“To Kill a Mockingbird” is Harper Lee’s classic novel about racial injustice. In chapter 22, we read an unforgettable line spoken by Miss Maudie, a white woman, to Jem Finch, a white boy. Jem’s father is a lawyer, Atticus Finch. And Atticus had just defended a Black man named Tom Robinson who was wrongly charged with raping a white woman.
Jem was appalled at the bigotry white people expressed towards Robinson and was crushed about the guilty verdict. In an attempt to provide encouragement to Jem and his sister, Scout, Miss Maudie invited them to her home for cake.
She noticed that Jem was upset about the outcome of the trial and the racial prejudice he had witnessed. To console the boy, Miss Maude said: “Don’t fret, Jem. Things are never as bad as they seem.”
I wish that Harper Lee had given Jem permission to make this response to that comment. “Miss Maudie, you’re right. Things are never as bad as they seem. Sometimes they are worse.”
Harper Lee was not inspired to write that reply for Jem. Perhaps she did not think it respectful of Miss Maudie’s attempt to console him.
Perhaps that talented author, a native of the American South, could not permit a white lad to see racial injustice, be discomforted by it, and rebuff, however politely, Miss Maudie’s effort to “look on the bright side,” as it were.
Perhaps Harper Lee, like many people from every background, did not want to confront the painful truth that things are sometimes worse than they seem.
Germans may have thought things were not as bad as they seemed as Adolf Hitler’s Nazi faction emerged onto their social and political scene. We know now that they were worse.
But the evidence for that knowledge was present in Germany. Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw it, knew it, and went to his death saying so.
Americans have long believed that social inequities are not as bad as they seem. But as was the case in Germany, that view has always been not merely debatable, but wrong.
Now it is clear that bigotry associated with racism and xenophobia is worse than people believe. George Floyd died publicly in Minnesota in 2020 just as Emmitt Till died under cover of night in Mississippi in 1955.
Brianna Taylor died in Kentucky by homicidal-minded policing just as brutally as Tyree Nichols died in Tennessee and the Forest Defender nicknamed Tortuquita was slaughtered in Georgia in 2023.
Things aren’t as bad as they seem. They’re worse.
The policies of Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders are not “as bad as they seem.” They’re worse.
Sanders calls it “normal” to gut state laws that compel public disclosure of how she and other public officials conduct public business and spend public funds. That isn’t normal.
It’s tyranny. Worse than it seems.
Sanders and other politicians call it “normal” to ban public educators from teaching the truth about this nation’s history of social injustice. That isn’t normal.
It’s tyranny. Worse than it seems.
Sanders, Texas Governor Gregg Abbott, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin call it “normal” to ban education about diversity, equity and inclusion, and falsely accuse LGBTQI persons as trying to “indoctrinate” others with a “woke” agenda. That isn’t normal.
That’s lying to advance tyrannical authoritarianism. That’s not simply religious nationalism.
It’s fascism. That’s worse.
It is up to us to say that things are worse than they seem. Auto workers have suffered a net drop in income, reductions in pension benefits, and cuts in other benefits while the income of corporate executives and stockholder dividends are soaring.
Auto workers are going on strike against major automobile manufacturers because they know that income inequity is worse than it seems.
Hate is worse than it seems. Tyrannical authoritarianism disguised as political nationalism is worse than it seems.
Politicians are cutting taxes on the wealthiest in our society. Meanwhile, they are cutting access to health care for those who live with their backs against the wall.
This proves that public frustration about political incompetence and fealty to greed is not merely as bad as it seems. It is worse.
The dangers of global warming and climate change are worse.
Global apartheid is worse.
Mass incarceration is worse.
Poverty is worse.
Greed is worse.
Threats to voting rights are worse.
Threats to women and girls are worse.
Threats to impoverished people are worse.
Threats to world peace are worse.
Tyrannical authoritarianism is not limited to Donald Trump. It openly claims legitimacy from the mouths of Mike Pence, Ron DeSantis, and from preachers like Robert Jeffress, Albert Mohler and John McArthur. This is worse than it seems.
Unlike Jem, we must say, “No, Miss Maudie, your cake does not blind us from knowing that things are worse than they seem. Your cake does not prevent us from knowing that things are worse than you admit.”
We know that things are getting worse by the minute, everywhere. We are not only free to know this truth. We have a moral, ethical and political duty to say it and act on it.
Neither Miss Maudie’s cake, nor her assurances, can make us forget what we know. Miss Maudie can’t blind us to what we see.
So, speak louder. Speak stronger. Be defiant.
Because things are worse than they seem.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a retired state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion, and a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.