As the question of how and why Davis Bauer died moves into the courts, Ruth is shocked and hurt when Kennedy tells her that it's impossible to bring up race in a court of law. Doing so, Kennedy insists, will only hurt Ruth by making her look like an "angry black woman" on a mission to blame Turk and Brit for holding racist beliefs, rather than sticking to the facts of the case that can be considered separately from the skin color or beliefs of any party in question. With this, Small Great Things explores the power dynamics of the court system and proposes ultimately that who says something is oftentimes more important than the substance of what's said.
Though the American justice system is supposed to allow people to dismantle racist policies and right wrongs committed because of a person's race, it's important to look at the ways in which the court system is actually set up in such a way as to promote racism and make race impossible to talk about. Kennedy explains to Ruth and the reader in their first meeting that bringing up race—even when a case has clear racial undertones—is a surefire way to lose. She says that it's impossible to be sure of what a judge or jury is thinking and instead, it's more important to focus on anything else that might clear a defendant of blame. Doing so turns race into the proverbial elephant in the room, making it impossible to talk about—and, as Kennedy comes to realize, ignoring race and refusing to talk about it means that it's impossible to do anything to actually fix it. In this way, Small Great Things draws a direct link between silence and the possibility for racism to continue. Kennedy notes that not mentioning race allows the jury to "go home still pretending the world we live in is an equal one," while implying that no matter who wins the case, the silence still allows racism—whether overt like Turk's, or less obvious like Corinne and Marie's—to continue.
As different people testify during the court proceedings, it becomes increasingly clear that who says something and how they say it can have a much bigger impact on the jury than what's actually said. The state of Connecticut (and by extension, the Bauers) is represented by Odette Lawton, a black female lawyer. Though Turk hates Odette just like he hates all black people, he recognizes that she can couch his beliefs in language that turns his racist request into a matter of race-blind "patient's rights," since nobody expects that a black person will ever say something truly racist about black people.
Similarly, Kennedy finds that during closing arguments, her status as a white woman means that she has the power to call out Turk's racism as she sees it and essentially berate the jury for their own unexamined racism, even though she admits that doing this goes against every guideline for how to handle race in the courtroom, and she's effectively dooming Ruth by doing so. In contrast, when Ruth takes the stand and makes the case that the racism of Davis's parents is what's to blame for Davis's death, she is received exactly as Kennedy said she would be: as a stereotypical "angry black woman" who retaliated against the Bauers after they and the hospital discriminated against her. However, by this point, Ruth is done tiptoeing around the issue of race and wants to tell her truth. In doing so, she chooses to believe that it's more important to speak and tell the truth than it is to continue ignoring the real problems that impact her and other black people every day—and that often either land them in court or kill them.
To this end, Small Great Things also makes it very clear that it's a novel that reflects its contemporary moment: a world in which black people are regularly killed for no reason other than the color of their skin, and in which most of Kennedy's other clients are black and have little hope of winning their cases, given how the justice system is stacked against them. With Ruth's win in court, despite breaking the rules regarding how one is supposed to handle race in a courtroom, Small Great Things makes the case that things can only change when people in power—namely, white lawyers and judges—decide to bring these issues to the forefront, insist that racism and prejudice are guiding forces in the courtroom, and allow these truths to be spoken in court.
The Justice System and the Politics of Speech ThemeTracker
The Justice System and the Politics of Speech Quotes in Small Great Things
In fact, the easiest way to lose a case that has a racially motivated incident at its core is to actually call it what it is. Instead, you find something else for the jury to hang their hat on. Some shred of evidence that can clear your client of blame, and allow those twelve men and women to go home still pretending that the world we live in is an equal one.
Suddenly I realize that Kennedy's refusal to mention race in court may not be ignorant. It's the very opposite. It's because she is aware of exactly what I have to do in order to get what I deserve.
I might as well be blind and lost, and Kennedy McQuarrie is the only one with a map.
"You say you don't see color...but that's all you see. You're so hyperaware of it, and of trying to look like you aren't prejudiced, you can't even understand that when you say race doesn't matter all I hear is you dismissing what I've felt, what I've lived, what it's like to be put down because of the color of my skin."
She looks at me, and we both laugh, and in that instant we are merely two women, standing over a lasagne, telling the truth. In that instant, with our flaws and confessions trailing like a slip from a dress, we have more in common than we have differences.
It is a picture of a Black woman wearing a maid's uniform, holding a little girl in her arms. The girl has hair as light as snow, and her hand is pressed against her caregiver's cheek in shocking contrast. There's more than just duty between them. There's pride. There's love. "I didn't know your mother. But, Ruth—she didn't waste her life."
I've always thought of her as an uptight piece of work. But now I'm wondering: when she goes shopping, is she, like Ruth, asked to show her receipts before exiting the store? Does she mutely hand them over? Or does she ever snap and say she is the one who puts shoplifters on trial?
She falters, then gathers up the weeds of her thoughts and offers me the saddest, truest bouquet. "I didn't know."
"Why would you?" I reply—not angry, not hurt, just stating a fact. "You'll never have to."
"You think you're a respected member of a community—the hospital where you work, the town where you live. I had a wonderful job. I had colleagues who were friends. I lived in a home I was proud of. But it was just an optical illusion. I was never a member of any of those communities. I was tolerated, but not welcomed. I was, and will always be, different from them."
What Kennedy said to all those strangers, it's been the narrative of my life, the outline inside of which I have lived. But I could have screamed it from the rooftops, and it wouldn't have done any good. For the jurors to hear it, really hear it, it had to be said by one of their own.