Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s long-unseen companion novel to To Kill A Mockingbird, is arriving with a shock.
Where Lee’s classic novel presents Atticus Finch as a lawyer who fights heroically for an African-American who is unjustly accused, the continuation of the story (written decades ago, but unpublished until now) shows the hero resenting the effects of forced integration and civil rights laws on his society. Can Atticus Finch possibly be a racist? The idea seems to undercut the basic moral message that made Mockingbird a classic.
But a classic novel can yield layered messages, and in fact the apparition of Atticus Finch yielding to ugly currents of civil-rights-era racism echoes a moral conundrum we wrote about a year ago in an article called “The Ashley Wilkes Principle“. Ashley Wilkes is the gentle-souled, too-good-for-this-world hero of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. In the novel and the movie (in which he is played by Leslie Howard), Ashley Wilkes’s utter goodness is constantly contrasted to the earthy deviousness of Rhett Butler, who eventually emerges as Scarlett O’Hara’s truest soulmate. Margaret Mitchell presents Ashley Wilkes as a pillar of moral goodness — even excessive goodness. And yet Ashley Wilkes is also a proud officer in the Confederate Army, and such a devoted Southerner that his life is permanently shattered once the North wins the war.
There is little indication that Ashley Wilkes hates African-Americans or desires the preservation of slavery, and his societal attitudes are lenient and progressive. And yet he absorbs and retains deep inside him the institutionalized racism of the land that is his home, just as Atticus Finch does in the new Harper Lee book.
The trope of the noble racist is a common one. It can feel traumatic to review the list of intellectuals around the world who loosely or tightly embraced Adolf Hitler and Nazism in the 1930s: not only Martin Heidegger and Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats but even impossible names like the Jewish modernist Gertrude Stein (whose artistic appreciation for fascism was shockingly revealed in Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice by Janet Malcolm, a book that has been little discussed perhaps because its truths are so hard to digest).
There are a few different ways we can react to these oxymoronic scenarios of “good racists”, who may not personally believe in the principles of racism but uphold its institutions nonetheless. The emerging public intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates has written sharply about the stark reality of the allegedly “post-racist” society we live in today. Coates argues that racism deeply pervades our shared attitudes and shared experiences even in 2015. It’s a theme that many other thinkers who’ve wrestled with the problem of ethnic conflict have also developed: when a society is built upon a foundation of racism, that racism will develop a toxic life of its own, and will persist and replicate itself to new generations in countless unconscious ways.
And yet, as we’ve noted before when specifically considering the increasing popularity of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s writings about race, there is something about this conclusion that feels like a dead end. Yes, racism infects not only individual minds but also our group mind. Yes, racism is currently inescapable. But writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates seem satisfied to point fingers at the recurring symbols of recurrent racism. His work is one of classification, of assignment of guilt: this is racist, this is racist, this is racist. In most cases, he is right. But what can we do about racism besides identifying it and condemning it? Is there any hope for actually alleviating this problem? That hope appears to be beyond the scope of writers like Coates, and yet the fact that there is hope may be the most important fact of all.
It’s a stunning truth that racism can exist without hatred, that a racist may not be ignorant, that a racist may even hold lofty progressive ideals while continuing to stand proudly as a member of a society that denies these ideals. But this fact is not a brick wall that we must smash our heads against in despair. Rather, this fact is a door we can enter. It reveals to us that racism is not itself a primary element of nature. Racism is a compound thing, a molecule, a complex equation.
This means that we can deconstruct racism, that we can try to discern the primary elements that provide its terrible structure. In the fictional cases of both Atticus Finch and Ashley Wilkes, a single primary element appears to play a major role. This is the element variously reflected by feelings of nationalism, hostile regionalism, xenophobia, fear of foreign invasion. It is the terror of invasion by hostile outsiders that turns Ashley Wilkes into a racist, and Atticus Finch as well.
Both men are Southerners who see that their homelands are being attacked and invaded by outsiders: the Union Army for Ashley Wilkes in the 1860s, the police and National Guard forces of the Federal government for Atticus Finch a century later. These invasions are morally justified by the need to represent the African-Americans who are being crushed by majority rule in the South — but at the same time an invasion is an invasion, and brings an automatic response. (Another historical example of this automatic response can be seen in the story of Robert E. Lee, who did not support Confederate secession, but felt forced to become a Confederate general when it became apparent that the Union Army would have to invade his home state of Virginia to reach the Confederate hotbeds of South Carolina and Georgia).
In this light, the racism of Atticus Finch and Ashley Wilkes emerges not as an oxymoron but rather as an inevitable by-product of military or quasi-military police action, as well as by the fear and threat of such actions. Similarly, the list of Nazi sympathizers above can also be better understood in the light of geopolitics. (For instance, the reason for Yeats’s sympathy towards fascism was clear as day: he was an Irish patriot and thus stood against England, so the fascist enemies of England became his friends.)
Once we analyze and deconstruct the complex molecule known as racism, we may be surprised to find not a set of vile base elements but rather one single vile element that greatly enhances and supports the presence of racism in everyday life. This is the element of nationalist xenophobia, political paranoia, militant conspiracy theory, the terror of foreign invasion that becomes all too real when foreign invasion becomes an actual reality. When a war or an invasion or a violent police intervention occurs, racism is one of the lingering pollutions that is always left behind.
Perhaps institutionalized racism can be reduced not only by confronting it directly, but also by confronting the underlying problem of institutionalized violence, institutionalized militarism, instituionalized xenophobia. Writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates are doing a great job today of pointing out our collective guilt for the problem of racism. But the flip side of this collective guilt is that collective redemption is also possible — if we can be smart enough to find the paths towards peaceful global coexistence, and brave enough to choose it.