Saturday, April 6, 2013

Impacts of Culture on Violent Crime: "Cultures of Honor" versus "Cultures of Law"

Fig. 1: Burr-Hamilton Duel
Fig. 1: Burr-Hamilton Duel (Wikipedia)
While reading Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, I was struck by something that he mentioned about "Cultures of Honor" (more info on Wikipedia) as a driving force in violence. In these Honor Cultures,  personal honor is defended directly and, when necessary, violently. These are compared to Cultures of Law, where the citizens put greater trust in the state to mediate disputes.

Historically, this manifested itself in "saving face." And dueling for perceived slights. In Western Europe, it was common to challenge a person who slights you to a duel. And it was very common in the US. In fact, even two of the most important figures in US history -- sitting Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and current Vice President Aaron Burr -- engaged in a famous duel in 1804 which left Hamilton dead.

Imagine: a Vice President shooting a cabinet member in a duel? Sounds incredible. But that is because, by and large, the United States have become, by and large, a Culture of Law in the 210 + years since then.

But, according to Pinker, there are still portions of America that that have Cultures of honor.

He brings this up to explain higher violence rates in African American communities. Since, historically, the police have been at best negligent to violence against African Americans - witness the history of lynchings in the South to Rodney King - leads to a sort of frontier justice mentality. Marginalized cultures have historically had to take justice into their own hands. Think about how the early Italian-American immigrants turned to the Mafia and the Irish to the Moll McGuire for protection since the police either ignored or were actively hostile to those communities.

Same song. Just a different group being recorded in a different year.

He also mentions that southern cultures maintain a greater need to "save face" than northern cultures. Which sounded reasonable, since southerners in my experience tend to be more hawkish. And the gun culture, as exemplified by the NRA, does seem centered around people in the southern states. So I was curious. And wanted to do a quick look at the data for myself.

Fig.  2: Violence Rates increase the further south you move  in the US
Fig.  2: Violence Rates increase the further south you move
in the US (created by Leo Walsh) 
Being a skeptic, I tend to like to investigate things myself. Just because Pinker's argument seems reasonable does not make it correct. Since many things that seem reasonable and self-evident are wrong; for instance, it does appear to us that the sun revolves around the Earth.

So I looked at some data sets suggested by Pinker.

1)  I compared the violent crime rate by state. The second was the degrees latitude of a state's capital. The result was remarkable. A single variable - how southern a state is - accounting for about 40% of the variation in violent crime rates. Which is very significant. (See Figure 2 to the right)

2) Another was comparing the % of African Americans in a state to its Violent Crime Rate. Since attributing nearly all violent crime to African Americans is "pet theory" proposed by many Right-Wing posters on political blogs. And, of course, the bane of Left-leaning posters. So I wanted to look at the data, wondering what I would find.

Fig. 3: Impact of Race on Violent Crime
Fig. 3: Impact of Race on Violent Crime
(created by Leo Walsh)
I have to admit that I did this with trepidation. I am white, and tend to lean Left socially. But I am honest enough to admit that African American gangs are violent and scary. But there are contrary things I understand as well.

  • I understand that gangs scare the majority of African Americans too. 
  • I  have enough African American friends to know that they are just people, neither better nor worse than me. 
  • And I also have historical perspective; Italians had the Mafia, the Irish the Molly McGuire. And both immigrant groups turned out all right once assimilated.

And the results made me happy. Since the percentage of contribution by race is about only 28% to the overall violent crime rate. Lower than the impact of how southern the state is. And reflects the impact of the "no snitching" Culture of Honor - or the Code of the Streets. 

3) The last thing I wanted to look at, based upon the North/ South data, was my perception that the former Confederate states (in the US Civil War) were more violent than the former Union states. It turns out that this is, indeed, the biggest division of all. See the charts below for the results.
  • The former Confederate States have violent crime rates 138% that of the former Union States -- despite those states housing Chicago, LA, Detroit, Cleveland and the majority of the largest industrial cities in the nation.
  • The former Confederate States have violent crime rates 129% that of the US as a whole. The former Union States's violent crime rate is only 93%. 
  • This does not appear random. Based on a simple T-Test, there is a 98% probability that this difference is statistically significant. So the difference in violence rates seems to be culturally based.
Some related articles:

Chart 1: Violent Crime Rates: Former Union vs Former Confederate States

Average all US
Average Confederate
Average Union

T-Test (Two- Tailed)

Standard Deviation
Standard Error

Chart 2: Full Dataset: Union vs Confederate States

State Violent Crime Rate Confedrate/ Union State
Alabama 448 c
Arkansas 529.4 c
Florida 722.6 c
Georgia 493.2 c
Kentucky 295 c
Louisiana 729.5 c
Mississippi 291.3 c
Missouri 504.9 c
North Carolina 466.4 c
Oklahoma 499.6 c
South Carolina 788.3 c
Tennessee 753.3 c
Texas 510.6 c
Virginia 269.7 c
California 522.6 u
Connecticut 256 u
Delaware 689.2 u
Illinois 533.2 u
Indiana 333.6 u
Iowa 294.7 u
Kansas 452.7 u
Maine 118 u
Maryland 641.9 u
Massachusetts 431.5 u
Michigan 536 u
Minnesota 288.7 u
Nevada 750.6 u
New Hampshire 137.3 u
New Jersey 329.3 u
New York 414.1 u
Ohio 343.2 u
Oregon 287.6 u
Pennsylvania 416.5 u
Rhode Island 227.3 u
Vermont 124.3 u
West Virginia 275.2 u
Wisconsin 290.9 u
Arizona 482.7
Colorado 347.8
Idaho 239.4
Montana 287.5
Nebraska 302.4
New Mexico 664.2
North Dakota 142.4
South Dakota 169.2
Utah 234.8
Washington 333.1
Wyoming 239.3

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