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How Do We Teach “To Kill a Mockingbird” Now?

Harper Lee’s novel is the closest thing America has had to required reading. But the book’s failings in confronting racism are more apparent than ever to White educators — and Black ones wonder what took so long.
YES! illustration by Tracy Matsue Loeffelholz

YES! illustration by Tracy Matsue Loeffelholz

I am sitting in my eighth-grade civics class learning what it is to be an American. Around me, the cool kids wear Abercrombie and Fitch, and I do too, ever since I convinced my parents to buy me some. (I cycle relentlessly through my three precious items; one is a dark olive-green “muscle tee” whose purpose is entirely lost on my slight frame.) Our textbook cover bears the rippling glory of the stars and stripes. In it, we learn about the three branches of government and major Supreme Court cases. We read and discuss novels like Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird. We watch movies. An adaptation of Mockingbird and High Noon, black-and-white movies about White (not Black) heroes.

On this day, on a boxy television screen, Gregory Peck, tall and handsome in his button-down vest, grapples with his sense of duty — to community, to loved ones, to the ideals of law and nation. Peck stands up to an angry mob and offers a vision of who I might become: a movie star.

Or, failing that, Atticus Finch.

A little less than a decade earlier and a thousand miles from where I grew up, David E. Kirkland was also introduced to Mockingbird in a classroom. While I read it as a White eighth-grader in the northern Virginia suburbs, he read it as a Black ninth-grader in Detroit. Our real-life civic lessons were different. While I had been aware of the recent Bill Clinton scandal involving Monica Lewinsky and the mass shooting at Columbine High, he had been aware of rioting in L.A. and the death of unarmed Malice Green at the hands of his city’s police.

“So I had a lot of questions,” said Kirkland, who would later become an English professor, an activist, and executive director of New York University’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. “I was glad to begin to explore issues of racism, and racial injustice, as they existed in my reality, through a text that would talk about it.”

Instead, he and his classmates “got a chance to romanticize Atticus Finch.”

“We had an opportunity to see a young girl live in her innocence. We had an opportunity to feel sorry when that innocence was disrupted by this reality that racism existed. Well, I lived in a community where young kids didn’t get to enjoy innocence.”

Ultimately, he said, the discussion of the book was more harmful than if “the text had not been talked about in the class in the first place.”

Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is the closest thing America has to required reading. Oprah Winfrey has called it “our national novel.” The story follows Scout Finch, a young White girl in Depression-era Alabama, as her attorney father, Atticus, defends a Black man, Tom Robinson, who has been wrongfully accused of rape. In 1961, the book won Lee the Pulitzer Prize and the next year was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film. It has since sold over 40 million copies.

The book has been as controversial as popular. Attempts to ban it from schools began in Ohio in 1963 and continue today. When that happens, defenders and detractors alike rise up to debate its place in our classrooms. Meanwhile, the book is called on as a source of moral authority for specious causes, such as when Sen. Jo hn Cornyn compared the Republican defense of Supreme Court then-candidate Brett Kavanaugh to Atticus’ defense of Tom Robinson.

Amid this swirl of adoration, vitriol, and confusion, educators across the country continue to teach Mockingbird.

That includes me. I’ve adored the book ever since my eighth-grade civics class; that was at an impressionable age for sorting ideals of manhood. I read it again in college and several times since. The relationship between Scout and her brother, Jem, is richly observed, and for a long time I saw Atticus Finch as a model for how to be an upstanding White man in an unjust world. But when I tried teaching Mockingbird to my own students, I wasn’t particularly successful at engaging them in the story or having meaningful discussions about its contemporary relevance.

This is a struggle I have heard echoed repeatedly over the last year and a half as I’ve spoken with dozens of educators, parents, students, experts, and writers, trying to understand Mockingbird’s place in our culture and classrooms. It’s become a literary infatuation. I’ve traveled to Lee’s Alabama hometown, Monroeville. I’ve reported in Biloxi, Mississippi, one of the many places where the book has been pulled from school curricula. I’ve reflected on my own relationship with the book and analyzed both the new “biography” of Atticus by historian Joseph Crespino and the new Broadway adaptation of Mockingbird by Aaron Sorkin. I’ve spoken with teachers from Chicago to Hawai‘i and collected a nearly teetering pile of books about the book.

