racism, stereotypes

Black, Jewish, and Adopted

Illustration by Eric Mace

An article I wrote about what’s gained and lost in ‘cultural identity’ and religion when families decide to adopt across race lines just up on Tablet Magazine:

“What am I going to say to mom?” Lin asked her sister Martha. It was 1987, and Lin and her husband Peter had decided to adopt a black baby. A sculptor who carves and assembles wooden knots, bridges, and ladders, Lin was raised in an open-minded secular Jewish home. But she wasn’t certain how her mother would react to the prospect of having a black grandchild. “Tell her about adoption first,” Martha advised. “Give her a couple of weeks to let it sink in, and then talk to her about race.”

A short, wiry woman with untamed curly hair, Lin remembers calling her mother. “We’re going to adopt children but it will take a while.” Her mother’s response surprised her. “Not if you adopt black children!”

Read more…

criminal justice, poverty, prison, racism, review, stereotypes, violence

Some Thoughts on Neurocriminology

Adrian Raine’s article “The Criminal Mind” has been buried in a pile of must-reads on my nightstand for months now. When it was first published in April 2013 in The Wall Street Journal, I was too busy with the release of my book. And frankly, I was also a bit afraid. Last night, though, I finally unearthed the article and read it.

Of course I knew from my own research that neurocriminology receives far more funding than environmental psychology of violent behavior, but I’ve always been wary of it. I thought that to look at the brain as the cause of criminal behavior was misleading and dangerous. Why? Crime and incarceration affect a disproportionate number of people of color. The conclusion that the make-up of one’s brain causes a person to become a criminal may suggest to some that African Americans are by nature more violent than white people. It would bring us precariously close to the 19th-century pseudoscience of Phrenology, which claimed that we could recognize a criminal by his physical features. Furthermore, I was—and still am—worried that the increasing focus on the physical traits of criminals lessens our interest in crime-causing factors in the environment, factors that can potentially be changed. We can fight poverty, the easy accessibility of guns, bad schools and a dysfunctional family background, but our brains? Good luck with that! I also wish society would take at least some responsibility for people’s actions.

Raine’s article, however, does justice to the complexity of the issue. A Professor of Criminology, Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of The Anatomy of Violence (Pantheon, 2013), Raine concludes that “genetics and environment work together to encourage violent behavior.” A child who is predisposed to violent behavior due to his genetics does not necessarily become a criminal; there are plenty of environmental factors that can make up for neurological “handicaps.” Proper nutrition may play a role, for example: Raine writes that studies have shown that Omega-3 supplements in the diets of young offenders reduces serious offending by about 35%. And even if a child’s brain doesn’t show any abnormalities at birth, exposure to environmental toxins, physical abuse and emotional deprivation—a lack of love and a supportive social environment—may alter his brain chemistry, causing him to commit acts of violence. As a result, an initially healthy brain can turn into one that causes impulsiveness, a trait that has long been recognized as a leading cause of violent behavior. Lead is neurotoxic, according to Raine, damaging the prefrontal region which regulates behavior. “Rising lead levels in the U.S. from 1950 through the 1970s neatly track increases in violence 20 years later, from the ’70s through the ’90s.” He concludes, “No other single factor can account for both the inexplicable rise in violence in the U.S. until 1993 and the precipitous drop since then.” Continue reading

criminal justice, institutions, prison, public policy, racism

Top Criminal Justice Degrees

Shocking content, bold graphics by Top Criminal Justice Degrees, an online guide to criminal justice degree programs. Thanks, Aria Cahill for sending this!

Profiting Off Prisoners
Image source: topcriminaljusticedegrees.org/private-prisons

Also, check out their infographic about America’s Stand Your Ground Laws.

criminal justice, police, poverty, prison, public policy, racism, rehabilitation

Turning Points

Let’s hope David Cole is right when he writes that “we are at a turning point in confronting the excesses and injustices of America’s criminal law.” In his NYRB blog post “Getting Past ‘Tough on Crime’,” Cole sums up recent criminal justice achievements across the country:

The coincidental delivery on August 12 of Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech calling for measures to reduce overincarceration and racial disparities in our criminal justice system, and federal judge Shira Scheindlin’s 195-page opinion declaring the New York Police Department’s aggressive “stop and frisk” practices unconstitutional have led some to suggest that we are at a turning point in confronting the excesses and injustices of America’s criminal law. In fact, the turn began some years ago. Both Holder’s brave speech and Scheindlin’s powerful decision reflect a growing recognition over the past decade—in law and in politics—that something is fundamentally wrong with the enforcement of criminal law in America.

