America and the West: A Comparison of Violence

Violence in the United States is a topic that has been on my mind for a while. I’ve read some books and many articles about it and about the issues related to it. I still don’t fully know how to make sense of it.

It does seem that this country is somehow different than many similar countries. What are these differences?

One could argue about which countries are the most similar and hence most comparable. For my purposes, I tend to think about countries that share traditions of culture, language, philosophy, politics, and law. I most specifically think of Britain and Western Europe, whose residents like to think of themselves as the center of the “Free World”.

There are many books that discuss the historical influences and continuities across these societies of the West. The history of the US largely originates from these societies and remains intertwined with them. So, in what ways has the US diverged in terms of crime and violence? And why has the divergence occurred?

One difference that has stood out to me is how violence relates to crime. Many similar countries have higher rates of particular crimes than the US. But the US has particularly high rates of crimes of all categories ending in violence, including homicide. What is the cause of this? Does this originate in America’s gun culture? If so, why did a gun culture develop here and not as much or else not in the same way elsewhere? If not a gun culture, what is the explanation?

Certainly, the US isn’t the most violent country in the world. But as far as I know none of those more violent countries are democracies that were founded on Enlightenment ideals of freedom. That is what makes American violence in all of its forms so intriguing. It’s not just about shootings, but also the fact that the US still practices capitol punishment and has the most incarcerated population ever. This is far different from other Western countries.

One book I was reading a while back is No Duty to Retreat by Richard Maxwell Brown. I haven’t read much of it yet, but the introductory thoughts have remained on my mind (Kindle Locations 11-20):

“Ancient English common law obliged one who was assailed and in fear of death or great bodily harm to retreat “to the wall” at one’s back before killing in self-defense. Indeed, the common law required an individual in such a plight to forestall violence by fleeing from the scene if such flight could be safely made. This was the English doctrine held by Blackstone and his predecessors in the common-law tradition. In America a gradual legal revolution reinterpreted the common law to hold that, if otherwise without fault, a person could legally stand fast and, without retreat, kill in self-defense. This was a right to stand one’s ground with no duty to retreat. Not merely a revision of an esoteric legalism but a significant development in American culture, no duty to retreat reigned mainly in the frontier states west of the Appalachian Mountains. By the early twentieth century a standard text on the American law of homicide declared that the duty to retreat was “inapplicable to American conditions,” and in 1921 Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the United States Supreme Court incisively upheld the Americanized common-law doctrine of no duty to retreat.

“Representing similar, widespread social values, the Americanization of the common law in favor of no duty to retreat helps explain why the American homicide rate has been so much higher than that of England during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It also helps explain why our country has been the most violent among its peer group of the industrialized. urbanized democracies of the world.”

This is pointing to something fundamentally different (Kindle Locations 21-22):

“no duty to retreat is much more than a legal technicality. It is an expression of a characteristically American approach to life.”

Many people point to how strongly American society originates from England. That is the origins of the colonies that would become the first states. It is, after all, the reason most Americans speak English. Why did the US so early on take a separate path from England? In the first chapter, the author explains the what had become established in England (Kindle Locations 44-46):

“At the core of Blackstone’s view was the centuries-long English common-law tradition that supported “the idea of all homicides as public wrongs.” In England the burden was on the one accused of a homicide to prove his innocence. The plea of self-defense was eyed most skeptically. The presumption against the accused killer stemmed from the fear, as Blackstone put it, that “the right to defend may be mistaken as the right to kill.””

That is opposite of how the law formed here in the States. English travelers in the 1800s were shocked by what they observed when visiting the United States. Early on, England had made illegal the carrying of weapons in public; but in the US, weapons were everywhere and violence was commonplace. Americans were more likely than Englishmen to resort to resolving their own conflicts rather than relying on police and the legal system. This was the environment from which “no duty to retreat” took shape.

