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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

"Revisionist History," power, and Alabama v. Tom Robinson

Malcolm Gladwell has a podcast called Revisionist History, which finished its second 10-episode season. Four of the episodes in Season 2 dealt with civil rights and the Civil Rights Movement, including episodes 7 & 8, which are about Donald Hollowell, an African-American attorney in Georgia, and Vernon Jordan, who assisted him. The podcast is great (unless you are predisposed against Malcolm Gladwell, then it likely confirms what you do not like about him) and these two stories were highlights.

Episode 7 focuses on the story of Nathaniel Johnson, an African-American man executed for raping a white woman (with whom he claimed to be having an affair) in 1959 Georgia. Gladwell compares this case to Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, where a white woman's romantic interest in an African-American was turned into rape. Gladwell focuses on some bits from the book not included in the movie: Robinson's testimony that Mayella Ewell said she had never kissed a man before and that what her father did to her didn't count and that Bob Ewell's first words when he saw them through the window were "you dirty whore".

Gladwell's theme in these two episodes is power. And he argues that, with that bit of testimony, Atticus' defense became clear: To ask the jury not to be racist against Tom but to be sexist against Mayella (a different type of powerless person), who is portrayed as (Gladwell's words) a participant in incest. (So Atticus was a sexist, on top of the reveal in Go Set A Watchman that Atticus was, even in his time, a racist--it's been a rough couple of years).

But I thought this missed the mark in three respects.

First, even as an 11-year-old, I did not read Mayella as a participant in incest but as a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of her father. I also read him as forcing her to testify untruthfully. Perhaps that interpretation is unreasonably favorable to Mayella or against her father. And perhaps an all-male jury in 1930s Alabama would have seen it the same way as Gladwell. But I read it as Atticus trying to put Bob on trial, not Mayella. Consider the evidence (more of a focus in the movie) designed to show that Bob beat Mayella, whereas Tom (who did not have use of one of his arms) could not have done so.

Second, even if Bob was Atticus' real alternate target, Gladwell missed another power dynamic involving class and education. The Ewell's were "poor white trash" within that society. All the evidence that Atticus presented against Bob Ewell was designed to play to what the jury, the judge, the prosecutor, and the sheriff already believed about him.

Third, it shows race as the overwhelming power dynamic. No matter how badly the jury and every other institutional player disliked and disbelieved Bob Ewell, he had more credibility than an African-American. At the end, everyone was willing to bury how Ewell was killed because he had it coming, but not before allowing an African-American to be sacrificed for Bob's misconduct.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 22, 2017 at 12:00 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Culture, Howard Wasserman | Permalink

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