Racialized stigma is central to understanding why rates of homicide and other violence were, and remain, so much higher among the descendants of slaves than among other Americans. Yet to characterize those descendants in racial terms is to misunderstand the relevant social dynamics.
The problems start with the term black. The notion of a unified black identity in the contemporary US is nonsensical—even if we don’t consider class differences—as it amalgamates the descendants of slaves from within the territory of the now US, immigrants from the Caribbean and recent African immigrants: three groups with very different characteristics and patterns of behavior. These differences also apply elsewhere—a study of the 2011 London riots notes that members of Britain’s Caribbean community and recent African migrants had very different patterns of action and response.
Glenn Loury’s The Anatomy of Racial Inequality, a deeply illuminating study of the dynamics of stigma, demonstrates that stereotypes can be accurate, self-reinforcing and the result of stigmatization. The book could be more aptly entitled The Anatomy of Stigmatized Inequality, as the analysis applies with equal facility to, say, the Cagots of northern Spain and western France.
African slaves began arriving in British North America in the seventeenth century, leaving more than enough time for the process of ethnogenesis, which can take place across a single lifetime—in 1920 there was no such thing as a specific Palestinian people, but there clearly is now.
Treating the descendants of American slaves as a specific ethnic group (which we might call Ebonic-Americans, invoking the tradition of using shaky linguistic terms as ethnic categories) directs attention to shared historical experiences and patterns, but it does not imply some deep, distinctive commonality with Caribbean-Americans or recent African migrants, based simply on skin color or race. The first group carries the entire burden of the history of racial stigma in the US, the second only part of that burden and the third none of it (though the third notably benefits from racially conceived affirmative action policies aimed at remedying that burden of stigma). However, these three very distinct groups are usually aggregated in US statistical data.
It may not be entirely coincidental that philosopher Kwami Anthony Appiah, a prominent critic of the notion of race, who is also cautiously skeptical of identity politics in general, is a British-born, Ghanaian-raised mixed ancestry immigrant to the US. Jamaican-born economist Malcolm Gladwell expresses the ethnic divide between Ebonic-Americans and Caribbean-Americans vividly:
I think only when you look very closely at that difference do you understand the heavy weight that particular American heritage places on African-Americans. What’s funny about West Indians is, they can always spot another West Indian. And at a certain point you wonder, “How do they always know?” It’s because after a while you get good at spotting the absence of that weight.
Or, to put it another way, cultural cues and expectations are real, and they matter.
That Ebonic-Americans are an ethnic group of primarily African, rather than European descent, has allowed what were, in effect, ethno-cultural patterns and burdens to be passed off as racial. A group from a different continent have been characterized as a racial group, rather than as people with a specific history. That stigmas constructed in racial terms have imposed multi-generational burdens is hardly a recommendation for continuing race talk, especially given the inherent lack of differentiation about who bears what burden of stigmatization.
Bravado in the Absence of Order
The abolition of slavery by the Thirteenth Amendment, enforced by the Northern victory in the American Civil War, did not abolish the appeal of acquiring effortless virtue by essentializing status (in this case, racialized status), nor the wish to protect voting power and economic prospects via racialized social cartels. Jim Crow arose in the post-Reconstruction American South, enforced by a mixture of state-sanctioned private violence and explicit exclusions. To justify its existence, Jim Crow adapted and continued the arguments used to justify enslaving fellow humans. The resulting denigration of Ebonic-Americans was intense—not despite the grandeur of American ideals but because of said grandeur. The verbal and other degradations had to be intense enough to cover the gap between the actual status of Ebonic-Americans and what being an American citizen was supposed to mean. A boy or a n*gger was not entitled to the dignity and freedom of a real citizen. The stigmatizers used race as a cover to justify exclusion and exploitation. As ever, those denigrated were blamed for being denigrated.
Out of this came segregation. Community enclaves are not noxious in themselves. Indeed, one positive—and now largely lost—consequence of segregation was a lively African-American commercial life within the segregated communities. In the American context, however, segregation implied far more than residential clustering: it was shorthand for a pervasive lack of social contact and the provision of far fewer state services—including (in some cases, especially) police coverage—to the segregated former slave communities. Separate but equal provided a judicial fig leaf to cover the chasm between American ideals and what was done (and not done) in these cases.
