How America Became So Violent

Depiction of a clash between the Dead Rabbits and Bowery Boys gangs in New York City, 1857. (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper/Library of Congress)
A new book traces the history.

The Roots of Violent Crime in America: From the Gilded Age through the Great Depression, by Barry Latzer (LSU Press, 424 pages, $55)

The Roots of Violent Crime in America, the latest work from criminologist (and National Review contributor) Barry Latzer, is a prequel of sorts. In his 2016 book The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America, Latzer documented and analyzed the great crime wave that gripped the country from the mid 1960s to the early 1990s and settled down surprisingly quickly thereafter. This time, he goes back further, focusing on the period between the Civil War and World War II.

Like its predecessor, The Roots of Violent Crime in America is very much worth a read for those who obsess over crime statistics. It painstakingly wades through numerous studies and data sets to show which parts of America — which regions, which demographic groups — were the most violent at each point in time. And it offers a wide array of theories to make sense of the resulting patterns.

No undertaking like this could ever be perfectly satisfying, especially one covering a long-ago time period when governments often kept poor records. But if you want to grasp the history behind America’s violence, which is famously high relative to that of similarly rich countries, it’s a good place to start.

Some parts of this book make for fun reading — specifically, the parts about crimes that have long since been reduced to American legend. Alongside countless tables of offending rates, we meet 19th-century New York gangs with goofy names (don’t cross the Dead Rabbits or the Plug Uglies!), Tommy gun–wielding booze peddlers from the Prohibition era, drunken brawlers in Wild West saloons, feuding clans such as the Hatfields and McCoys, and robbers from Jesse James to Bonnie and Clyde.

More often, though, the book is dead serious and sobering. Its first section is called “A Southern Culture of Violence,” and it covers violence that left an unmistakable mark on the present day. Latzer emphasizes an observation that many others, including the historian David Hackett Fischer, have developed in detail: America’s South was populated by the Scotch-Irish, a “distinctive group from northern Ireland and the northern borderlands of England” that “brought to the South a potent heritage of honor-related violence.” Their history was bloodier than that of the immigrants who populated the North, and their “culture of honor” involved taking personal insults very seriously. The numbers are clear that this culture came with them: From the beginning, and continuing into the 19th- and 20th-century years on which this book focuses, whites in the South were more violent than whites in the North, and killings frequently involved insults to someone’s honor.

And into this mix, of course, whites introduced slavery, a violent practice in itself that ended with the Civil War, leaving the region with a newly freed yet still repressed black population. The topic of black violence is fraught — but important, because black homicide rates remain tragically elevated to this day — and Latzer traces the problem to the decades following that bloody conflict. The numbers here are necessarily tentative, because record-keeping was not exactly rigorous in the 19th-century South and because the law enforcement of the period was undeniably shot through with racism. But Latzer looks at the trends from several different angles, and a reasonably clear picture emerges.

Black homicide rates do not appear to have been particularly high immediately after the end of slavery. There are a handful of possible reasons. The Freedmen’s Bureau provided a way to resolve disputes and blacks still had few guns, for example.

But that changed, as best we can tell, in the late 1880s and the 1890s. Among other sources, the available mortality data (which tend to be less subject to racial bias than, say, arrest or prison data) suggest that black homicide rates rose to several times the white rates in this period. White-on-black lynchings exploded as well.

Latzer proposes a few explanations for the abrupt increase in violence. The post-Reconstruction years were turbulent in the South on many levels, and these years were formative for the first generation of African Americans after slavery. Guns became cheaper and more readily available. Blacks left rural life for southern cities where they had fewer social connections. Certainly, the southern legal system was little help in resolving disputes involving blacks fairly.

And perhaps most interestingly, Latzer echoes an argument that Thomas Sowell made in Black Rednecks and White Liberals 16 years ago: African-American slaves may have absorbed some of the honor culture of the whites who dominated their lives, in the same way that southern white speech and religion left an imprint on black American culture. Combine that culture with horrific oppression by those very same violent whites and little opportunity for economic advancement, and it’s not hard to see where it leads.

Whatever the reason for the increase, it stuck. Blacks who moved to the North in the following decades continued to have high homicide rates. Even today, blacks have a homicide rate many times that of whites, accounting for roughly half of murderers whose race is known while constituting just 13 percent of the population.

The importance of culture, and of rates of violence coming along with migrants when they move, is a theme that echoes through The Roots of Violent Crime in America. At various points in the period Latzer covers, Irish and Italian immigrants also brought violent ways into the country. A particularly interesting chapter contrasts Jewish and Italian violence in New York: Both groups migrated into the same living conditions — “impoverishment, squalid overcrowded housing, social and economic segregation, profound divergence with the host country’s culture” — but the Italians, who came from a more violent background, were far more lethal in that context.

But violence isn’t all culture, Latzer’s work also makes clear. Sometimes it’s just about skewed sex and age distributions: Some migrations are dominated by young males, the most violent type of human being. Sometimes it’s about institutions: The “Wild West” calmed down as the region established better institutions and a more reliable official justice system. (I would argue that Latzer could give this explanation more credit where black violence rates are concerned too, because the justice system does not serve African Americans well — and they have far less trust in it than whites do.) And sometimes it’s about changing culture: Violent groups become less violent as they assimilate into the middle class. I’m not even sure where to find numbers on Italian and Irish homicide rates these days.

Latzer ends the book on an optimistic note, making this point:

In the period covered by this book the immigrant Irish had already begun moving up the social ladder. By the 1950s they were joined by Italian and Chinese immigrants. The violent crime rates of each of these groups diminished accordingly. The same undoubtedly will happen — it is already happening — to Latinos and African Americans in our day. The opportunity for social advance by people of color is one of the great benefits of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

I hope he’s right, though I felt this could have used a little more discussion about exactly how quickly this “social advance” is unfolding. In many ways, at least for blacks, it seems to be moving far slower than one might hope.

As I said at the outset, The Roots of Violent Crime in America is not, and cannot be, completely satisfying. There’s no one theory, or even constellation of theories, that can explain all the patterns and trends of American violence decades upon decades ago. I tend to think that Latzer puts a bit too much emphasis on culture and too little on the justice system, and I wish he had fleshed out his views on the role of guns a bit more than he does (though maybe that’s because I’m as obsessed with the gun-control debate as I am with crime statistics in general).

But this is an excellent summary of what happened during this time period, and it surveys a wide enough variety of explanations that even readers who disagree with Latzer’s assessments will have enough information to form their own opinions. And beyond what I’ve already discussed, Latzer gets into a lot of phenomena that are just interesting in their own right — e.g., the urban–rural violence gap was not always the way we think of it today; economic recessions do not reliably produce higher crime rates; and American violence shifted over time, adding a lot more killings of strangers during robberies relative to the older honor-based killings, especially as cities developed and people started carrying more valuables with them.

If we want to become less violent as a society, we need to understand why we’re so violent to begin with, and this book is a great contribution to that discussion.


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