Atticus Finch is regarded by many as a hero and an ideal role model. He’s known to be a proponent for humanity’s equal right to justice and his parenting was considered to be way ahead of his time. But no one’s perfect, and Atticus is no exception. Even though Atticus’s parenting is commendable, his idealism is a reflection of his privilege as a white man because his social and economic status protects him from the effects of racism and allows him to disregard any threats or insults directed at him.
Both white privilege and racism are major problems that affect society at large. Many who fight for racism are often protected by their privilege, and therefore do not and cannot fully grasp the issues and problems those persecuted face. They often address issues in a naive fashion, disregarding their complexities as well as failing to recognize the inability of those being persecuted and discriminated against to implement those solutions.
Atticus Finch displays many of those traits. How he interacts with Mrs. Dubose clearly showcases his white and socioeconomic privilege. Mrs. Dubose would sit on her porch and insult Jem and Scout whenever they passed, “giving… [them a] melancholy prediction on what [they] would amount to when… [they] grew up, which was always nothing.” (Lee 114-115) Moreover, whenever Scout would say ‘Hey, Mrs. Dubose,’.. [she] would receive for an answer, ‘Don’t you say hey to me, you ugly girl! You say good afternoon, Mrs. Dubose!’ (Lee 115). Mrs. Dubose even went as far as insulting Atticus himself, saying ‘Your father’s no better than the niggers and trash he works for!’ (Lee 177). Despite all this, whenever Atticus would pass by her house, he would “sweep off his hat, wave gallantly to her and say, ‘Good evening, Mrs. Dubose! You look like a picture this evening.’ (Lee 115).
This instance shows how Atticus always tries to find the good in people, and is always polite to them regardless of their actions. These traits are part of his progressive personality, but they also represent the power of his white and socioeconomic privilege. A poor, persecuted person of low status would have found it very difficult to be polite and indifferent to what Ms. Dubose said, because they would feel personally attacked and threatened by her derogatory comments. Atticus is protected by his privilege, and is, therefore, able to easily dismiss those comments. He even goes as far as defending Mrs. Dubose, telling Jem that “She’s an old lady and she’s ill. You just hold your head high and be a gentleman. Whatever she says to you, it’s your job not to let her make you mad.’ (Lee 115).
Another instance when Atticus’s socioeconomic privilege was apparent was when he told Scout that “n*****-lover is just one of those terms that don’t mean anything” (Lee 124) . Atticus’s high socioeconomic status, as a white, male lawyer and a state representative fully insulates him from the power and significance of that hateful word, which exists to deny black people their personhood. His denial of the impact and power of this word showcases his limited awareness with regards to the terror and pain the African American community faced, and inadvertently creates a “vacuum” for people to use the word freely.
Perhaps one of the clearest examples of Atticus’s privilege is when Bob Ewell stopped Atticus, spat in his face, and threatened him. Atticus just walked away, carelessly, and said, “No, too old [to fight],” (Lee 248). Atticus was certain that Bob Ewell was just venting his frustrations, and that his socioeconomic status would protect him and prevent Bob from doing any harm to Atticus and his family. This is expressed very clearly when all Atticus said about the encounter was “I wish Bob Ewell wouldn’t chew tobacco”. If Atticus was an African American, he would have probably reacted very differently to the threats, as he would not be protected by his status or privilege. Atticus’s overconfidence in his family’s safety backfired in the end, when Bob Ewell attempted to murder both Jem and Scout.
In conclusion, although Atticus is highly respected due to his progressive beliefs, his idealism is a reflection of his many privileges, which shield him from the effects of racism. His socioeconomic privilege is showcased throughout the book, such as when Mrs. Dubose would insult him and yet he would treat her politely, his belief that n*****-lover didn’t mean anything, and when Bob Ewell threatened him and he just walked away.
We should always remember the following Quranic verse, which teaches us that all of humankind is equal. “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).”. It turns out that Atticus may not be as much of a hero as he is often portrayed.