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Another Lesson from the Mockingbird: Institutional Racism in Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird

      Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird
      • Lee H
      To Kill a Mockingbird.
      is one of the most successful American novels in history. Set in the 1930s, it is the story of a fictional white lawyer, Atticus Finch, who represents a falsely accused black man, Tom Robinson. Told through the eyes of Atticus’ daughter, Scout, the book introduced readers to race relations and justice in the south. Atticus defends Tom, and at one point stands up to an angry mob looking to lynch him. As a result, Atticus has been held up as a role model for young lawyers. As previously stated, the book does not have overt medical themes; nonetheless, there are lessons to be gleaned.
      • Potyk D
      • Swanson J
      A lesson from the Mockingbird: patient autonomy in Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird..
      In light of current events, the book should “serve as a clarion call for racial and social justice.”
      • Potyk D
      • Swanson J
      A lesson from the Mockingbird: patient autonomy in Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird..
      Most significantly and often overlooked is the fact that the falsely accused black man is found guilty and imprisoned. As a result of the wrongs heaped upon him, Tom is full of despair and attempts to escape from prison. As he does so, he is shot 17 times in the back.
      While the novel has been praised for its depiction of Atticus’ moral character, further analysis reveals deep flaws. Careful reading reveals Atticus to be racist, and racism, segregation, and a caste system are displayed throughout the story.
      “The Mockingbird” is written from a white privileged perspective. In acknowledging this simple fact, there is recognition that systemic racism has been present in our society for far too long. In medicine, we have begun to discuss, study, and address disparities in health care outcomes. For example, in the current pandemic, black Americans are disproportionately infected and die from COVID-19.
      • Millet GA
      • Jones AT
      • Benkeser D
      • et al.
      Assessing differential impacts of COVID-19 on Black communities.
      Disparities in health care outcomes are not new. Black women are 3 times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes than white women, the infant mortality rate among black infants is twice that for white infants, and black Americans are more likely to die from cancer and heart disease.

      Taylor, J. Racism, inequality, and health care for African Americans. The Century Foundation.Available at: https://tcf.org/content/report/racism-inequality-health-care-african-americans/. Accessed July 16, 2020.

      The notion that genetic differences account for these different outcomes has been disproven. We now know the underlying causes to be social determinants of health and systemic racism. We have much work to do to undo the institutional racism woven into our society's fabric. Those of us fortunate enough not to have suffered the effects of our country's institutionalized racism must recognize and acknowledge how hard it is to grow up black in our society. Everyday reminders include being unfavorably singled out and treated differently, being pulled over while simply driving, being followed suspiciously simply upon entering a store, being subject to unfair hiring and promotion practices, and the everyday panic when a family member comes home late—worrying whether the delay is simply traffic or some awful racist act. These are common occurrences for those who have evaded incarceration and murder because of their skin color.
      How far have we come since To Kill a Mockingbird? Sadly, 60 years later we continue to witness racial profiling, lack of opportunity, and prejudice for American citizens based upon their skin color. Police actions and judicial practices have unfairly targeted blacks and have resulted in the mass incarceration of young black men. Institutional racism persists.
      Racialization and categorization of our fellow human beings is a social construct, without which certain groups cannot be oppressed. Each one of us, both professionally and personally, must decide what action we are going to take to address disparities in health care and their root cause, institutional racism. Doing so will require grace, humility, and a growing sense of responsibility.

      References

        • Lee H
        To Kill a Mockingbird.
        HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, New York, NY2006
        • Potyk D
        • Swanson J
        A lesson from the Mockingbird: patient autonomy in Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird..
        Am J Med. 2014; 127: 100
        • Millet GA
        • Jones AT
        • Benkeser D
        • et al.
        Assessing differential impacts of COVID-19 on Black communities.
        Ann Epidemiol. 2020; 47: 37-44
      1. Taylor, J. Racism, inequality, and health care for African Americans. The Century Foundation.Available at: https://tcf.org/content/report/racism-inequality-health-care-african-americans/. Accessed July 16, 2020.