Social science distinguishes between honor culture—in which (usually) males protect themselves and theirs by signaling a willingness to violently defend their reputations—and dignity culture. In the words of sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, in a dignity culture:
Rather than honor, a status based primarily on public opinion, people are said to have dignity, a kind of inherent worth that cannot be alienated by others. Dignity exists independently of what others think, so a culture of dignity is one in which public reputation is less important. Insults might provoke offense, but they no longer have the same importance as a way of establishing or destroying a reputation for bravery. It is even commendable to have “thick skin” that allows one to shrug off slights and even serious insults, and in a dignity-based society parents might teach children some version of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”—an idea that would be alien in a culture of honor. People are to avoid insulting others, too, whether intentionally or not, and in general an ethic of self-restraint prevails.
Honor cultures are a manifestation of do-it-yourself public order, operating in situations with low expectations of state protection. In Europe, the shift from the relatively violent honor culture of the medieval period to the far less violent post-medieval dignity culture was fundamentally based on the existence of nation states willing, able and trusted to impose a level of public order capable of producing the decrease in violence a dignity culture needs to thrive. There was a systematic post-medieval decrease in crime, particularly homicide, in European societies that started in the northwest and then spread south and east.
The former slave states of the American South systematically failed to provide that level of public order within the segregated communities inhabited by former slaves and their descendants (and were certainly not trusted to do so). The absence of sufficient public order to reliably sustain a dignity culture, together with the social instability caused by the experience of slavery, and the remnants of certain aspects of African culture, led to a failure to generate the embedded, powerful family and kin structures and social capital required to overcome that lack of public order (contrast this with the clan/guild/secret society structures of Chinese communities).
The result was the development of an honor culture within the segregated communities. Or perhaps we might call it a bravado culture, as it was very much a street culture, a subordinate culture.
Medieval honor culture was centered on a bellicose nobility and gentry, to whom rulers delegated both local extraction of surplus and provision of armed services for internal control and external warfare. By contrast, a bravado culture lacks elite endorsement. It both signifies—and, with its much higher resultant levels of violence, justifies—a lower level of provision of public order (as measured by, for example, crime clearance rates), which can amount to a form of social abandonment. Stigmatization starves the communities of policing services, resulting in much higher crime levels, which then in turn appear to justify stigmatization, creating stereotypes which are accurate, self-reinforcing and the result of stigmatization.
Table 1: Male homicide rates per 100,000 people
Source: Health, United States, 2016, NCHS, Table 29.
Thus, the predictable result of DIY public order was a much higher level of violence, particularly homicide, in the segregated Ebonic-American communities. That the overall male homicide death rate in Ebonic-American communities was twelve times that of Euro-American communities in 1950, when Ebonic-Americans comprised only a tenth of the US population, speaks to the longterm failure to provide public order in those communities. The fall in the homicide rate since indicates some convergence of performance among different US police jurisdictions—but we are measuring this fall against a low benchmark.
We can see high homicide rates in a wide range of urban environments, where the state fails to impose an adequate level of public order—notably in Latin American cities, which often reach homicide rates comparable to those in Ebonic-American communities in the US. Africa, where clan and lineage systems still operate, tends to have lower homicide rates.
Of the 50 most homicidal cities in the world, three are in Africa (all in South Africa: Capetown, Nelson Bay Mandela and Buffalo City); four are in the US (St Louis, Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans); one is in the Caribbean (Kingston, Jamaica); while the remaining 42 are in Latin America. Of the 20 countries with the highest homicide rates, two are in Africa (South Africa and Namibia); eight are in the Caribbean; and the remaining ten are in Latin America. Latin America and the Caribbean house 8% of the world’s population but experience about a third of the world’s homicides. Yet, when Latin Americans move to the US, their homicide rates drop dramatically (and are converging on the rate among Euro-Americans)—in itself, a reason to migrate.
Within the US, there is now effectively no disparity between Ebonic-American and Euro-American homicide rates in rural areas: the disparity has become an urban phenomenon. Indeed, the more urban, the worse the disparity becomes. This simple pattern demolishes racial explanations for high violence rates among African-Americans: then again, so does the comparison with medieval European or contemporary Latin American homicide patterns.
Bravado culture became entrenched within Ebonic-American communities as both a response to, and a cause of, the high homicide social equilibrium established within those communities. This pattern continued when the descendants of slaves migrated en masse to northern cities. In accordance with the tendency for social stereotypes to be (relatively) accurate, a high violence stereotype became established regarding Ebonic-Americans. As economists Glenn Loury and Rajiv Sethi point out, once this violent stereotype was established, it reinforced the high homicide (and high robbery) social equilibrium.
