aren't really a n*****-lover, then, are you?"

"I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody... I'm hard put, sometimes—baby, it's never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn't hurt you." (11.107-109)

In giving Scout a lesson in How Racism Works 101, Atticus also does the same for the audience. On the syllabus in this conversation: the power of language, not only as a way to shame those who don't toe the racist line, but also to set the terms of the debate. Racists use "n*****-lover" to suggest that a person is trying to give African-Americans special rights, but Atticus points out that all he's arguing for is equality, loving everybody the same. The end of the quote is basically a grown-up version of "I'm rubber and you're glue," suggesting that schoolyard taunt actually has some merit—some insults do tell you more about the person hurling them than about their target.

Chapter 12
Calpurnia

"It's right hard to say," she said. "Suppose you and Scout talked colored-folks' talk at home it'd be out of place, wouldn't it? Now what if I talked white-folks' talk at church, and with my neighbors? They'd think I was puttin' on airs to beat Moses."

"But Cal, you know better," I said.

"It's not necessary to tell all you know. It's not ladylike—in the second place, folks don't like to have somebody around knowin' more than they do. It aggravates 'em. You're not gonna change any of them by talkin' right, they've got to want to learn themselves, and when they don't want to learn there's nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut or talk their language." (12.138-144)

Cal doesn't get the privilege of being the same person no matter where she is, because she has to live a double life to fit in. Sometimes, conformity to what everyone else is doing makes more sense. Calpurnia and Atticus offer different models to Jem and Scout of how to deal with a world that can't deal with who people really are. (Extra credit: Check out W.E.B. DuBois's "Of Our Spiritual Strivings" for a famous discussion of doubleness and African-American identity.)

Lula

Lula stopped, but she said, "You ain't got no business bringin' white chillun here—they got their church, we got our'n. It is our church, ain't it, Miss Cal?"

… When I looked down the pathway again, Lula was gone. In her place was a solid mass of colored people.

One of them stepped from the crowd. It was Zeebo, the garbage collector. "Mister Jem," he said, "we're mighty glad to have you all here. Don't pay no 'tention to Lula, she's contentious because Reverend Sykes threatened to church her. She's a troublemaker from way back, got fancy ideas an' haughty ways—we're mighty glad to have you all." (12.48-52)

This is the first time Scout and Jem experience racism first-hand. They feel like they're the objects of someone else's racism, which sure put them in a unique position.

Chapter 16
Jean Louise Finch (Scout)

"Well how do you know we ain't N****es?"

"Uncle Jack Finch says we really don't know. He says as far as he can trace back the Finches we ain't, but for all he knows we mighta come straight out of Ethiopia durin' the Old Testament."

"Well if we came out durin' the Old Testament it's too long ago to matter."

"That's what I thought," said Jem, "but around here once you have a drop of N**** blood, that makes you all black." (16.78-81)

Jem and Scout here try to figure out how society divides people up into races, and what happens when those divisions break down. As kids who don't yet simply accept the existing system as the Way Things Are Just Because, they can see that the "one-drop rule" doesn't really work unless the origin of every drop of a person's blood (or every gene in their DNA, to update their science) can be accounted for, and why is one drop of black blood able to overwhelm several gallons of white blood, anyway? And how can blood have a racial identity? Oof. Someone pass the Tylenol.

Chapter 17
Robert E. Lee Ewell

[Mr. Ewell says] "I seen that black n***** yonder ruttin' on my Mayella!" (17.84)

Mr. Ewell may be barely literate, but he's a veritable Shakespeare when it comes to offensive language. The way he phrases his accusation achieves an impressive feat of multitasking: it 1) dehumanizes Tom (he doesn't use Tom's name, or even the pronoun "he"), 2) emphasizes Tom's race over everything else (the redundancy of "black n*****"), 3) compares Tom to a beast ("rutting" is usually applied to animals), 4) portrays Mayella as a passive victim (she's the indirect object of the sentence), and 5) asserts power over his daughter ("my Mayella," as if Tom's trying to steal Ewell's property). Not bad for a mere ten words—no wonder the crowd goes wild.

Chapter 20
Atticus Finch

"She was white, and she tempted a N****. She did something that in our society is unspeakable: she kissed a black man. Not an old Uncle, but a strong young N**** man. No code mattered to her before she broke it, but it came crashing down on her afterwards." (20.44-45)

Question #1: Why do the citizens of Maycomb (or at least some of them) prefer to believe that a black man raped a white woman than that a white woman kissed a black man? Question #2: Why does Atticus use the word "tempted," considering Tom's reaction to her advances seemed less "I totally would, but they'd totally kill me" than "just not that into you, kthxbye"? Isn't this a little racist? Doesn't it imply that, even if Tom can control himself, he wouldn't be able to help being tempted by any white woman?

"Which, gentlemen, we know is in itself a lie as black as Tom Robinson's skin, a lie I do not have to point out to you. You know the truth, and the truth is this: some N****es lie, some N****es are immoral, some N**** men are not to be trusted around women—black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men. There is not a person in this courtroom who has never told a lie, who has never done an immoral thing, and there is no man living who has never looked upon a woman without desire." (20.47-48)

On the one hand, Atticus is totally right: we need to judge people as individuals rather than by their race. No argument here. On the other hand, check out the way he calls the lie of racist stereotypes "as black as Tom Robinson's skin," once again associating evilness with blackness, although in a more figurative way.

Chapter 23
Atticus Finch

[Atticus says] "As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it—whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash." 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 N****'s ignorance. Don't fool yourselves—it's all adding up and one of these days we're going to pay the bill for it. I hope it's not in you children's time." (23.40)

Here's a quick reminder that To Kill a Mockingbird wasn't written in the 1930s, when it takes place, but in the 1950s, in the middle of the sometimes violent civil rights movement: grown up Jem and Scout are paying for it.

"There's something in our world that makes men lose their heads—they couldn't be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it's a white man's word against a black man's, the white man always wins. They're ugly, but those are the facts of life. […]

"The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box." (23.38-40)

According to Atticus, there's just something about race that makes white people crazy. His holding up Jem as an exception because of his youth suggests that whatever that X factor is, it's learned and not innate (and thus, perhaps can be changed through education?). He also acknowledges, in case it wasn't already obvious, that law isn't a pure realm free of the prejudices that plague everyday life—it's subject to the same problems as society at large. Usually Atticus is a voice of hope for change, but here he flatly says that racism is a "fact of life," suggesting that losing Tom's case severely dented his optimism concerning human nature—or else that, having sat through the case, Jem is ready to hear a truer, grimmer version of how the world works, instead of the sanitized Disney version.

Chapter 25

To Maycomb, Tom's death was typical. Typical of a n***** to cut and run. Typical of a n*****'s mentality to have no plan, no thought for the future, just run blind first chance he saw. Funny thing, Atticus Finch might've got him off scot free, but wait-? Hell no. You know how they are. Easy come, easy go. Just shows you, that Robinson boy was legally married, they say he kept himself clean, went to church and all that, but when it comes down to the line the veneer's mighty thin. N***** always comes out in 'em. (25.25)

Talk about a downer. For all the talk of baby steps and the folks with background who oppose racism from Atticus and Miss Maudie, this passage suggests that there's still a long way to go.