Without question, Tom Robinson would be better off today.
He would be able to vote. He would have access to all public accommodations. He could win a seat in Congress, be appointed to the Supreme Court, and rise to the top of a Fortune 500 company.
He could even be President.
In fact, Tom Robinson could live a life completely unimaginable and unrecognizable to the characters in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” – the groundbreaking book, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this week. No lynchings. No all white male juries. No presumption of guilt based on skin color. No state-sanctioned discrimination.
Yet, Tom would realize a sad, but undeniable truth — that racism is still alive and all too well in contemporary America. He would know it in the economic injustice that has left a disproportionate number of African-Americans — 25 percent — living in poverty. He would see it in the criminal injustice that has left a disproportionate number of African-American men – 6 times the number of white, non-Hispanic men — living in jails and prisons. And he would feel it in the hate-filled, racist rhetoric that still defines too much of our political discourse – rhetoric that questions the Civil Rights Act, rhetoric that questions the birthplace of our President.
Granted, America is a much different place than the fictional 1930s town portrayed in the exceptional 1960 book. Laws have changed. Attitudes have evolved. And we, as a people, have surely progressed.
But race remains a central subject in the American narrative.
Indeed, almost everywhere you turn, racism – in all its ugliness – can be seen, heard, and felt. The hit Broadway play, “Race”, showcases it. Mel Gibson’s recent tirade exposes it. Many Tea Party members give voice to it. And absurd race-based allegations about the health reform law (“tan tax”) and the U.S. Department of Justice ( the New Black Panther Party allegations ) feed it.
In fact, a Google search of the word “racism” will turn up hundreds – if not thousands — of news stories on a daily basis.
In other words, the Civil Rights Movement and a host of other efforts have taken us a long way toward a post-racial society, but there is much road still to be traveled – a disturbing fact born out in recent polling:
* A recent ABC News / Washington Post survey found that 94 percent of Americans think that racism is still “a problem” in our country.
* Another ABC News / Washington Post survey found that only 37 percent of Americans think that African-Americans have “achieved racial equality.”
* And a CNN / Opinion Research Corporation survey found that only 51 percent of those questioned believe that the “U.S. has fulfilled the vision” Martin Luther King, Jr. outlined in his “I have a dream” speech.
Again, Tom Robinson would fare much better in 21st century America. More opportunities. More equality. More justice. But while there is certainly much to celebrate in terms of race relations, it is equally clear that there is much work still to be done.
In trying to explain the existence of racism to his young son, Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch stated in his calming, yet compelling voice, “There are a lot of ugly things in this world, son.”
Instructive words then. Instructive words now.
Michael W. Kempner is the President/CEO of MWW Group ( www.mww.com ), a Top Ten National Public Relations Firm based in East Rutherford and an Operating Advisor for Pegasus Capital Advisors.