Racial injustice in the enforcement of the law, and its disturbing consequences, have been with us for centuries. As President Obama reminded the nation in his remarks after the conclusion of the Trayvon Martin trial last month, “there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.” African-Americans today are far more likely to be arrested, convicted, and sentenced to prison for drug possession, even though studies consistently find that whites and blacks use illegal drugs equally. African-Americans are only 13 percent of the general population—and about the same percentage of those who use and sell drugs. Yet African-Americans account for roughly 35 percent of those arrested on drug charges and 53.5 percent of those entering prison for a drug conviction. Much of the rise in the nation’s prison population over the past forty years has been fueled by drug convictions, and African-Americans have borne the brunt of the policy.

But there are encouraging signs that we are moving away from the worst of these practices. While the nation’s incarceration rate has skyrocketed since the 1970s, in the last three years the state prison population has decreased. The drop in 2012 was the largest yet. And racial disparities are also diminishing.

Continue reading…

art, racism, violence

A Black Outsider Artist in a White Art World

(This piece originally appeared on Hyperallergic.com.)

By Sabine Heinlein

I recently went to the National Arts Club to watch All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert, a documentary about a 68-year-old African-American outsider artist, which is currently being screened at various locations in New York.

I had come across Rembert’s leather paintings at the most recent Outsider Art Fair. I was struck by the artist’s decorative, almost ornamental treatment of gruesome subject matter. Rembert’s multihued cotton-field paintings depicting women and men performing tedious, backbreaking labor are almost cheerful, considering the theme of racial oppression and injustice. His repetitive handling of characters and paint gives his work a patterned feel reminiscent of some children’s books. Yet the contrasts are fierce and unforgettable. The painting “All Me II” (2002) portrays countless prisoners in a chain gang holding baby blue hammers for breaking rocks. While there is something whimsical about the depiction of the prisoners, the way they are crammed onto the leather canvas, their bodies interlocking, suggests the iconic images of Auschwitz’s mass graves. People considered dead while still alive.

The narratives of Rembert’s impoverished childhood, his time in prison, and the emotional and physical torture he had to endure at the hands of whites are all drawn from his “photographic memory,” as the artist explained during the Q&A following the screening of All Me at the National Arts Club. Joining Rembert on the panel were the filmmaker, Vivian Ducat, her husband and producer, Ray Segal, and Sharyn Grossman, the club’s chairwoman, who had organized the event. Rembert should by all rights “be an angry man,” Grossman said, “but he is a happy human being.” As if trying to fit America’s complex and violent race relations into a comfortable frame, Grossman repeated her statement almost verbatim twice before the end of the panel.

Why did this notion make me uncomfortable? Because I wondered whether this primarily white audience would still like Rembert if he were angry. Would we shun him? Lock him up?

Winfred Rembert answering questions at the National Arts Club (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Winfred Rembert answering questions at the National Arts Club (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

There was another, more immediate notion that made me sad. In the film, Rembert appears to be respected and well liked in his African-American community, but it is clear that his work does not get the same recognition there as it does from the predominantly white, art-loving community that has adopted him. “I would love to be recognized by my own people,” Rembert said to the audience at the Arts Club.

After having written a book about three former prisoners of color, I have to admit that I find myself very sensitive to racial incongruities. Many of my concerns played out during the Q&A. It was evident that the predominantly white audience preferred to ask art-related questions rather than confront the artist’s dire subject matter.

Referring to the repetitive dots of white paint in his cotton-field paintings, a woman in the audience asked Rembert whether he had ever seen “the aboriginal paintings with the white dots.”

“No, ma’am, I have not,” Rembert responded politely.

“Have you ever been to an art museum?” another white woman wanted to know.

“Ten years ago I didn’t even know who [Horace] Pippins was,” he responded. “I’m just now trying to see what other artists are doing.”

Someone else asked whether his methods have changed over the years. Rembert explained that his paintings have become more colorful because until recently leather dyes — regular paint tends to crack on leather — were only available in very limited colors.

“The color white just came along in the past five years,” he said.

Rembert literally works through his torturous memories from rural Georgia. Repetitive, relentless, perfectionist, and clean, his paintings have a ritualistic, obsessive-compulsive quality. (The artist, by the way, travels from his home in New Haven to his exhibitions in New York with a large piece of marble so he can punch, carve, and stamp dots into leather at night in his hotel room without waking his wife, Patsy.)

