- Historic Sites
Legacy Of Violence
Sociologists continue to be vexed by the pathology of urban violence: Why is it so random, so fierce, so easily triggered? One answer may be found in our Southern past.
October 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 6
The postwar South saw a widespread concern with black violence as well as with white. Whites charged that dangerous black men who had been controlled under slavery were now on the loose, most of their anger focused on other black men. Young blacks, one white newspaper claimed, carried knives and firearms as a habit, “most especially when a ball, frolic or entertainment is on hand. And being ready to fight it is not astonishing that they use the pistol on the slightest provocation.” In language that sounded much like descriptions of colonial or antebellum white violence, Philip Bruce of Virginia held that arguments among black men could only be “settled by a resort to violence as desperate as it is impetuous; in the struggle no quarter is expected or allowed, and it is only terminated by the hasty retirement or the complete disablement of one of the parties.”
Just as the antebellum Southern aristocracy believed itself to be above the law and thus adjudicated conflicts through honor, so did postwar black Southerners know themselves to be outside the law—whether they wanted to be or not. Blacks realized, after repeated painful experiences, that the law was what they called “white folks’ law,” its protections not extending to them. And black honor, which had grown in the vacuum of justice under slavery, acquired a force of its own that actively repelled the dictates of the written, abstract law. Manhood came to be equated with the extralegal defense of one’s honor and unquestioning respect from peers. The contempt antebellum whites had felt for those who were so weak they had to go to the law for redress was amplified in the postbellum black community, for the law there represented not only an outside force but the force of the oppressor. Moreover, honor was often virtually all a poor black man owned, the only possession he could defend and identify with.
It might seem that the culture of honor and its violence should have soon withered and died in the inhospitable atmosphere of Northern cities, where so many generations of Southern migrants have moved. Dignity, after all, had supposedly flourished since the mid-nineteenth century within the schools, factories, and active governments of the North.
Indeed, historians have discovered that Northern cities, like industrialized societies in general, did experience declining rates of violence from the mid-nineteenth century well into this century. The institutions of industry and state did apparently act to encourage self-control, deferred gratification, and fear of detection and arrest, to reduce violence. Many migrants from the South, however, especially blacks, have remained insulated from such forces, stranded in desperate Northern inner cities, where unemployment, ineffective schooling, and dangerous neighborhoods not only allow Southern-style honor to survive but actually generate an honor of their own. Honor has found new breeding grounds in cities, once the most advanced outposts of dignity. “Whenever the authority of the law is questioned or ignored, the code of honor re-emerges to allocate the right to precedence and dictate the principles of conduct,” an anthropologist has observed. Honor springs up “among aristocracies and criminal underworlds, school-boy and street-corner societies, open frontier and those closed communities where reigns ‘The Honorable Society,’ as the Mafia calls itself.”
Lower-class whites and lower-class blacks perpetuated honor after most educated middle-class Southerners had turned away from honor and violence as archaic relics of a glorious but impractical Southern past. An acute sensitivity to insult and a propensity for violence—the manifestations of honor—came with each passing decade of the twentieth century to be increasingly identified with poor rural whites and poor urban blacks. Honor is fed every day in places where courts are not trusted, where the American dream seems off limits, and where poverty and frustration reign. There values hundreds of years old get a new lease on life. Honor may eventually fade away, but it has proved remarkably durable and dangerous in its first three hundred years in America.