The issue of violence also involves our collective, public-supported response to violence. And so this relates to the state-sanctioned violence that is punishment of criminals. Another book that looks at this angle is Harsh Justice by James Q. Whitman. He also offers a historical comparison, but focuses on Germany and France going back to the 18th century prior to the revolutions. He points out how unique the US has become, especially in recent decades (Kindle Locations 21-32):

“Everyone who reads the newspapers knows that we have been in the midst of a kind of national get-tough movement, which has lasted for about the last twenty-five years. Still, Americans may not quite grasp how deeply isolated this period has left us in the Western world. Punishment in America is now, as Michael Tonry observes, “vastly harsher than in any other country to which the United States would ordinarily be compared.”‘, There are certainly some parts of the world that have turned harsher over the last twenty-five years. This is true in particular of some Islamic countries.’, But among Western nations, only England has followed our lead and even England has followed us only up to certain point.’ As for the countries of continental Western Europe, the contrast between their practices and ours has become stark indeed. The Western European media regularly runs pieces expressing shock at the extreme severity of American punish- ment.8 Meanwhile, continental justice systems have come to treat America as something close to a rogue state, hesitating to extradite offenders to the United States.

“To be sure, this era of American harshness will presumably not go on forever, and it may already have slowed.9 Nevertheless, it is the disturbing truth that we now find ourselves in a strange place on the international scene. As a result of the last quarter century of deepening harshness, we are no longer clearly classified in the same categories as the other countries of the liberal West. Instead, by the measure of our punishment practices, we have edged into the company of troubled and violent places like Yemen and Nigeria (both of which, like many jurisdictions in the United States, execute people for crimes committed when they were minors–though Yemen has recently renounced the practice);10 China and Russia (two societies that come close to rivaling our incarceration rates);” pre-2001 Afghanistan (where the Taliban, like American judges, reintroduced public shame sanctions);’2 and even Nazi Germany (which, like the contemporary United States, turned sharply toward retributivism and the permanent incapacitation of habitual offenders).’

“What is going on in our country?”

In considering this question, the author emphasizes the position that the US holds in the world (Kindle Locations 34-39):

“America is, after all, a country that belongs to something it is fair to call the Western “liberal” tradition, elusive though the concept of liberalism may be. Certainly there are many aspects of American culture that seem manifestly to belong to a humane strain of liberalism. Ours, of all Western countries, is the one that is most consistently suspicious of state authority. Ours is the country with the inveterate attachment to the values of procedural fairness. Ours is the country that–unlike Germany or France never succumbed to any variety of fascism or nazism. Why, then, is ours not the country with the mildest punishment practices? Certainly, in most respects, Americans define their values by opposition to illiberal societies to the societies of places like China or the Afghanistan of’the Taliban or Nazi Germany. How could our patterns of punishment he bringing us closer to them than to the dominant polities of the contemporary European Union?”

I haven’t read very far in either of these books. I can’t say how well these authors clarify the issues. I can’t say where the data may point. I can’t say what an historical analysis might offer. But I’m intrigued enough to want to find out. I’m sure I’ll be returning to these books.

Scientific Races and Genetic Diversity

For those who want to argue human races are a scientific category, they have to use scientific standards to prove their case. That is precisely the problem. The only way to argue for scientific human races is by defining them differently than for other species, but there is no scientific justification for defining them differently.

One of the factors that makes the human species unique from other similar species is that we lack much genetic diversity. We are a bottleneck species. Twice in human evolution the entire species originated from a single common ancestor. On top of that, human populations have never been isolated for long enough periods to form separate lines of evolution. Humans all around the world have moved around and mixed together almost ceaselessly. Even island people are known to have traveled great distances.

There simply isn’t enough genetic diversity to form separate human races.

Why Your Race Isn’t Genetic
by Michael White
from Pacific Standard magazine

“Templeton examined two genetic definitions of race that are commonly applied by biologists to vertebrate species. In both cases, races clearly exist in chimpanzees, our nearest relatives, but not in humans.

“One natural definition of race is a group whose members are genetically much more similar to each other than they are to other groups. Putting a number on what counts as “much more” is a somewhat arbitrary exercise, but Templeton found that the genetic differentiation between populations of chimpanzees is over seven times greater than the genetic differentiation between broad geographical populations of humans. Furthermore, the level of genetic differentiation between human populations falls well below the threshold that biologists typically use to define races in non-human species.

“Races could also be defined by genetic branches on the family tree. For most of us, this is the most intuitive definition of race. It’s one that, at first glance, is consistent with recent human evolution: After originating in Africa, part of our species branched out first into Asia and Europe, and then to the rest of the world. We should thus expect different geographical populations to be distinct genetic limbs on our species’ recent evolutionary tree.

