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Racism unmasked: The lessons of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

Harper Lee’s famous novel masterfully depicts the experience of living in the racist societies that appeal to certain far-right political parties

To kill a mockingbird
Actors Gregory Peck and Brock Peters in a still from the film adaptation of 'To Kill a Mockingbird'Album
Guillermo Altares

A woman’s murder during a robbery in Madrid’s Tirso de Molina public square, and the uprising in French banlieues after a young man was killed by French police during a traffic stop, have unleashed a new wave of racist outbursts from far-right extremists like the Vox Party in Spain and the media outlets that champion their cause throughout Europe and the United States. It’s not surprising that the ultra-right holds racist beliefs – it’s a fundamental part of their ideology. What is truly remarkable is their unabashedly open and unambiguous expression of these opinions.

The coin of their realm has been dubbed the Great Replacement, a repugnant white nationalist, far-right conspiracy theory that mixes anti-Semitism with racism. They accuse people like Jewish financier George Soros of promoting a massive influx of Muslim immigrants to replace white Christians who, according to this racist worldview, are the lifeblood of Europe.

Everything has its limits, of course. Finland’s far-right Minister of Economy Vilhelm Junnila had to resign after 10 days in office due to his racist comments. Junnila had praised the Ku Klux Klan on social media posts and made oblique references to the number 88 – H is the eighth letter of the alphabet (Heil Hitler). Junnila’s ideology was well-known before he assumed one of the most crucial roles in government. The prevalence of far-right ideologies in Northern European nations is not unexpected. Before the 2011 domestic terrorist attacks in Utoya (Norway), secretive neo-Nazism was a theme of prominent Nordic crime fiction authors like Jo Nesbo, Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell. What is truly alarming is that these ideologies are no longer hidden and are now in plain sight.

Throughout history, many societies have been (and in some cases still are) built on foundations of racism. Skin color, caste and religion can have lifelong implications for an individual. There is a growing prevalence of extremist speech that openly yearns for those bygone times. One of the great literary works of the 20th century, To Kill a Mockingbird (for which Harper Lee won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize), describes life in an Alabama town during the pervasive racial segregation of the American South.

Gregory Peck, Harper Lee
Actor Gregory Peck and novelist Harper Lee during the filming of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

It is a novel about racial prejudice and an honest man named Atticus Finch who decides to defend a Black man unjustly accused of rape. His courage nearly leads to the death of his daughter. In Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Charles J. Shields vividly describes the formative experiences of the writer’s childhood like the time when she was five and saw 100 Ku Klux Klan members marching in her school parking lot, and when her college classmate mistakenly sat in the bus section reserved for Blacks, leading to a tense situation.

Individuals who clamor for societies rooted in racial division instead of embracing the principles of freedom and equality should think carefully about whether they truly want to live in a place like the one in To Kill a Mockingbird. They would do well to read and remember Atticus Finch’s wisdom to his young daughter, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”

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