A Passion for Violence


As an outsider to New Orleans—where I now reside—and the American South, I can’t but be surprised by the amount of violence that occurs here every single day. In the metropolitan area I currently reside in, for instance, there have already been several murders and in the year just past some 155 homicides took place. Not a day goes by, it seems, that local media does not carry a story about a shooting, armed robbery, or a murder.

Violent crime, of course, is not a plague limited to the South. All big cities have their problems with crime and currently Chicago and Flint, Michigan are in the spotlight for the unremitting, gang-driven violence that has broken out on their streets in recent years. Nor is it necessarily a problem about too-easy access to firearms, as New York City, home of anti-gun billionaire and former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, ended the year with 323 homicides – the lowest in its history and down twenty-percent from 2012.

The body count was down in New Orleans, too, this year – which city officials were quick to point out – but the difference between NYC and NOLA in 2013 is only 168 homicides. Considering that the population difference between the two cities is nearly 8 million people, the per-capita murder rate (per 1,000 individuals) is thus far higher in the Crescent City than the Big Apple. Indeed, with a per capita murder rate of .42 for New Orleans versus .038 for New York, you are about eleven times more likely to be murdered here than in the nation’s biggest city.

As is the case between New York and New Orleans, so is the case with the American South and much of the rest of the country. Crime and violence are much higher here than in the rest of the country, even in rural areas. According to the FBI, which collects data on crime and criminal activity across the country, more murders, per capita, take place in the South than in any other part of the country with Louisiana – home to New Orleans – being the murder capital of the country.

In Louisiana as a whole, the murder rate stood at 10.8 per 100,000 in 2013, followed by Mississippi, which stood at 7.4 and Alabama at 7.1. Michigan comes in at 7.0, but the next northern state to come anywhere close to the Deep South average is Illinois, home to Chicago, which has a murder rate of 5.8 per 100,000. The states of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Georgia all have higher rates. The Northeast, the heart of hated Yankeedom, is by far the safest part of the country, and as a whole has a murder rate of 2.2 per 100,000. To match the Louisiana rate, New Englanders would have to kill 12.3 times more people per 100,000.

Why this is so has long been studied and there are numerous theories to explain it. Collectively, however, it boils down to four root causes – weather, ease of access to weaponry, economic opportunity and culture. Weather, it should be noted, is easy to explain; a generally warmer climate means people are out and about for longer into the year and heat normally makes people cranky and prone to violence. Being generally warm all year round, this should naturally make the American South a place that is more prone to violence than the rest of the country.

It also, conveniently, takes responsibility for violent crime out of the hands of its people and politicians, which isn’t the case for the other three explanations. Guns, too, are relatively easy to explain though controversial and hard for gun-rights activists to accept. At present, the best empirical evidence indicates that easy availability of firearms – either through legal means or illegal, black-market channels – leads to a higher murder rate. While the overall impact on crime is still debated, it seems clear once the research has been examined that a sea of guns makes death-by-gun much more likely. Since Southern voters have repeatedly indicated that they are not going to allow any restrictions to be placed on their weapons, widespread access to firearms, like the weather, seems an immutable part of Southern life.

According to the FBI, which collects data on crime and criminal activity across the country, more murders, per capita, take place in the South than in any other part of the country with Louisiana – home to New Orleans – being the murder capital of the country.

This in turn leaves us with economic opportunity and culture as things we can possibly leverage to explain, and potentially manipulate, the South’s much higher crime rate. Neither poverty nor the particularities of a given culture by themselves cause crime, of course, but their intersection can be deadly when they don’t mix in the right way. When they do, this gives rise to uncomfortable social and political questions about both.

Take, for example, an individual born into a well-off family or who resides in a nice, middle-class community. In such a community, crime as a way of life that is culturally accepted by one’s peers may never be encountered. Instead, the individual young person will see a host of opportunities and life paths that offer them, with hard work, a viable path to economic independence and full adult membership in their community. This path to a stable, middle-class life is not just available – it is visible all around them and is constantly reinforced as good and desirable by their family, friends, neighbors, and community.

On the other hand, an individual born into the opposite circumstances will receive very different messages. While their parents – or, more likely, single parent – may strive to inculcate into the young man or woman that hard work and study are important in the long run, a host of other factors are confounding and challenging that message. Being poor and, at best, working class, the young person sees no one like themselves in the professions or other middle-class livelihoods. With no role models to follow, there is no demonstrated path “out” of the circumstances they are born into and, indeed, they may find such a path, even if discovered, to be all but impossible.

Indeed, with no support – financial and emotional – getting beyond one’s circumstances can be insurmountable. One ends up making mistakes that the experience of others – if such had been made available – would have allowed one to avoid. Short of a role model that one trusts implicitly, every step of the way to becoming a member of the “respectable classes” is excruciatingly difficult. It can force a young person to abandon all he or she has known and forces them to make enormous gambles about what the future entails. It is, to say the least, deeply uncomfortable; and to many who try to get up the ladder find it to be an embittering social, economic, and emotional minefield instead. In the worst case scenario the aspiring individual might find they have simply traded one form of insecurity for another.

Returning to the subject of crime, then, one can see that lack of economic opportunity and cultural attitudes can reinforce and reproduce dysfunction. If it’s a warm day in November, you’re poor, packing a gun, need cash, and, moreover, crime and violence are an accepted part of your social milieu, it’s an easy decision to knock over the liquor store. If none of those things apply, then the decision isn’t an easy one and, in fact, might never even be considered an option in the same way that studying hard when you are hungry or attending an unaffordable college or trade school isn’t even considered an option for the person born into poverty.

What this boils down to is that while circumstances do not make men, they certainly shape them in ways that are hard to combat without strong social support. In our polarized political environment where the left focuses on pure redistribution and the right focuses overwhelmingly on character, this fact of social life is often lost. It’s not either/or but BOTH—and focusing on one without doing something about the other is not just inefficient, it’s evil, for it wastes scarce time and resources and loses people – entire generations – to crime and poverty in the process.

We can and should do better, but we don’t because – if you are on the right – accepting that guns, economic circumstances, and raw poverty are major contributing factors towards criminality necessarily forces you to consider economic redistribution as a means of redress. Likewise, if you are on the left, accepting that culture is a big part of the problem in communities drowning in a sea of criminality leads very quickly to a realization that redistribution can only accomplish so much. Actually, it is both, and presents a problem that our polarized, either, or political system simply can’t solve or even deal with rationally.

So, get used to the South’s blood-soaked headlines. They aren’t going anywhere, anytime soon. At least they will make interesting – if depressing – reading in the future. If, that is, you aren’t murdered for your smart phone and wallet in the meantime.

Jeffrey Cavanaugh

Jeffrey Cavanaugh

Contributing Writer
Jeffrey Cavanaugh holds a Ph.D in political science with a specialization in International Relations from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Formerly an assistant professor of political science and public administration at Mississippi State University, he writes on global affairs and international economics for AFK Insider, Mint Press News and BAMSouth.com and lives in Metairie, Louisiana.
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