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9 February 2023

America’s oldest shame is violence, not racism

Ideology alone does not explain police killings in the United States.

By Tomiwa Owolade

In some societies, extreme violence can explode out of an angry altercation. Last December a black American man, an uncle of my sister-in-law, was talking to my father in Nigeria. There was something about Nigerian people that puzzled him: they were so aggressive – shouting at each other in the streets over relatively innocuous things – but this verbal abuse didn’t end up in any physical violence. “Back home,” he said, “when people start going at it like that, a gun will soon get whipped out.”

The murder of Tyre Nichols in Memphis last month has rightly shocked everyone, but perhaps what is most awful about it is how unsurprising it seems. Another black man brutally killed by the American police. Nichols, 29, a father, FedEx worker, photographer and skateboarder, was beaten to death by people who were meant to protect him: five police officers, themselves black, all of whom have been sacked and charged with his murder.

The CNN contributor Van Jones explained Nichols’s death as another instance of institutional racism. In a column for the CNN Website, Jones argued: “One of the sad facts about anti-Black racism is that Black people ourselves are not immune to its pernicious effects.” He added that “Black people can harbor anti-Black sentiments and can act on those feelings in harmful ways”. One article in the Guardian about the protests following the killing omitted the race of the police officers. The fact that all five of the officers that beat him to death are black is irrelevant; they are part of an institution – the police force – that is irredeemably hostile to black people.

Others, like the cultural critic Thomas Chatterton Williams, dissent from this prevailing opinion. For one thing, it removes agency from the police officers in question, and casts their heinous acts as the unstoppable result of abstract forces. Whether or not the death of Nichols can be explained by racism is an interesting debate, but it skirts over an even more important factor in making sense of these situations: the extent to which violence permeates social life in America. 

Over the past five years around 1,000 people a year have been shot dead by the police in America, and in each of these years between 15 and 25 per cent of these people were known to be black. In 2020 243 black people were killed by the police; the number of black people killed with guns in general that year was 12,179. Black people make up around 12 per cent of the population, but in 2020 made up over 60 per cent of all victims of gun homicides.

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It makes perfect sense for police killings to get the most attention. The police are an arm of state; they have a unique responsibility to protect citizens. But the extent to which the American police engage in violence is symptomatic of a much deeper rot within American society – one that, even though it disproportionately affects black people, affects large numbers of white people too.

Where does this rot come from? Many people explain this violence in terms of poverty. It is certainly true that poor people are far more likely to be the victims of homicidal violence than more well-off people. But framing violence merely in terms of poverty is too simplistic. America’s poverty rate declined in the 1960s when at same time the homicide rate markedly went up. If we make international comparisons, consider that Jamaica and Trinidad have far less poverty than Benin and Senegal, but the homicide rates in the two Caribbean countries are much higher. Haiti is the poorest country in the Caribbean, yet the homicide rate there (6.68 per 100,000 people) is far lower than in Jamaica (43.85), Trinidad and Tobago (30.65), and Saint Kitts and Nevis (36.09).

In fact, America’s poverty rate is not that different from European countries. America is one of the richest countries in the world, but when it comes to murder it is an outlier among other developed nations. In the UK the homicide rate per 100,000 people is 1.2; in France it is the same; in Germany 0.95. In the US, however, according to FBI data from 2020, it is 6.5. But the homicide rate varies state by state. The New Hampshire homicide rate was 0.9; in Maine it was 1.6. These are western European levels. For Tennessee, where Nichols was killed, it was 9.6. It was 15.8 in Louisiana.

As Fox Butterfield put it in a 1998 column for The New York Times: “There is no such thing as an American murder rate… There are sharp regional differences in homicide, with the South having by far the highest murder rate, almost double that of the Northeast, a divergence that has persisted for as long as records have been kept, starting in the 19th century.”

Richard Nisbett, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, grew up in Texas. “At age 17,” he told a Norwegian documentary-maker in 2011, “I went away to college in what to me was a foreign country: Boston, Massachusetts.” It was a foreign country in large part because of a different attitude to violence. One of the main differences between the American South and New England was that “middle class people don’t kill each other in Massachusetts. And they did, where I came from.”

The American South, according to Nisbett and many others, is characterised by a culture of honour. Nisbett devised a study at Michigan to compare how students from the South, North and Midwest responded to violence. In the study, each student was deliberately bumped into and called a jerk. The students from the South became visibly angry; the other students just shrugged off the incident. After the scenario played out, the students from the South reported increased testosterone and cortisol levels. They were ready to fight. How did this culture develop?

The historian David Hackett Fischer explains the greater predilection for violence among American southerners in his book Albion’s Seed (1989). The South has historically been populated by an ethnic group called the Scots-Irish: protestants from the north of Ireland, who had originated from the borderlands between lowland Scotland and northern England. They possessed an honour culture, in which disputes would be settled with violence and personal slights would be avenged. In the nineteenth century Alexis de Tocqueville described the American South as “a semi-barbarous society”, a place where “at the slightest quarrel, knife or pistol comes to hand”.

The economist Thomas Sowell believes that this culture, developed over the centuries in rural Appalachia, was internalised by black Americans – and that this explains the violent behaviour found among some black communities throughout the country. What characterises such a culture is a frontier sensibility: a distrust of authority and a readiness to take the law into one’s own hands. Jill Leovy argues in her book Ghettoside (2015), an investigation into inner city violence in Los Angeles, that violence among young black men comes from a distrust of a police force that over-polices minor refractions but under-polices major crimes. This leads to an anarchic landscape, as though the fighting, clannish culture of 18th-century northern Britain was transplanted to inner-city 21st-century black America.

The violence in America does not simply arise out of abstract forces like racism or poverty, but from how these forces interact with the particular historical circumstances of American society. We need coverage that better reflects this, not the blandishments of Van Jones.

The culture of honour has influenced high political office in the past and it infects the police force today. Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, was the son of Scots-Irish immigrants. His mother said to him as a boy: “Andrew, never tell a lie, nor take what is not your own, nor sue anybody for slander, assault and battery. Always settle them cases yourself.” In his life Jackson challenged over 100 men to duels. He was the senator for Tennessee, the state where, nearly 180 years after he died, the police felt the appropriate way to respond to someone they suspected of speeding, of trying to cheat the system, was to taser him, pin him to the floor and beat him to death. To paraphrase the great southern writer, William Faulkner, in America the past is never dead. It’s not even past.

[See also: American hubris]

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