Winfred Rembert, "The Lynching" (1999), panel 1 of 3, dye on carved and tooled leather, each panel: 35 x 33 in (click to enlarge) (image via hrm.org)

Winfred Rembert, “The Lynching” (1999), panel 1 of 3, dye on carved and tooled leather, each panel: 35 x 33 in (click to enlarge) (image via Hudson River Museum)

Rembert suffered from alienation and torture at the hands of whites for almost as long as he can remember. As a child his mother was told, in front of him, by one of the white brothers who owned the convenience store in his hometown that her son would “never be a damn thing.” His “mama” advised him that “if white folks do you wrong, let them do it.” In the ’60s, Rembert took part in civil rights demonstrations and was arrested and lynched. In the film he graphically describes how he was tied up and hung, and how one of the white cops carved into his genitals with a knife. It was when the blood ran down his legs that he remembered his mama’s advice. He survived the experience, only to be sent to prison.

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murder, racism, violence

Vintage book ads

To celebrate the publication of my book Among Murderers: Life After Prison, my brother-in-law gave me Dwight Garner’s book Read Me: A Century of Classic American Book Advertisements. As I leafed through it I came across a number of books that, in one way or another, have informed my work on Among Murderers. Their authors were concerned with racial inequality, marginalized groups, crime, violence, counterculture, poverty, and, significantly, a writerly approach to life. Most of these vintage ads speak for themselves, but one warrants a short explanation. I’m including Emily Post’s Etiquette because Angel Ramos, one of my book’s protagonists, mentioned its importance to him. Angel was raised in poverty by a violent, schizophrenic mother, and it was Post who taught him proper behavior while he was incarcerated.




etiquette Continue reading

institutions, mental illness, racism, rehabilitation

Issa Ibrahim’s Memoir of Madness

I have been posting some things about metal illness, race, discrimination, and violence lately. Some of these posts were inspired by my conversations with people at a New York State mental institution, particularly the artist, musician and writer Issa Ibrahim. Issa’s story interested me for various reasons. He became ill with paranoid schizophrenia in his early twenties. At 24, in a bout of paranoia and fear, he took his mother’s life; his illness had him convinced that she was possessed and needed to be exorcised.

At his trial, Issa pled insanity and spent almost twenty years locked up in a mental institution. He was released to an outpatient residential facility for the mentally ill three years ago.

“It was an accident,” Issa repeats every time the deadly incident comes up in our conversations. More than twenty years after the tragic event Issa is still torn by remorse and the ongoing struggle of trying to understand what happened to him over the course of the 47 years of his life. Issa’s complex emotional landscape is reflected in his work; his parents—his father, who died of cancer shortly before Issa became sick, was a jazz musician and his mother was a painter—have always served as an inspiration and an encouragement for his work.


Chain of Command, 1994


Cancer & Homicide, 1996

Last time I spoke with Issa, he explained how his work, when at its best, allows for a sense of forgiveness and peace. “I feel a connection with my mom,” he said as we sat in his room over coffee and cookies. “I just [feel] her presence, or at least a sense of forgiveness, a sense of ‘you’re doing all right, son.’ And so now, whenever I finish a particularly good painting or a particularly good song [and] it’s really better than I thought it could ever [be], I’ll stop for a moment and say, ‘thank you, mom, thank you.’ I feel like a sense of peace in that, more so that she’s forgiven me. It’s a sense of calm within myself finally; part of her lives within me.”

Issa has traced his 20-year-long incarceration in his paintings, music and writing. In March 2012, he self-published a multimedia memoir, titled 330.20 after the Criminal Procedure Law that follows a verdict or plea of “not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect.”

There is much to show and to write about Issa, but for the purpose of this blog he and I decided to feature a small multimedia compilation, including an excerpt from his memoir that addresses the seemingly racially-motivated hierarchies inside the institution. The two paintings we chose are “Chain of Command,” which also deals with this topic, and “Cancer & Homicide,” which depicts Issa’s last memories of his parents. The song “Go Tell ‘Em Like it Was” was recorded and mixed in the room of his outpatient residential facility.

(For an excerpt from Issa Ibrahim’s memoir 330.20: A Memoir of Madness scroll down.)