We live in an America in which the majority of public school students are people of color and about 80 percent of public school teachers are White. We assign our students this novel by a White author about a White girl whose White father tries (and fails) to save a Black man. Meanwhile, our students are living in Trump’s America. They are worrying about their parents’ immigration status and their physical safety on the streets of their neighborhoods and whether the state has control over their bodies. They are scrolling through Instagram and soaking up the stories and images of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo — and Make America Great Again.

Too many White teachers, including me, fail to make Mockingbird resonate because we ignore the ways in which discussions about racial justice have changed since we ourselves were taught Mockingbird. And as Kirkland attests, we are damaging too many students of color in the process — and have been for a long time. The book never worked for them at all.

So how do we teach To Kill a Mockingbird today?

Gregory Peck and Brock Peters in the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird.

Gregory Peck and Brock Peters in the 1962 film “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Film Still from Universal International Pictures

1
Take Atticus Off His Pedestal

Earlier this year, the nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves hosted a two-day workshop, “Teaching Mockingbird,” designed to provide resources for teaching the book in a more historically informed and culturally relevant way. The Facing History folks allowed me to report on the training on the condition that I actively participate. And so I found myself in snowy Chicago, sitting in a bright conference room alongside some of the hardest-working people in America: a dozen or so middle and high school teachers.

The educators there were predominantly White women. One 35-year classroom veteran estimated she had taught the book 20 to 25 times. As a child, she said, she’d wanted Atticus Finch to be her father. As a grownup, she’d wanted him to be her husband. “Don’t mess with him!” she implored, punctuating her point by jabbing her index finger.

This was a common refrain. Driven in no small part by the chiseled features and pacifying nobility of actor Gregory Peck’s portrayal, people talk about Finch in tones not only of reverence, but of attraction — and protectiveness. At another moment in the workshop, when I noted some of his flaws, a teacher responded, “Not Atticus. Not my Atticus! I’ve tried to keep him as a good thing in my head.”

“When I read this book in high school, I was guided to think that Atticus is the savior,” noted another teacher the following day. Someone else offered that this was perhaps a result of “our misreading of the text itself, and our need to lionize” our heroes.

left double quoteYou want to believe in the Gregory Peck version of him,” a facilitator explained at one point during our workshop, but as you’re reading you will realize “he’s a man of his time.”

“Our” in this case refers mainly to White readers, like me. And I completely understood where those teachers were coming from. When author Malcom Gladwell published a critique of Atticus’ limited liberalism in The New Yorker in 2009, I sent him a self-righteous rebuttal, 2,500 words long and with no fewer than 19 pieces of textual evidence. Gladwell, to his credit, did not respond.

“You want to believe in the Gregory Peck version of him,” a facilitator explained at one point during our workshop, but as you’re reading you will realize “he’s a man of his time.”

Specifically, a White man of his time and far from revolutionary. In Chapter 15 of Mockingbird, Atticus assures his son that the local Ku Klux Klan was “a political organization more than anything,” one that “couldn’t find anybody to scare” and would “never come back.” In Chapter 27, when asked whether he’s a radical, Atticus replies, “I’m about as radical as Cotton Tom Heflin.” I looked it up: Heflin was an Alabama politician and White supremacist.

But “I don’t want to hate Atticus,” said yet another teacher.

Someone suggested that Atticus can be both admirable in certain ways and reprehensible in others. “It makes people we admire more accessible when we recognize their humanity.”

2
Decenter Whiteness

One of our tasks during the workshop was to act out the chapter in which a lynch mob arrives with the intention of kidnapping and killing Tom Robinson. Its climax is the moment in which Scout accidentally (and ahistorically) turns the mob away.

I offered the suggestion that one of us play Tom Robinson, even though he had no dialogue at all on the pages we’d been assigned. He is rendered a virtual footnote in this scene in which his life nearly ends, speaking only at the very end of the chapter to ask Atticus whether the mob has left. As we discussed Tom’s silence, one of the teachers admitted that, while she knew the men of this “strange assembly” wanted to hurt him, she had never explicitly understood that the scene was about a lynch mob. This was a symptom of the book’s greatest flaw: its centering of Whiteness.

Readers see the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, solely through the eyes of a White, privileged little girl, and that’s part of why we focused on this scene. We were to ask ourselves what problems with reliability this perspective causes. Scout is charming, sure. But she’s also limited. Her blind spots swallow whole worlds. She never uses the word “lynch,” perhaps because she doesn’t know it.

