In the early-twentieth-century American South (where The Green Mile takes places), racism is a prevailing ideology—one that is so overwhelmingly present in the legal system that it plays an important role in condemning John Coffey to death. The novel sheds light on the racism that exists in the county’s institutions as well as within individuals. Racism is often used to highlight characters’ cruelty and to emphasize the explicit and implicit ways in which black lives are constantly devalued in daily life. The Green Mile shows that opposing racism verbally is insufficient to change the status quo. Even though anti-racist characters express their outrage at the injustice of Coffey’s death, they prove incapable of taking concrete action to try to save his life—or, at least, beyond Paul’s writing, to publicly clear him of blame. Ultimately, King suggests that the great injustice of Coffey’s death is inextricably linked to—and symbolic of—the injustice of a racist society like America in the 1930s.
In Trapingus County’s legal system, John Coffey is inherently disadvantaged because of his skin color, and racism is ultimately the deciding factor in condemning him to death. The legal process that leads to Coffey’s death sentence may seem, initially, to be founded on objective facts. After Coffey is found holding the dead bodies of the two little Detterick girls, crying over what appears to be his crime, his guilt seems obvious to everyone present. As the reporter Hammersmith emphasizes, the scandalous nature of Coffey’s crime is not just the result of its brutality (as double rape and murder); rather, Coffey’s crime is considered particularly gruesome because of its interracial nature, as it involves a black man against two white girls. Before the trial even begins, therefore, Coffey is already at a disadvantage, as his crime is judged more severely because of the color of his skin.
King shows that white criminals, in general, benefit from greater clemency than black men, even for the same crimes. Paul notes that death-row prisoners are usually black, suggesting that black criminals tend to disproportionately receive a death sentence, and Harry also comments that the only reason The Pres saw his death sentence commuted to life was because he was white. William Wharton’s execution is delayed because his lawyer invokes the fact that his client is a young, white man and, in so doing, has a chance of convincing judges to commute his death sentence to life. Coffey, by contrast, is denied that possibility. Even once Coffey’s innocence can be proven, he does not benefit from a fair re-examination. “John Coffey is a Negro, and in Trapingus County we’re awful particular about giving new trials to Negroes,” Deputy McGee tells Paul. Even though both men know John is innocent—and that it is in fact a white man who is responsible for the murder of the Detterick girls—the men in charge of the legal system prove unwilling to save a black man from an unjust death.
Such racism in legal institutions mirrors people’s general racism in this predominantly white, Southern American society. Many characters are loath to recognize the equal dignity of black people and often treat them as savage and inferior beings. Percy notes that Mr. Jingles’s way of eating a Ritz cracker is not an extraordinary feat but, rather, looks “like a nigger eating watermelon,” and on another occasion William Wharton tells John that “[n]iggers ought to have they own ’lectric chair.” These men’s racism serves to emphasize their inherent cruelty. Yet racial slurs are not the only visible form of racism. Racist beliefs are often smooshed together with ostensibly progressive views: “I’d not bring slavery back for all the tea in China. I think we have to be humane and generous in our efforts to solve the race problem. But we have to remember that your negro will bite if he gets the chance, just like a mongrel dog will bite if he gets the chance,” the reporter Hammersmith tells Paul. Paul reflects: “[H]e kept calling them your Negroes, as if they were still property . . .” Paul aims to show that Hammersmith’s attitude is deeply hypocritical, and that it reflects a mentality that was prevalent in the American South at the time, a racism so entrenched and ordinary that it becomes almost difficult to notice.
In contrast to these despicable characters, the main person who stands up for John Coffey, arguing that his life is just as valuable as any other, is Paul’s wife Janice. “Do you mean to kill the man who saved Melinda Moores’s life, who tried to save those little girls’ lives?” she asks. “Well, at least there will be one less black man in the world, won’t there? You can console yourselves with that. One less nigger.” Janice’s use of the racial slur is ironic—she is emulating the speech of a racist. She denounces what she sees as Paul and his companions’ unwillingness to fight for John Coffey’s freedom, arguing that, in keeping quiet about his innocence, they are implicitly accepting that John Coffey is less deserving than a white man of a right to life. Through Janice’s blunt denunciation of Paul’s apathy, King shows that the central injustice of the book—that is, Coffey’s wrongful execution—is more a product of racism than anything else. And yet, Janice proves unable to do anything to prevent Coffey’s execution. Thus, the bitterest injustices portrayed in The Green Mile are shown to be not personal, but racial—nor are they incidental, but rather pervasive and systemic.
Racism Quotes in The Green Mile
Everyone—black as well as white—thinks it's going to be better over the next jump of land. It's the American damn way. Even a giant like Coffey doesn't get noticed everywhere he goes . . . until, that is, he decides to kill a couple of little girls. Little white girls.
Hammersmith who had told me that mongrel dogs and Negroes were about the same, that either might take a chomp out of you suddenly, and for no reason. Except he kept calling them your Negroes, as if they were still property . . . but not his property. No, not his. Never his. And at that time, the South was full of Hammersmiths.