Maybe The South Did Rise Again

Culture matters.

There was an intriguing essay by Josh Marshall a few weeks back on Talking Points Memo, addressing America’s regional differences.

Back in the 1990s, psychologists at the University of Michigan conducted a study about regionalism and aggression. As is often the case, the “real” study took place before the participants actually thought it was happening. The participants are all white male college students. They are walking down a hall when an apparent bystander thoughtlessly bumps into him while closing a file cabinet and calls him an “asshole.”

This is the core experiment. Does the study participant react with some version of amused indifference or does he move into an aggressive affront response? The experiment showed that participants from the South were significantly more likely to have the latter, aggressive affront response.

This is not terribly surprising for anyone who has studied American history and perhaps for anyone who’s spent significant time in both parts of the United States. The Southern murder rate has always been substantially higher than any other region in the United States. Indeed, New England and the prairie states have historical rates of murder that aren’t much different from those in Europe. The South is the big outlier and within the South Louisiana and to a lesser extent Mississippi are the big outliers, with murder rates substantially higher than the rest of the South. Even as murder rates have dropped rapidly across the country over the last quarter century the regional differential has remained unchanged.

As Marshall notes, the higher homicide rates in the south tend to be tied to “heat of the moment” incidents– the bar fight that escalates out of control, spousal killings and the like are typically outcomes of anger and escalating aggression rather than more generic criminal activities like burglaries or bank robberies.

What accounts for this difference? Why did the culture of the American South evolve as it apparently did?

Unsurprisingly, the best historical explanations for this trace back to slavery, a system rooted in violence and domination in which the privileges and respect for the sanctity of the body are paramount. In such an honor and status bound society the consequences of one’s status being degraded or questioned are severe and thus they are aggressively defended.

File this observation under “connecting the dots”–the complicated effort to understand the origins of our human cultural and social differences, and the roots of so many seemingly incommensurate attitudes and beliefs.

This is just one more illustration of the multiple ways in which America’s original sin continues to shape personal and regional attitudes and affect contemporary politics, as we are seeing in the responses to this disastrous Presidency.

“Know thyself” continues to be our hardest assignment.


  1. Having lived in Texas for 15 years, and then moving back to a more civilized place, I can offer first-hand confirmation of that overtly aggressive and combative state of mind among mostly uneducated white males. I think one of the contributing factors not mentioned here is the passionate adherence to football. It is the manly game and the coaches scream aggression constantly. The kids are badgered all the time to “kick ass” and all the rest. This cultural aspect carries over into the entire student body. Those boys who are good enough to go to college to play sports tend to get through this phase, but those who remain live through the “glory days” and retain that aggression.

    Then comes the drinking, drugs and “good ol’ boys” sub-culture that perpetuates the aggression, but now is fueled by resentment of those doing “better”. Trump has tapped into that resentment and used it to create the mobs that go to his rallies and scream themselves purple with the blame game he plays.

    By the way, this cycle of aggression over schoolboy football is everywhere, but in the South, as is pointed out, the culture there also carries the burdens of the Civil War, slavery and the horror of Reconstruction. I don’t see any way for that to be changed any time soon.

  2. Think of what an outlier of a country the south would be now if the treason of secession hadn’t been challenged or what an outlier the whole country would be if they had won the Civil War.

  3. As someone who grew up in deeply segregated South Carolina, I am not comfortable with putting the South in a “murderers” box. That is too easy in these times of dividing our country and labeling people arbitrarily by data groupings.

    The South has made much progress (some places a lot more than others) in overall racism (both overt and covert), considering where they started with Jim Crow. Take a look at housing discrimination in the Midwest and Northeast which hasn’t budged much.

  4. Hmm. It’s also been explained by poverty, heat, reconstruction, and (my favorite) disproportional settlement by the Scots-Irish or “white savages” as Ben Franklin called them.

    Of the top ten most violent cities, only one is in the South. How does one explain Indianapolis being 10th?