Hence Kirkland’s ninth-grade alienation when he encountered Scout. While my eighth-grade self slowly lost my innocence alongside her, he was left to wonder what such innocence might have felt like in the first place.

During Kirkland’s years as a high school teacher, he was required to teach the book. So he approached it through a Black critical lens with his students. What they found together was that in Mockingbird, “there is no space for Black humanity. There is no value for Blackness. In a sense, in that book, Black lives don’t necessarily matter.

“The event of a White man defending a Black man was not about the Black man’s life, but, in fact, it was about the White man, and about Whiteness, and about the ability for White people to be seen as human, and moral, and good.”

Echoing that is Angela Shaw-Thornburg, a Black writer and former professor of American and African literature. In her 2010 essay “On Reading To Kill a Mockingbird: 50 Years Later,” she describes her reluctance to teach Mockingbird because it “represents African Americans as peripheral, incapable of self-representation, monumentally passive, and positively grateful for the small compensation of white guilt over injustices done to African Americans.” What gets to her “are those moments of struggle or, even worse, dreadful silence when … students who are people of color try to figure out why they feel unvoiced by the literature they are reading.”

One way to counteract this phenomenon is to offer a balance of authors. Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Sandra Cisneros, and many others — works such as March, The Hate U Give, On the Come Up, Dear Martin, All American Boys, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, and Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom — wrestle with some of the same themes as Mockingbird while centering Black and Latino perspectives.

And when considering Mockingbird, ask whose voices, thoughts, and emotions are and aren’t being heard. Who gets to be three-dimensional? Why, for example, at the end of the trial scene, do we learn nothing of Tom’s reaction to the verdict? (The Broadway adaptation of Mockingbird by Aaron Sorkin adds scenes to flesh out the perspectives of Tom Robinson and Calpurnia. In each of them, Atticus Finch is not the wisest person on the stage.)

Author Harper Lee on the film set with Mary Badham, 10, who played Scout.

Author Harper Lee on the film set with Mary Badham, 10, who played Scout. Photo from Universal International Pictures

3
Explore Identity

Facing History’s Mockingbird curriculum is comprehensive, asking students to explore their own identities before they even begin reading the novel. The exercises push students to consider stereotypes and the labels they’ve been given, “in” groups and “out” groups, and key moments in their own moral development.

The exercises are important for teachers as well, because they need to be able to navigate conversations about identity honestly and with emotional intelligence. Some of the most divisive fights have occurred, for example, when White teachers are unsure how to handle the N-word with students when it comes up in the text. That’s what caused the Biloxi, Mississippi, school district to stop teaching the book in 2017.

I met with Yolanda Williams, the Black mother whose complaint set the events in motion. Williams said that when her daughter’s eighth-grade classmates reached the N-word in their texts, both the young White teacher and her students read the word aloud. Students reacted in a rowdy manner, she said, openly laughing and using the word outside of the text.

Williams decided to speak up. She scheduled a parent–teacher conference with the principal. “My grandfather marched with Martin Luther King Jr.,” she explained. “My uncle was one of the first to attend all-White Biloxi High School. My parents had crosses burned in their yard. Just from my history, I think, is where a little bit of the fire in me comes from.”

The controversy was oversimplified in the national press as a case of censorship. (Biloxi Public Schools administration declined to comment for this article.)

Teachers who want to prepare young people for texts like Mockingbird need to be trained in leading healthy discussions about race and identity. According to Biloxi Junior High’s online curriculum resources, teaching Mockingbird was intended to raise important questions such as “What does it mean to be racist?” and “What does it mean to take a stand?” It’s worth remembering that because many students will never actually read Mockingbird (or any book they’ve been assigned) cover to cover, the stands we take in class will stick with them the most.

4
Include “Go Set a Watchman“

In 2015, Lee shocked the literary world with a sequel; she hadn’t published a novel since Mockingbird. She hadn’t even given a substantial interview in half a century. Go Set a Watchman, about an older Scout reassessing her father, sold more than 1.1 million copies in its first week, a mark against which today’s bestsellers still measure themselves. Critics were largely negative, deriding the book as didactic and clunky, and some were distracted by intrigue over its authenticity as well as whether Lee consented to its publication. The new work painted Atticus as an NAACP-opposing racist, and many simply refused to read it.

