Here is an interesting take on how the presentation of white people in The Help (and To Kill a Mockingbird) obscures the existence of racial systems in the Jim Crow South:
This movie deploys the standard formula. With one possible exception, the white women are remarkably unlikable, and not just because of their racism. Like the housewives portrayed in reality television shows, the housewives of Jackson treat each other, their parents and their husbands with total callousness. In short, they are bad people, therefore they are racists…
To suggest that bad people were racist implies that good people were not.
Jim Crow segregation survived long into the 20th century because it was kept alive by white Southerners with value systems and personalities we would applaud. It’s the fallacy of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a movie that never fails to move me but that advances a troubling falsehood: the notion that well-educated Christian whites were somehow victimized by white trash and forced to live within a social system that exploited and denigrated its black citizens, and that the privileged white upper class was somehow held hostage to these struggling individuals.
But that wasn’t the case. The White Citizens Councils, the thinking man’s Ku Klux Klan, were made up of white middle-class people, people whose company you would enjoy. An analogue can be seen in the way popular culture treats Germans up to and during World War II. Good people were never anti-Semites; only detestable people participated in Hitler’s cause.
Turner is arguing that the Jim Crow South was a system supported by much of Southern society of all social classes. In contrast, movies can portray racism as being the opinion of particular individuals or of people of smaller social groups. This “whitewash” perhaps helps us feel better today – only bad people were racists – and also reflects our own moral calculus where racists can’t be good people.
But we know from American history that this was not exactly the case. Many “virtuous” and celebrated Southerners supposed slavery and Jim Crow laws. And the North is also complicit: “sundown towns” were the norm and segregation were quite high (and still are). Overall, racism and discrimination still takes place within systems that require beginnings and maintenance provided by people living within the systems and also those in charge.