  5. This is a hard one. One thing I’ve noticed, you can’t really use one-size-fits-all, if you’ve ever been to Maine, you’ll know what I’m talking about. I have encountered those wearing their feelings on their shirtsleeve all over this country, not just in the south. It’s more complicated than a simple study from the 90s in Michigan. I think that those who had the wherewithal to be in college, were probably better off than some of their brethren were ever they were from. Take Knoxville Tennessee, I’ve seen more happy interracial couples through that entire region, than anywhere in Illinois where I live now. My wife’s family is from that area, and there are folks from the appellations, that are so mixed racially you could never tell what they are. Naturally blonde haired and blue-eyed African-Americans are not uncommon there. Neither are the Native American, African-American and European mixed MELUNGEONS which I and my wife are part of. TrI-Racial folks that were looked down upon as mutts even by those who considered themselves Mulattos.

    Men’s hatred of his fellow man is based upon a delusion of superiority. One ethnicity is superior to another, one racial group is superior to another, and then, in ethnic and racial groups themselves, there are subgroups. Different language inflections, the lightness or darkness of skin tone, regions, you name it. Everyone wants to be at the top of the hill, and considering gravity, poop rolls to the bottom, and no one wants to everyone else’s poop deposited on them. Of course you have an entitled political and or bigoted ruling class, which uses the divisions to keep themselves ensconced in power. Why do you think it’s so difficult to get gun legislation passed? They used the perceived threats to keep themselves in power by demonizing “others”. A start would be to label groups terrorist organizations, the NRA should be considered a terrorist organization, white nationalists should be considered a terrorist organizations, street gangs should be officially recognized as terrorist organizations. Any group that inflicts or forments terror in their fellow man should be considered terror based and dealt with thusly. The United States has been a leader in hate based ideology for centuries. It’s going to take a long time to clean it up, I don’t hold out too much hope for that.

    Mankind’s heart seems to need a foil, it needs to have others to step on and climb over. We can see it and how man drives its fellow earthly citizens in the animal world to extinction, and, mankind’s inability to get along with its fellow human citizens on this planet. Abraham Lincoln said a house divided cannot stand, no better truth has been uttered. We abuse our earthly family, and destroy the only dwelling that we have, and, use ignorance to justify it all, don’t hold out much hope for that to change!

  6. The data don’t lie. Is there the same per capita murder rate in Maine, Michigan, Minnesota?

  7. In this case, I’m not sure there are any “dots” to connect. Indianapolis is probably more dangerous than 80% of the “South.”

    I do find the “football theory” exciting because of the South being so fond of the sport. But that’s all competitive sports to a degree, and we have hot spots of high school enthusiasm all over the country.

    Culturally, the South still reenacts their Civil War battles parents pass along Southern tradition to their kids. I was at a Masters golf tournament and it felt like I stepped back in time handing around with folks who lived there. Many still had black servants — I mean employees.

    It would be more relevant to study the crime rates adding the racial element. Who’s killing who the most and where?

    Or, we can blame it on video games.

  8. Excellent comment Todd!

    And Vernon, Alaska has approximately 18 gun deaths per 100,000, Alabama has approximately 21 per 100,000 Illinois has approximately 12 per 100,000, Mississippi has approximately 20 per 100,000, Maine has approximately 8 per 100,000, Michigan has approximately 12 per 100,000, New Mexico has approximately 18 per 100,000 Tennessee, 17, New Hampshire, 9, Nevada, 17, Texas, 12, Wyoming, 17, Maryland, 12, Pennsylvania, 12, Idaho, 15, Colorado, 14, Louisiana, 21, there is a difference, and there are outliers, but, it’s all terrible.

    Murder rates by state per 100,000, Alabama 8, Alaska 8, Arkansas 9, California 5 Georgia 7, Hawaii 3, Illinois 8, Louisiana 12, Michigan 6, New Mexico 7, New York 3, Tennessee 8, Ohio 6, Florida 5, Maryland 9, so again, it’s all terrible.