Author Charles J. Shields, who published an unauthorized biography of Lee in 2006, says he was changed by Watchman. He realized he needed to update the Lee biography to contend not only with Atticus’ more evident racism in Watchman, but also the lawyer’s racism in Mockingbird. This was a point that had actually been made for years, Shields noted, often by Black scholars. Shields, who is White, was frustrated with himself for missing this the first time around. “I was relieved that I had the opportunity to revise the book.”

Author and Auburn University professor Wayne Flynt is considered a scholar of Southern history and culture, particularly the civil rights movement. A longtime friend of Lee, he said he was inspired to move back home to Alabama as a young man by the example of Atticus Finch. When Lee died in 2016, he eulogized her at her funeral, at her request, by describing Atticus and the values he espoused in Mockingbird.

Yet he too appreciates the more complicated man of Watchman. “I really like the new Atticus better than the old Atticus,” said Flynt, who is White, “because the new Atticus is more like me, more like my father, more like the world, more like reality. It’s To Kill a Mockingbird that is unbelievable, not Watchman.”

Kirkland, for one, believes there may be a simpler, subtler reason for what seemed to be a collective rejection of Watchman: It made people uncomfortable.

Mockingbird has been given to so many of us as our dose of Americana. It has been the elixir that made us aspire to the Dream. To remain in our slumber. To remain asleep. Mockingbird was that book that was our sedative. Watchman was the book that would wake us up.”

The timing of that wakeup couldn’t have been more urgent. Watchman was released on the same day as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. A month earlier, Donald Trump descended a golden escalator and formally declared his candidacy for president. The next day, a White terrorist murdered nine Black worshipers at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

“And as we can see right now, there isn’t much conversation about Watchman,” Kirkland said. “There wasn’t much conversation six months after it was published! They succeeded in putting it to bed, and the way that they put it to bed was to discredit its literary merit. Which I think was the most unfortunate, and most anti-intellectual, circumstance surrounding this book.”

Robin DiAngelo, author of the 2018 bestseller White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, has a theory that goes like this: White people in North America get to be racially comfortable. We — White people — don’t really have to deal with racial stress very much. As a result, we aren’t very good at it. So we develop “White fragility.”

This leads us to do whatever it takes to avoid racial stress. We get angry. We get scared. We feel guilty.

(Or some of us write an unsolicited essay to Malcolm Gladwell — “not defending Southern liberalism,” as I wrote in a footnote, “just Atticus.”)

Or we refuse to read Watchman.

And we say it’s because it’s “not a good-enough book,” “not legitimate.” Even if it’s actually because we can’t take it.

5
Have a Reason

Christina Torres is an eighth-grade English teacher in Hawai‘i. She has taught Mockingbird six times in her seven years in the classroom. Each time, her process evolves.

At first, she said, her approach was “Isn’t this such a great story that proves how racism is bad?” But over time, the novel became more of an entry point for talking about social justice. As her teaching of it continued to evolve, she began to see the book as a way to talk about privilege — racial, class, and gender. Now she is pushing her students to discuss privilege both within the story and outside of it: Is Atticus a ‘White savior’? What does it mean for this White author to tell this story through a White lens? What would it mean if the story were told through the eyes of Calpurnia, the maid?

As her teaching of it continued to evolve, she began to see the book as a way to talk about privilege — racial, class, and gender. Now she is pushing her students to discuss privilege both within the story and outside of it: Is Atticus a ‘White savior’?

I asked Kirkland how he would teach the book today — if he were forced. He said he’d create a three-book unit: To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman, and Between the World and Me. “I’d put all three in conversation. And then we’d begin to grapple with what those three texts in conversation might mean.” Kirkland said he’d push his students to compare the two versions of Atticus and to ask the tough questions such a comparison provokes: “How did [Lee] originally see race relations in the United States? And when did she happen upon the type of colorblind, kumbaya, To Kill a Mockingbird statement that later gets made?”

After all, Kirkland noted, “Harper Lee wanted to tell the truth [in Watchman], before her editors pushed her to write a more fairy-tale version of that narrative [in Mockingbird].”

These two teachings of Mockingbird — in Torres’ actual classroom and in Kirkland’s hypothetical one — are both driven by a purpose deeper and smarter than my own. When I taught Mockingbird, I was doing so nostalgically. I loved it and wanted my students to love it, too.