Social factors move thresholds of violence up or down the tails of normal bell curve distributions of cognitive traits. Crime is overwhelmingly a tail effect. Swedish research on violent crime convictions over a thirty-year period (1973–2004) found that almost two-thirds of convicted violent crimes were committed by only 1% of the population, while less than 4% of the population committed all the violent crimes (broken down by sex, this was 7% of the male and less than 1% of the female population).
A three strikes and you’re out policy on violent crime may be effective, as it targets the highly violent. Including non-violent crimes in the three strikes is, however, expensive and ill informed. Even setting aside the problems of imprisonment, given the dramatic imbalances in incarceration rates, increasing the number of absent males in order-starved communities leads to (teenage and older) women competing for the reduced supply of (teenage and older) men, who compete with each other. This increases the prevalence of bravado culture, encouraging violence rather than suppressing it. Shortage of men undermines marriage—a phenomenon exacerbated by the fact that African-American men have a greater propensity to marry out than African-American women—and leads to fewer fathers being present in homes. Economist Raj Chetty’s multigenerational analysis has identified high rates of present fathers as a strong positive factor for African-American males.
The political influence of prison unions is a factor in this over-incarceration. In addition, given that the deterrent effect is a function of the chance of being caught as well as of the severity of punishment, elevated African-American incarceration rates may in part be a response to the low crime clearance rates in their communities: therefore both a response to and a manifestation of stigmatization. This stigmatization cannot, as Loury points out, simply be equated with racism-as-discrimination. Indeed, stigmatization is a much broader phenomena than racism (especially given that many of the ostentatiously antiracist are typically avid practitioners of point-and-shriek stigmatization).
The ongoing failure to impose sufficient public order, as evidenced by dramatically lower homicide clearance rates within African-American urban communities, not only allows the highly violent to be more violent, it increases the incentive to be violent, both as retaliation and as pre-emption. That is precisely why honor cultures in general, and bravado cultures in particular, display the dynamics they do, which include the fact that their violence is overwhelmingly male-on-male violence. It is therefore unsurprising that African-American men are almost twice as likely as Euro-American men to see themselves as very masculine. In the US, African-American urban communities are both mis-policed (there is too much reliance on uniformed intrusion, too little connection-building) and under-protected (too few detectives with too little forensic and other back up).
The sorts of reasons that lead (overwhelmingly male) folk to kill each other, according to medieval court records, are much the same reasons that lead (overwhelmingly male) folk to kill each other in contemporary Ebonic-American urban communities. Consider this 1278 case in London, from court records:
Symonet Spinelli, Agnes his mistress and Geoffrey Bereman were together in Geoffrey’s house when a quarrel broke out among them; Symonet left the house and returned later the same day with Richard Russel his Servant to the house of Godfrey le Gorger, where he found Geoffrey; a quarrel arose and Richard and Symonet killed Geoffrey.
Change the names, swap mistress for girlfriend, servant for gang member, and it becomes a commonplace tale of contemporary urban America—just as the original was a commonplace tale of urban medieval England. But medieval Europe lacked states with the capacity to impose trusted public order. The contemporary American state, by contrast, lacks the informed willingness to do so within urban Ebonic-American communities. That Latin American cities have homicide rates comparable to those scholars have estimated for European societies in the medieval period is shocking; that, in one of the world’s richest countries, Ebonic-American communities do, is appalling.
In his 1920 pamphlet “Crime in America and the Police,” Raymond B. Fosdick reports that
In Indianapolis in 1919, a negro shot and killed another following a quarrel over a girl. Upon apprehension, the perpetrator admitted the act, but was freed by the Grand Jury presumably upon the ground of justification in killing a trespassing rival. Upon release from custody he called at the coroner’s office to collect his pistol which he had left by the body of his victim and which had been held in evidence.
So far, so medieval honor culture. A few sentences later, Fosdick continues:
“We have three types of homicide,” I was told by the chief of detectives in a larger southern city. “If a n*gger kills a white man, that’s murder. If a white man kills a n*gger, that’s justifiable homicide. And if a n*gger kills another n*gger, that’s one less n*gger.” While of course brutally exaggerated, the statement is none the less too nearly a correct portrayal of the actual conditions of public opinion in many parts of the country to be altogether or even largely discounted.
This is as explicit a statement of abandonment (or, at least, chronic under-provision) of public order within Ebonic-American communities as one can imagine. This persistent pattern has understandably led to what sociologists call legal cynicism. The recurring consequences of such multi-generational stigma create internalized expectations, which affect behavior.