Song: Go Tell ‘Em How it Was

From Issa Ibrahim’s memoir 330.20: A Memoir of Madness: 

I don’t feel I have much in common with the Mahatas [Mental Health Treatment Aids] who are mostly abusive dullards and virulent racists, to boot. This bothers me because the staff is mostly black and they tend to abuse and victimize the white patients and the minorities who are just too sick for them to form a kinship with. The staff would watch the patients during “prime time,” when the professionals are on duty, and pretty much allow them to work out their relative issues in the safety of this asylum. That is, until the weekend. All the patients were conditioned to dread Saturday morning because this is when the ward staff would come in, put their feet up, eat their sausage, egg and cheese sandwiches with light and sweet coffee delivered from the local deli and begin exacting punishments for long forgotten misdeeds during the week. Continue reading

mental illness, racism, rehabilitation

Mental Illness, Medication, and Race

I’ve been reading Jonathan Metzl’s book The Protest Psychosis (Beacon, 2011). Metzl writes that both black and white psychiatrists in the U. S. diagnose schizophrenia in African-American men at rates four to five times more than other groups.

Metzl noticed a shift in the public image of gender and race in the 1950s and 1960s. While in the 1930s and 1940s schizophrenia was often associated with white, middle class housewives “whose schizophrenic mood swings resulted from domestic strife or emotional isolation,” in the 1950s and 1960s ads for the antipsychotic drug Haldol showed “angry black men with clenched, Black Power fists in urban scenes whose symptoms of social belligerence required chemical treatment.”

Metzl’s book shows how drug companies, researchers, individual doctors and the DSM-II from 1968 perpetuated common stereotypes involving gender and race.

“Researchers used DSM-II criteria to uncover hostile aspects of black schizophrenia with civil rights demonstrations. Meanwhile, studies conflated black schizophrenia with Black Power in order to illustrate evolving understandings of the illness as hostile or violent, or used long-standing stereotypes about manic, crazy black men to demonstrate ‘new’ forms of schizophrenic illness.”

“Yet the DSM-II functioned as an implicitly racist text because it mirrored the social context of its origins in ways that enabled users to knowingly or unknowingly pathologize mental illness. This was because the 1960s was an era when the notion that large groups of people acted in hostile ways while rationalizing their aggression as a justifiable response to the attitude of others was a tremendously powerful social message. But that group was not schizophrenia; it was people who were black.”

According to Metzl, in medical charts from 1960 to 1975 black schizophrenic patients were consistently labeled as “hostile,” “aggressive,” threatening,” “dangerous,” “suspicious,” and “belligerent” and were said to have “issues with police [and] authority figures.” (White patients, on the other hand, were more likely to be described as “cooperative,” suicidal,” “depressed” and “withdrawn.”)

This made me wonder about—and hopefully pay more attention to—the ways in which contemporary drug companies, psychological studies and individuals conflate and abuse issues like race and gender when illustrating and analyzing mental illness.

Here some illustrations from The Protest Psychosis:



Among Murderers, institutions, mental illness, racism, rehabilitation

Blackbird Minstrels of Asylumia

I’ve recently been spending time with patients and staff who provide and/or participate in cultural day programs at a state mental institution in New York City. In line with my first book, Among Murderers: Life After Prison, I want to find out which methods of “rehabilitation” currently predominate and how individuals create communities within institutions. How do they bond and how do they distance themselves from those they don’t want to associate with? How do staff, patients and volunteers survive the daily challenges they face, individually and as a group? Having interviewed inmates and staff in the institution’s farming and art programs, I’m also interested in the remaining traces of earlier “rehabilitative” methods. I’m not sure yet whether this will lead to a story or another book (or both), but I do know that I want to continue to convey the daily lives of people at society’s margins to the general public.

Naturally, my ears perked up when a friend mentioned Benjamin Reiss’s Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture. I was particularly absorbed by the book’s second chapter, in which Reiss writes about a troupe of blackface performers that assembled within the New York State Lunatic Asylum in Utica in the mid-19th century. The group called itself the Blackbird Minstrels of Asylumia.

The idea of rehabilitating mentally ill patients by forcing them to participate in debating societies, lecture series, literary journals, dance and dramatic groups came about in the early 19th century. Culture, it was discovered, could be used as a therapeutic tool—and as an opportunity for surveillance and discipline. Under the aegis of culture, authorities attempted to enforce societal norms and standardized, moral behavior, and those who were forced to carry this “ideological baggage” were easy prey. Mental patients in state institutions are for the most part severely sick, isolated and, incapable of resistance.

Here is how Reiss reflects on the irony of white schizophrenics in burned cork and grease performing for patients and staff in the New York State Lunatic Asylum:

“In masking themselves, the outcast actors imitated figures who were equally outcast—the slaves and urban Northern blacks who were tarred by blackness much as the actors themselves were stigmatized by the label of insanity. They enacted scenarios of slave life for the ultimate captive audience; and under the watchful eye of the asylum authorities, they turned a famously unruly form into a spectacle of their own capacity for self-control.”

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