During the Chicago Facing History and Ourselves workshop, we reread a passage from after the trial. Miss Maudie, one of the Finch family’s White neighbors, tells Scout, “Well, we’re making a step — It’s just a baby step, but it’s a step.” The line is chillingly euphemistic, given Tom Robinson’s ultimate fate.

Not too long after that rereading of Miss Maudie’s musing, one of the participants reflected on how she hoped to teach Mockingbird in the future. “At least we’re looking at this book differently,” she said. We may not have it all figured out, but this was “a little baby step.”

True. But it’s time to stride.

Books+Film+Music

Mental Illness Has a Poverty Problem

Why economic equality is not enough to fix our mental health care system.

YES! ILLUSTRATION BY FRAN MURPHY

YES! ILLUSTRATION BY FRAN MURPHY

This june marks one year since the death of chef Anthony Bourdain. As the date approaches, his estate is set to release a new book filled with anecdotes and photos from friends and collaborators. Similar memorials will give fans a chance to revisit a personality they admired. But they will also bring up a difficult question: What could drive someone who appeared to have such a full and enviable life to kill himself?

Perhaps we shouldn’t have been that shocked. Rates of mental illness are higher in countries like the United States — among both rich and poor people. According to social epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, authors of The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-Being, severe income inequality might be the reason. For example, the U.S. has three times as much mental illness as more-equal countries, like Japan and Germany.

When there are vast differences in income, there’s also overwhelming pressure to constantly prove our value by accruing fancy cars, clothes, and homes, and traveling to far-off places. This trend heightens status anxiety, which can lead to feelings of shame, loss of control, depression, and other mental health issues, according to the authors. These risks remain in place whether you’re well-off and competing with the private-jet-owning 1 percent or if you’re living paycheck to paycheck and sizing yourself up against families who don’t need as much support.

The stress of it all means people who feel they can’t measure up are also more likely to retreat from society. People who experience “status anxiety” are less likely to participate in activities that are central to community life, such as going to church, recreational clubs, and political gatherings.

“In more competitive, unequal and materialistic societies, where hierarchy matters more and people are more prone to compare themselves with others,” Wilkinson and Pickett write, “doing well in others’ eyes and having all the trappings and characteristics of success becomes the main meaning of achievement.”

The Inner Level book cover
The Inner Level

Some have found fault with Wilkinson and Pickett’s premise. Mental health is notoriously challenging to quantify because objective biological tests are limited, diagnostic guidelines are variable, and such data isn’t collected often enough. Additionally, contrary to the dire depiction by public health advocates, it’s actually unlikely that the rates in the U.S. significantly exceed those in other countries, said Ron Manderscheid, a social psychologist and executive director of the National Association for Rural Mental Health.

“There’s some variability,” Mander-scheid said of the mental health rates in the U.S. compared to other countries. “It’s not huge variability.”

However, no one will debate whether the rates in the U.S. are concerning. In 2016, nearly 45,000 people died by suicide, a 30 percent increase since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control. (Suicide rates in other developed countries have generally fallen.) In 2017, the number of opioid-related deaths was six times higher than about 20 years earlier. In 2015, 15.1 million U.S. adults had alcohol use disorder.

Wilkinson and Pickett offer a solution to the issue, but it relies far too heavily on lofty, difficult-to-implement ideals. In their book, the pair lays out a plan for fostering “economic democracy.” One example is moving toward employee-owned businesses, which could increase productivity, worker satisfaction, and equality. While such egalitarian suggestions are valuable in theory, they’re not an efficient solution to addressing the current pressing mental health issues in the U.S. This would be a lot like debating how to build a more flame-resistant structure while a house is burning down, instead of racing to rescue the people who are trapped inside. Sure, closing income gaps would be nice. But there’s a much more imminent problem in play: Poor people have always been more vulnerable to developing mental illness, and they are far less likely to have access to the resources that can help them.

Addressing those issues, though, requires much more than just fostering economic equality. It also requires resources and support for social equity.

Between 2009 and 2013, 8.7 percent of adults living below the federal poverty line experienced serious psychological distress. For people with annual incomes at or above 400 percent of the poverty level, the figure was 1.2 percent.

It becomes self-reinforcing, research shows: Poverty may increase the chances of developing mental illness, and mental illness could increase one’s chances of living in poverty.

While it’s true that mental illness doesn’t discriminate based on bank accounts, underserved people are more exposed to the types of triggers that could lead to behavioral health problems.