“But as it turns out, our species’ family history is not so arboreal. Geneticists have methods for measuring the “treeness” of genetic relationships between populations. Templeton found that the genetic relationships between human populations don’t have a very tree-like structure, while chimpanzee populations do. Rather than a family tree with distinct racial branches, humans have a family trellis that lacks clear genetic boundaries between different groups.

“These findings reflect our unusual recent evolutionary history. Unlike the distinct populations of chimps, humans continued to exchange both goods and genes with each other even as they rapidly settled an enormous geographical range. Those ongoing contacts, plus the fact that we were a small, genetically homogeneous species to begin with, has resulted in relatively close genetic relationships, despite our worldwide presence. The DNA differences between humans increase with geographical distance, but boundaries between populations are, as geneticists Kenneth Weiss and Jeffrey Long put it, “multilayered, porous, ephemeral, and difficult to identify.” Pure, geographically separated ancestral populations are an abstraction: “There is no reason to think that there ever were isolated, homogeneous parental populations at any time in our human past.””

The Racial Line and Racial Identity

Beyond Biracial: When Blackness Is a Small, Nearly Invisible Fraction
by Jenée Desmond-Harris
from The Root

“Their racial mixture can feel too fragmented for old, no-longer-politically-correct terms like “mulatto” and even the irreverent hybrids like “blewish” and “blexican” that the “biracial boom” crowd created to rename themselves. Making things even more complicated for 2014’s cohort of people with just one black-identified grandparent is the dearth of cultural references providing a blueprint for how they might identify. As Ian Stewart, the 31-year-old son of a biracial father and white mother, puts it, “There’s a lot out there for the half-black, but a lot less out there for the quarter.”

[ . . . ]

“”What is different today than in, say, 1945 is the way in which we have a much more fluid understanding of race,” says Joseph. She’s referring to our ever loosening attachment to the strict red, yellow, brown, black and white racial categories conceived of by 18th-century German scientist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, whose now debunked idea of natural divisions provided the basis for those who would push for biology-based racism.

[ . . . ]

“An extreme example of how muddy this can get: A self-confessed white supremacist attempting to launch an all-white community in North Dakota made headlines when it was revealed that he had 14 percent sub-Saharan African ancestry. (DNA tests can reveal the geographical origins of ancestors, a piece of information that is, contrary to popular belief, not the same as race.)

[ . . . ]

“When it comes to racial identity in America, “The mix itself is one piece, but the appearance thing has always been big,” says Miletsky. In fact, scientists say that people register race in about a tenth of a second, even before they discern gender.

How Many ‘White’ People Are Passing?
by Henry Louis Gates
from The Root

Here’s how Scott Hadly reported Kasia Bryc’s findings on the 23andme website on March 4, 2014: “Bryc found that about 4 percent of whites have at least 1 percent or more of African ancestry, known as “’hidden African ancestry.’”

“Although it is a relatively small percentage,” Hadly continues, “the percentage indicates that an individual with at least 1 percent African ancestry had an African ancestor within the last six generations, or in the last 200 years [meaning since the time of American slavery]. This data also suggests that individuals with mixed parentage at some point were absorbed into the white population,” which is a very polite way of saying that they “passed.”

[ . . . ]

How many ostensibly “white” Americans walking around today would be classified as “black” under the one-drop rule? Judging by the last U.S. Census (pdf), 7,872,702. To put that in context, that number is equal to roughly 20 percent, or a fifth, of the total number of people identified as African American (pdf) in the same census count!

[ . . . ]

“Southern states with the highest African American populations tended to have the highest percentages of hidden African ancestry,” Hadly writes of Bryc’s findings. “In South Carolina at least 13 percent of self-identified whites have 1 percent or more African ancestry, while in Louisiana the number is a little more than 12 percent. In Georgia and Alabama the number is about 9 percent. The differences perhaps point to different social and cultural histories within the south.”

If we apply those percentages to the last federal census (pdf), that means 487,253, “white” people in Georgia, 385,156 “white” people in South Carolina, 328,186 in Louisiana and 288,396 in Alabama are actually “black,” according to the one-drop rule. And that is a lot of the white people in these states! (It’s also worth noting that the percentage of “hidden blacks” who self-identify as white in South Carolina—13 percent—is the same as the percentage of people nationwide who self-identified as black in the 2010 U.S. Census.)