I was reading from many books lately. My curious mind was flitting about, sampling various authors.
One thing that was on my mind was shame and honor, specifically as related to culture and social problems. That led me to look at a book I’ve had for a while, American Homicide by Randolph Roth, because it came up while doing web searches. The author, near the beginning of the book (Kindle Locations 222-225), encapsulates the difficulty of understanding violence. He writes that,
“Race and slavery are connected to America’s homicide problem, but not in a straightforward way. Before the 1890s, for example, African Americans were far less likely to kill than whites were, and especially unlikely to kill one another. Why, for the past century, has the opposite been the case? Why were Virginia and Maryland no more homicidal than Pennsylvania in the 1720s and 1730s, when they had more slaves and free blacks? Why did slave states become more homicidal after the Revolution, when free states became less homicidal?”
He simultaneously disproves the plausibility of the conservative argument that blames culture for everything and the neoreactionary argument that blames genetics for everything. These were changes happening within populations. The basic cultures and genetics of these populations didn’t likely change much over such short periods of times. Some other social dynamic was behind the increase of violence in some places and the decrease elsewhere.
Even I’m fond of some of the more interesting cultural hypotheses, but I’m always wary about the implications of taking them too much at face value. They can potentially offer insight. The danger is that they make for convenient just-so stories. They have a way of ending inquiry, instead of inspiring further questioning.
As for genetics, Roth doesn’t specifically discuss that in this book. He does, however, speak of specific populations. So, specific population genetics are indirectly involved. This book severely undermines the type of arguments one hears from human biodiversity advocates.
Also, the above passage would seem to even challenge the simpler accounts of social problems that come from the political left. The black population more than a century ago was more impoverished than the black population is today. On the other hand, those on the political left could rightly point out that economic inequality has increased as economic mobility has decreased. Blacks in the post-Civil War era had many reasons for feeling more hopeful than desperate. It seemed like their world was improving dramatically and quickly.
The full backlash was yet to come. Industrialization and urbanization was bringing benefits for most Americans, even poor minorities. De-industrialization and offshoring, suburbanization and ghettoization (followed by gentrification) was not even on the horizon. Blacks, immediately following Emancipation, acted like a people with a sense of realistic hope. The shame of centuries of enslavement had fallen away and for the first time a generation of free blacks were becoming a force in American society.
The 1890s, however, began a new era of racial oppression. It was the beginning of Jim Crow. Is it surprising that increased oppression led to increased desperation and hence violence? The entire society got more violent during that time. In fact, it was the most violent period in our country’s history.
It is interesting that the black population has yet to fully recover from what happened during Jim Crow. Before that time, blacks were becoming increasingly independent. They had formed their own communities and towns. They opened their own businesses, ran their own newspapers, and had their own schools. They elected their own local political officials.
Then the wrath of violence came down upon them. It wasn’t just lynchings. It included the theft of land and property, or else its destruction. Entire neighborhoods were burnt down. Entire populations were driven out of towns. Blacks were herded into inner cities.
In the relatively good times before the backlash, blacks showed that they were perfectly capable of having well functioning communities. Their violence rates were low. Their economic mobility was increasing. I’m willing to bet about everything was improving, from crime rates to marriage rates.
The twentieth century was a slow destruction of black communities. It was a slow destruction of their families and social capital. The early twentieth century began the rise of mass incarceration and the drug wars, and of course all of this was mostly directed at poor minorities.
Why do people act surprised that when communities, families, and lives are destroyed that people will become desperate and act in less than optimal ways? Neither culture nor genetics is needed to explain the increase of violence, and it indeed was an increase. It didn’t begin that way.