“Mental illness is much more prevalent in the lowest social class,” Manderscheid said, “because they are more subjected to trauma, all kinds of trauma — physical trauma, sexual trauma, abuse, and on and on. When you’re subjected to these things, it’s almost 100 percent predictable that you’re going to develop a behavioral health problem.”

YES! ILLUSTRATION BY FRAN MURPHY

YES! ILLUSTRATION BY FRAN MURPHY

Addressing those issues, though, requires much more than just fostering economic equality. It also requires resources and support for social equity.

“You need a sense of meaning. You need a connected community,” said Jenny Taitz, a psychologist and clinical instructor at UCLA’s Department of Psychiatry. “Those things have nothing to do with how much money you make. Having a meaningful life has nothing to do with making $8 an hour or $1,800 an hour.”

But people with mental health issues, rich or poor, also need very basic access to treatment. The fact remains: Adults facing severe psychological distress are more likely to be uninsured and to struggle to get those crucial resources.

Between 2009 and 2013, 30.4 percent of adults with serious psychological distress had no health insurance, compared with 20.5 percent of adults without serious psychological distress who also had no health insurance. But even if a poor person has insurance to cover therapy and treatment, there’s a good chance they don’t live anywhere near a provider.

There’s currently a shortage of mental health workers across the U.S., and the issue is most pronounced in rural areas. Professionals that pursue jobs in behavioral health are more likely to work in major cities, like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. There isn’t a single psychiatrist, a mental health professional who can prescribe medication, in 65 percent of nonmetropolitan counties. Almost half of those counties don’t have a psychologist, according to a report from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine released last year.

It’s important to capture those who “fall through the cracks” and often end up in jail instead of in a therapist’s office or a treatment center, Mander­scheid emphasized. Achieving this end means improving community-based systems of care. It also means making sure primary care doctors are equipped to identify mental health cases and have a place to send those patients to get appropriate treatment.

Airports and doctors’ offices post big, colorful signs urging travelers to take note of symptoms they might have developed after returning from a foreign country. We should be seeing posters just as big and just as colorful, in communities across the country, encouraging people to take inventory of mental health symptoms they might be experiencing at any point. There should also be simple guidelines as to how to access appropriate mental health care, when it’s available.

One way to bridge the mental health care gap is by bringing treatment to remote areas, especially to people who aren’t able to travel long distances. Introducing mobile therapy units to nursing homes is one example Manderscheid suggested.

He also pointed to another promising new solution: urgent care centers dedicated to patients with mental health needs.

The Hawthorn Walk-In Center, which opened its doors in 2017, demonstrates how this concept could actually work. Located in Hillsboro, Oregon, the organization provides services for patients with mental health and addiction issues. Everyone is welcome, whether they have standard insurance, Medicaid, or no insurance at all. After the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010, the county had more funds to spend on mental health programs. That patients don’t have to pay and also aren’t required to make an appointment immediately eliminates two of the biggest obstacles to accessing mental health care.

There are now more mental health facilities in the U.S. that “anybody can walk into,” Manderscheid said. “Anyone can walk in off the street. They give us the ability to get care to people when they need it without putting up bureaucratic barriers.”

Viable and effective solutions, like the ones Manderscheid put forward, are what’s glaringly missing from Inner Level’s discussion around mental health. The authors’ research offers up impressive statistics to support an idea that we might not have otherwise considered: Where there’s great income disparity, there’s also more mental illness all around.

But in the U.S., a wealthy person can, at any moment, check into a mental health facility, get an appointment with a top-notch therapist, or take time off from work for self-care. For someone who is low-income, those options may always be out of reach. This is the point that Wilkinson and Pickett fail to probe. Yes, more-unequal societies may have more mental health issues, but it’s the inequity in treatment that should concern us most.

Books+Film+Music

How Capitalism Plays on Our Fears of Aging

Getting older isn’t all loss and no gain — we may actually become happier and more emotionally resilient.

YES! ILLUSTRATION BY FRAN MURPHY

YES! ILLUSTRATION BY FRAN MURPHY

So I’ll be out in public, maybe ordering coffee, and someone I don’t know will address me as “sweetie.” I’m a 60-year-old woman, and I look my age. Because people haven’t called me “sweetie” since I was about 5, I’m thinking this is an age thing. That seems more obvious when a stranger ironically addresses me as “young lady” in situations where “excuse me,” “hello,” “hey, you,” or “pardon me, ma’am” would do just fine.

