“Before the 1890s…”

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.

11 thoughts on ““Before the 1890s…”

  1. We should not idolize the past, but it does make you go, what might have been had the Reconstruction been more successful.

    Perhaps the US would have ended up more like Canada, with racial tensions although not entirely gone, not at the forefront of politics.

    • It is one of the most fascinating moments in American history. People began to not just imagine but build an entirely different society. The destruction of that emerging progress was from failed leadership, but that was never inevitable.

      The assassination of Lincoln definitely set the stage for problems that would follow. It made the transition much more difficult. Whatever one may think of Lincoln, he had a clear vision for uniting the country. Also, he had a better understanding of Southern culture than many other politicians from the North.

      The problem with the great visionaries in American history is that they tend to be killed. When such a person isn’t killed, as with the case of Thomas Paine, the American public acts like it wishes the visionary were not still living. We Americans aren’t good with our follow through on inspiring visions of progress and reform. The vision ends up getting sacrificed and, sometimes along with it, the visionary.

      I can’t help wondering, though, that maybe one day some vision will come along that won’t be so easy to destroy. A vision so challenging that it would transform society in an irrevocable way.

  2. The problem is not that there are no people without vision these days or for that matter in the past. The problem is that they seldom get to places of power.

    The status quo is a self-perpetuating system. Only corrupt politicians can expect campaign money so they are more likely to get elected.

    Likewise politicians tehse days are vetted.

    • That is true. People of vision are rare. They even more rarely get into major leadership positions. But it does happen about every few generations. When a person of vision does become leader or gains influence, all I’m suggesting is the last thing we should is either assassinate them or their character. We need these people. It’s sad.

  3. It is through volunteers that true science is advanced. People will focus on this doctor as crazy and a madman, but we are a world ready to judge without not even one reason to do so. It is the notion of success, that scares some and emboldens others, whether through ideological reasons or the real thought of immortal beings. I don’t know how to feel about it, having been paralyzed for more than half my life I see promise for a fuller future for those with spinal injury. On the other hand I have faith and a wonder if in the future we won’t learn from the reckless ways some of us live our lives or if faith in itself will be dismissed in the light of immortality. I will remain hopelessly confused on this topic, as I wouldn’t change my life in anyway for all the good that I have gotten, those in my life, and perspective. I will stick with faith over all else. However, I will not stand in the way of those who deal with such things as a death sentence as an alternative.


    • A strange story. Stilll, I have no doubt that there are actual people like this in the world. There will always be doctors willing to experiment and there will always be people willing to volunteer.

      Such research isn’t likely to happen in the US. But there are other places in the world where all kinds of crazy research happens, although most often in secret. I always wonder what even our own government does in secret. Some of the advanced technology the US government develops takes decades to become known in the mainstream.

      I also wonder what kind of secret research certain corporations do in countries that have loose regulations. Research is only expensive in countries like the US because of all the regulations. The limitations of regulations definitely decreases the most crazy kinds of research done in at least most developed countries. But with fewer regulations, the possibilities of research could be increased immensely.

      There is a lot of crazy research that goes on India, for example, because corporate research goes largely unregulated and public officials are easily bribed. Plus, when there is a large desperately poor population as there is in India, then there is no lack of volunteers. I’ve read stories about how drug research is done in India and no doubt horrible things happen to the desperate ‘volunteers’ of some of these studies.

  4. The biggest problem is that the political system is subservient to special interests, and in particular the very rich.

    They vet and control the candidates. That means that not only will visionary people be rare, the system is rigged to benefit the rich and oppose such people who are revolting against the status quo.

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