In the series of books written about Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling, liberalism and civil rights are a major point of concern. In the early books, there are allusions to the idea that different types of people, wizards, should be treated differently. There are direct corollaries between the Harry Potter books and the 1960s civil rights movement, as well as the current fight for gay rights. Each subject concerns discrimination: individual rights that should be protected by law and the ongoing fight to ensure those rights.
“To discriminate means to treat a person or a group of people badly because of who they are” (Graf). Harry Potter went through an extreme shift in civil rights; from all individuals having the same protection to a severely prejudicial and suppressed society and back again. Changes in civil rights are not generally so extreme, usually being more evolutionary, yet the concept of equality under the law relates to the real-world’s ongoing battle for individual freedom. The second book of the series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, introduced the reader to house elves.
Severely suppressed and controlled, this faction of the wizarding world had no rights and many responsibilities. Dobby is a house elf owned by the Malfoy family and they treated him like with obvious scorn and prejudice. Dobby was a slave to the Malfoy’s, not even allowed articles of clothing to wear, and beaten and abused. This is similar to the condition of black slaves in the United States through the civil war. Even granting African-Americans their freedom did not change the public’s perception that their race was less than Caucasians.
Dobby’s situation was even more pronounced as he was compelled to punish himself whenever he believed he did something wrong or broke his master’s rules. When Dobby gains his freedom through Harry’s slight of hand, Lucius Malfoy is angry because he had lost something he viewed to be property. The introduction of Winky in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire paints a different picture of house elves. She is proud to serve her master and obeys his every command. When she is punished and given clothes, thereby releasing her from her master, she is shamed and feels as though she had failed.
Her depression becomes so severe that she takes to drinking copious quantities of butter beer to ease her mind. By contrast, Dobby is happy to be free and wears his clothes proudly. Yet his quest to find work is challenging because of the wizarding world’s opinion of house elves and their ranking in the social hierarchy. Dobby is demanding to be paid for his services rather than doing it out of obligation or duty. Finding work at Hogwarts was his only viable option as Dumbledore was the only person willing to meet Dobby’s request, and recognize house elves as significant.
Hermione’s efforts to obtain freedom for house elves, the House Elf Liberation Front, are futile because house elves, with the exception of Dobby, are content with their position in society and do not view themselves as equals. They are servants, duty-bound to serve one master for their entire lives. Another prominent issue in the Harry Potter books was the idea that muggles, or non-magical people, were less than wizards, and wizards born from muggle families were inferior to those descending from wizards. The issue is first raised when the character of Draco Malfoy is introduced in the first book.
He states that some wizarding families were better than others and condemns the Weasley family because his father condemns the Weasley family based on Arthur Weasley’s affection and approval of muggles. The Malfoys believe that muggle-borns are insignificant and treat Hermione with great prejudice because of her muggle heritage. Draco calls her a “mudblood,” a great insult to wizards of muggle families. Even Professor Slughorn admits to surprise that muggle-born wizards are so adept at magic though he claims to have no prejudice. He does not treat them unfairly but he does have different expectations from them.
The entire basis for Voldemort’s play for power was the concept that muggle-borns and half-bloods were inferior to pure-bloods. Vodemort himself is descended from a muggle father, yet he denies this connection. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Vodemort’s objective becomes glaringly obvious. Muggles are murdered without concern and made to be subject to the wizards in control. Any wizard of muggle ancestry was prosecuted and imprisoned for stealing magic from wizards. Harry’s blatant opposition to this viewpoint places him in great risk as he continually defies the new order and their oppression. The reason for the wizarding war was to prevent an entire class of people from being enslaved and reclassified as less than human.
Harry’s parents also fought for individual freedom and defied Voldemort, which lead to their death. Harry’s success in this arena was a victory for equality, freedom and individual rights. Harry Potter’s battle to maintain equality and stamp out prejudice and bigotry enforced by law ties into the 1960s civil rights movement and the fight for gay rights that is not being waged in America. Entire groups of people are being discriminated against, not for anything they did but for who they are. “On trains and buses, in schools and restaurants, and even in public bathrooms, blacks were kept apart from whites.
Some laws made it illegal for blacks and whites to shake hands or play checkers” (Graf). African Americans were targeted because of the color of their skin and homosexuals due to their sexual orientation, neither of which a person has the ability to control. Discrimination is becoming more and more intolerable as civil rights groups gain ground in obtaining equality. Civil rights and the subject of liberalism are issues very close to me that I feel very passionate about. Growing up, my mother told me a story of her first trip to Washington State to meet friends of my father.
They were in a grocery store and an American Indian family came in to buy some ground meat. Even though they had the money for the fresh meat in the case, they were not allowed to purchase it. The store would only sell them the meat that had turned green because the store owner did not view American Indians as equal under the law. My mother protested and had to be dragged out of the store. The others in her group did nothing. My mom was only seventeen, yet she recognized discrimination when she saw it. As a child, I lived in a very white town, there were no Asians or African Americans and a handful of Hispanics.
When I was nine, a man knocked on our front door. I looked up, seeing him through the glass, and screamed. It was the first black person I had ever seen. I embarrassed myself, but moreover, I humiliated him, a nice man who mere wanted to know if my father was interested in selling his car. Being that segregated in not common in today’s society. In my eighth grade graduation, I walked down the aisle with the only black member of my graduating class and my father felt ashamed because of the town’s perception of African Americans.
Even my church, a place of acceptance and equality, treated a black singer so differently that he stopped coming to church. The town was prejudice and I felt embarrassed to live there, believing that by doing so, I supported their beliefs. As I grew older, I worked to support the rights of minorities and those groups that society treated differently, giving to their causes, raising money and awareness and voting for measures that would protect them. I felt that it was my obligation to society to try to end intolerance when my father had raised me to believe in it.
The Harry Potter series serves as a direct reminder of what kind of world societal intolerance can take by showing giant steps backwards in personal freedom and liberty. Voldemort and his Death Eaters attempted to obtain control for the sake of control and used discrimination and oppression to achieve it. Heterosexual Caucasians have been using this method for centuries to maintain the status quo and quell change. Worst of all is the oppressed group’s own perception of themselves. Like house elves, African Americans and homosexuals are not accustomed to being treated fairly and that concept has to change (Yoshino).
People “will soon be forced to acknowledge that it is not gay behavior, but antigay attitudes, that need to be adjusted” (Yoshino). What is important to remember is that the fight for equality is ongoing: that it is imperative for all races of people “to do something about the personal and institutional racism that still exists in our church and society” (Schlumpf ). Liberalism is growing in many areas and these books demonstrate exactly what this movement can achieve – individual rights, personal freedom and the practice of treating each individual as equal under the law.