Such microaggressions, conscious or not, don’t just target older women. A friend my age who sports a distinguished gray beard was sweating through the last stretch of a half-marathon when a young guy in the crowd yelled from the side-lines, “Way to go, old dude!”

For decades, ageism has been one of the “isms,” along with racism, sexism, and ableism, that are unacceptable in progressive discourse and illegal under U.S. antidiscrimination law — at least in theory. Yet ageism against older people remains the most unexamined and commonly accepted of all our biases. Look at media, from advertising to news, that portray aging almost exclusively in terms of loss — of physical and mental abilities, rewarding work, money, romance, and dignity. That sad and often denigrating picture leads us to fear aging. To distance ourselves from our anxiety, we label older people, regard them as “the other,” and marginalize them — perhaps most obviously in casual, patronizing remarks to strangers.

This Chair Rocks book cover
This Chair Rocks

I’m seeing ageism a lot more clearly now that I myself am subject to it. So I welcomed Ashton Applewhite’s encouraging new book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. Applewhite, who has been speaking and blogging on the subject for several years, takes a particularly empowering approach by discussing ageism from the perspectives of both the personal and the political, debunking myths along the way. Take the “deficit model” of aging — the common assumption that getting older is all loss and no gain. In reality, we humans retain all sorts of qualities and abilities as we age.

We’re also adaptable. That’s a quality that can have unexpected benefits, like the “U-curve of happiness” described in a paper published by the National Bureau for Economic Research. The authors found that older people report being happier than do people in middle age. We deal with declines, of course, but we may actually get better at some things, like discarding superficial values, solving emotional problems, and appreciating life’s pleasures.

That bonus in emotional resilience may come in handy, because we’re aging in an economically, politically, and socially volatile era. According to Applewhite, poverty rates for Americans over 65 are increasing and 50 percent of the baby-boom generation feel they have not saved enough to create sufficient income should they live into their 80s and 90s. And while employment discrimination against older people (40 and up) is well known but difficult to prove, half of the boomer generation doesn’t see how they will be able to retire at all, reports Applewhite.

In her new book, Downhill from Here: Retirement Insecurity in the Age of Inequality, Katherine S. Newman looks at the current economic landscape for older Americans and concludes, “Retirement insecurity is an increasingly serious manifestation of the vast inequality that is eating away at the social fabric of America.” What is now a bad situation for many boomers could be even worse for Gen Xers and millennials when their turns come.

So here we are, becoming more vulnerable over the years in a system that already treats people as expendable. Applewhite, for all her good-humored tone, calls out that system as global capitalism, as when she critiques the intergenerational competition narrative. The image evoked is of greedy oldsters sucking up jobs and houses and Social Security and Medicare, leaving nothing for the next generation.

It’s easy to be pulled into the generation blame game, abetted by underlying ageism, and to forget that economic systems are not inexorable phenomena like gravity or time — they are the result of choices. In fact, rather than regard older people as leeches, we should remember that economic interdependence is intergenerational. Older people are an intrinsic part of society. Most of them have supported younger and older people in whatever ways were available. And whether currently working or retired, they buy products and services and pay taxes and contribute labor, support, and finances to their families and communities.

Applewhite caps her manifesto with recommendations that strike me as parts of what could be a Great New Deal for Age. It could start with more flexibility in employment so people could have longer careers, with more time out for training, exploration, and family. Resources would be put into accessible design for public spaces, as well as programs to support mobility for people across the spectrum of age and ability. That would facilitate their inclusion in community, and they would be in good shape to take part due to improvements in health policy, clinical practice, funding, and research. And if, toward the end of life, more intensive care were needed, workers and family members doing paid and unpaid care work would be fairly compensated or supported.

The truth is that improving systems to include older people would improve access and prosperity and quality of life for everyone.

All that calls for a new movement against age discrimination and organizing to get socially responsible representatives and policymakers into office. It also requires the sort of consciousness-raising and agitation that is currently going on around the issues of race, justice, climate, and gender. Waking up to the real harms of ageism and refusing to feed the beast with our words and actions is the first step. The good news? The job is open to anyone and everyone, regardless of age.

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Hidden Heroes

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Plane, Train, and Automobile

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