African-American writer and essayist James Baldwin’s 1962 essay, Letter from a Region of My Mind, expresses this sense of alienation powerfully:
But the Negro’s experience of the white world cannot possibly create in him any respect for the standards by which the white world claims to live. His own condition is overwhelming proof that white people do not live by these standards … In any case, white people, who had robbed black people of their liberty and who profited by this theft every hour that they lived, had no moral ground on which to stand. They had the judges, the juries, the shotguns, the law—in a word, power. But it was a criminal power, to be feared but not respected, and to be outwitted in any way whatever. And those virtues preached but not practiced by the white world were merely another means of holding Negroes in subjection.
It turned out, then, that summer, that the moral barriers that I had supposed to exist between me and the dangers of a criminal career were so tenuous as to be nearly non-existent. I certainly could not discover any principled reason for not becoming a criminal, and it is not my poor, God-fearing parents who are to be indicted for the lack but this society. I was icily determined—more determined, really, than I then knew—never to make my peace with the ghetto but to die and go to Hell before I would let any white man spit on me, before I would accept my “place” in this republic. I did not intend to allow the white people of this country to tell me who I was, and limit me that way, and polish me off that way. And yet, of course, at the same time, I was being spat on and defined and described and limited, and could have been polished off with no effort whatever.
The police were often the most active and frightening instrument of those humiliations:
One did not have to be very bright to realize how little one could do to change one’s situation; one did not have to be abnormally sensitive to be worn down to a cutting edge by the incessant and gratuitous humiliation and danger one encountered every working day, all day long. The humiliation did not apply merely to working days, or workers; I was thirteen and was crossing Fifth Avenue on my way to the Forty-second Street library, and the cop in the middle of the street muttered as I passed him, “Why don’t you n*ggers stay uptown where you belong?” When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves with me by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and, for good measure, leaving me flat on my back in one of Harlem’s empty lots.
Urban anthropologist Elijah Anderson has analyzed inner city youth attitudes as a fluctuating and overlapping tension between street (bravado) and decent (dignity) outlooks and behaviors. The power and appeal of street culture, Anderson argues, stems from
the profound sense of alienation from mainstream society and its institutions felt by many poor inner-city black people, particularly the young. The code of the streets is actually a cultural adaptation to a profound lack of faith in the police and the judicial system. The police are most often seen as representing the dominant white society and not caring to protect inner-city residents. When called, they may not respond, which is one reason many residents feel they must be prepared to take extraordinary measures to defend themselves and their loved ones against those who are inclined to aggression. Lack of police accountability has in fact been incorporated into the status system: the person who is believed capable of “taking care of himself” is accorded a certain deference, which translates into a sense of physical and psychological control. Thus the street code emerges where the influence of the police ends and personal responsibility for one’s safety is felt to begin. Exacerbated by the proliferation of drugs and easy access to guns, this volatile situation results in the ability of the street oriented minority (or those who effectively “go for bad”) to dominate the public spaces.
People within the same family may manifest either orientation, or even move between them depending on circumstances.
Researcher Alex Belkin writes:
Another way police were illegitimate was that they were slow to respond to reported crimes. In Cleveland, for example, federal investigators found that this was the chief complaint of black residents, who accused police of corruption and racism as reasons for their belated response or indifference to intra-racial crimes. Wayne R. LaFave, in his 1965 study of arrest law and practices, quotes a black assistant prosecutor summarizing this presumption: “There is too much of a tendency on the part of police officers, juries, and even judges to dismiss Negro crimes of violence with the saying, ‘It’s only Negroes, and they’ve always been like that.’”
Under- and over-policing has had a profound, tragic effect on black communities—and continues to do so today. It has both provoked resentment and hostility and discouraged residents from seeking out police as arbiters of conflicts, as peacekeepers. It created a world in which a kind of extralegal street justice could thrive—where people took matters into their own hands.
Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates talks of how, growing up in West Baltimore, much of his mental effort was directed, every day, to minimizing the risk of violence. While policing services—through stigma, incompetence, poor strategies and, above all, inadequate social connection, trust, numbers and resources—remain not up to the task of moving urban Ebonic-American communities out of their high violence social equilibria, bravado culture will retain its grip.
Table 2: Female homicide rates per 100,000 people
Source: Health, United States, 2016, NCHS, Table 29.
Living adjacent to a more violent bravado culture is something to avoid, particularly if one is raising children. The dramatic differences in rates of violence in urban communities is sufficient, on its own, to explain white flight from the urban communities that Ebonic-Americans moved into in significant numbers. The stereotypes of violence have not only disguised the wider role of poor public policy in creating the high violence equilibria within urban Ebonic-American communities, but have created their own aggravation of inter-community relations, since they positively encourage Ebonic-American criminals to target Euro-American victims, using the stereotype of Ebonic-American (black) male violence to their predatory advantage. This thereby turns fears of spillover violence into fear grounded in actual patterns of behavior. A simple and straightforward model indicates how significant violence can be to the white experience of living among many Ebonic-Americans. Ignoring the effects of the highly disparate rates of violence among different communities makes so-called white reactions seem illegimate and distracts from the real issues. It also helps to burnish Ebonic-Americans as sacred victims.
High violence communities have an increased likelihood of riots, particularly violent riots, a phenomenon which has, at various times, multiplied these social effects.
To those born and raised in a Western dignity culture (or Asian equivalent), not only is the much higher level of violence threatening, so are the social cues of bravado culture. Norman Podhoretz’s 1963 essay on growing up in Brooklyn, “My Negro Problem—And Ours,” is a particularly powerful statement about the mixture of violence and threat created by bravado culture. As Elijah Anderson notes of the code of the street: “For people who are unfamiliar with the code—generally people who live outside the inner city—the concern with respect in the most ordinary interactions can be frightening and incomprehensible.” This fear can extend to the police.
Mixed-race writer John Wood Jr writes of how changing his hair to corn rows adversely affected how strangers interacted with him, though his proper English would reverse the effect: the adverse social cue of his haircut was overridden by the positive social cue of his speech. Teachers, other professionals and officials raised in a dignity culture are likely to have problems with students, adolescents and adults operating in a bravado culture—even without considering other effects of racialized stigma. Moreover, the failure to impose order in public schools leads to a school-level bravado culture that is highly corrosive of any serious educational attainment.
There is a strong tendency, in academic and progressivist circles—unless directly discussing crime—never to mention violence within African-American urban communities, especially when discussing white attitudes or behavior. This strategy is clearly designed to maintain race talk, and particularly antiracism talk, but this pattern of omission helps build de facto tolerance of the much higher levels of violence in African-American urban communities—especially by using antiracism to direct animus towards white residents, rather than directing anger at the inadequate provision and poor application of police services.
A crime map of Oak Park (left) and Austin (right) in Chicago (taken from here). Oak Park is about 22 per cent African-American and about two-thirds Euro-American, so dominated by dignity culture. Austin is over 80 per cent African American, so a bravado culture enclave.
One glaring case of such an omission is the study, led by economist Raj Chetty, on intergenerational income mobility in the US. The study engages in the standard racialized descriptions of what are clearly ethnocultural patterns. While incarceration rates do get a mention, nowhere is the dramatic difference in rates of violence discussed, even though one key conclusion clearly indicates that levels of violence might be a key factor:
the black-white gap is significantly smaller for boys who grow up in certain neighborhoods—those with low poverty rates, low levels of racial bias among whites, and high rates of father presence among low-income blacks. Black boys who move to such areas at younger ages have significantly better outcomes, demonstrating that racial disparities can be narrowed through changes in environment.
Honor cultures in general—and bravado cultures in particular—are very much about male reputation, expectations and behavior. Thus, moral cultures and social cues may help explain two striking findings. One is that having a Euro-American mother essentially eliminates any pattern of disadvantage for the children of an African-American father. However, this does not occur if the mother is African-American and the father is Euro-American. The second finding is that African-American women have a slightly better income profile than one would predict from their parents’ incomes, while African-American men have a worse one. (Both these results contradict the intersectionalist claim that disadvantage is additive.)
If Ebonic-American women are much less likely to express bravado culture cues (at least in a way that others find threatening) and to suffer its harms, then this would help explain the latter pattern. If mothers are more important than fathers in generating moral expectations and transmitting cultural cues—including the burdens, or lack thereof, of inherited stigma—that would do much to explain the former pattern. A (small) study of transracial adoptions found that the cognitive styles of African-American mothers were much less conducive to infant and child cognitive development than those of Euro-American mothers. Either way, using racial descriptors will not help us grapple with these social patterns.
Race fails as an explanation of the elevated levels of violence in Ebonic-American urban communities. The path to reducing the level of violence in such communities to the same level as that found in other American community is the same path that, over time, dramatically reduced the rates of homicide in Europe: the provision of police services willing, able and trusted to provide the level of protection required for the patterns of dignity culture to become entrenched—a process which must include the slow work of building connections and trust. There is no good form of race talk that will help achieve that. On the contrary, race talk gets in the way and, at its worst, helps perpetuate the death and violence that continue to, so unnecessarily, blight those communities.