    So it seems that Louisiana is the worst all the way around. So no, I won’t be moving there, but, Chicago is no picnic. And I’ve been in this area on and off all of my life. Chicago has had one of the largest Nazi presence of any state in the country, they’re not as overt as before, but they were/are just as, or more common than the KKK in the South. After the Civil War, and during the Jim Crow., When African-American citizens came north to work, the white Europeans living in the North started race wars with citizens that had a right to be anywhere they wished. That mentality has not changed in the North one iota. In the south, you pretty much know where you stand because they will tell you, in the north people hide it better, there’s more hypocrisy in the north. Eugenics was started in the United States, and it was started in the north. The British were working on it around the same time. The Germans thought it was a good idea and incorporated it into Nazi-ism. I could go on, but I think you get the gist of what I’m saying.

  9. This so called study seems bogus on several levels, college age white kids only in a Northern School.

    According to: U.S. states by homicide rate according to FBI Uniform Crime Reports.
    1.) LA, 2.) MO, 3.) MD, 4.) AR, 5.) AK. 6.) AL, 7.) MS, 8.) IL, 9.) SC, 10.) TN. rest of the states are listed here:

    State firearm death rates, 2016. Rate per 100,000 population, top five.
    1.) AK, 2.) AL, 3.) LA, 4.) MS, 5.) OK

  10. John Sorg,

    Thanks for the details. Even with 60% of gun deaths being suicides, that still leaves 10,000 – 15,000 deaths by gun for “other” reasons. Maybe Alaska has to deal with cabin fever.

    The point to all this is that our gun culture makes us the most lethal nation on Earth. Americans, rather than finding different, less deadly ways to solve their own personal problems or their problems with others, just opens the desk drawer or opens their closet to grab the gun of death. It’s what we’ve always done even before we were a nation. All the other stuff, like slavery, are just details. Death by gun has long been normalized in every aspect of our “culture”. Go watch an old Tom Mix movie from the 20s… We just can’t get over being afraid of one another.

  11. For 21 years South Carolina has ranked at or near the top of the national list for violence against women. The last thing we needed was a president who encourages – and practices – violence against those least able to defend themselves. A president who preaches and practices misogyny is even more dangerous. The number of shelters for battered women is growing here, but not nearly fast enough to meet the demand. But the violence is not always one way. A man who chided a women for having Trump stickers all over her car was told, “Yes, and I’ve got a gun in my glove compartment. Would you like to see it?” That’s what we love about the South.

  12. Insightful Vernon!

    I would have to agree with you on that. I find it interesting, as you, the old Westerns, were full of quite a bit of bloodlust. Native Americans (Indians) were just something to kill and be afraid of. After the Civil War, Native Americans were hated more than African slaves. Many of the newly so-called emancipated slaves ended up living with the Native Americans as the most despised on this continent. But absolutely, there are a lot of factual instances where African slaves and Native Americans were used as target practice. Unfortunately, as here in Chicago, it seems that shooting your own people in your own neighborhoods, turned out to be a sport. No longer is it someone caught in gang crossfire, people are being murdered as an initiation to their particular gang or whatever affiliation asks for that sort of loyalty.

  13. One thing to keep in mind is that our state lines can be freely crossed. In the late forties and throughout the fifties there was a huge migration to the north by poor southerners, both black and white. Is there a time frame for clinging to the perceived problems? It’s now been several generations.

  14. If you are a teacher or simply interested in slavery and its impact on history and our world, see the New York Times 1619 Project; you can find resources at

  15. . . . also David Hackett Fischer’s Albions Seed examined four folkways that were brought to the British Colonies and illustrates how they became part and parcel to the regional cultures here. For example, the Cavaliers of Virginia immigrated mainly from Britain’s south and brought with them a more stratified, male dominant, rural, less literate population where blood sport was the norm. Those from the borderlands, as Hackett Fischer calls the area to the north, were products of the fiercely tribal like folks whose interpretation of the Golden Rule was “do unto others as they threaten to do unto you.”
    The book concludes with observations of how these folkways were carried with groups as they resettled in other parts of the country.

  16. . . . the upshot is that the violence endemic to the folkways in areas where slavery existed explains why slavery was so brutal.

  17. Peggy,

    Re: “Is there a time frame for clinging to the perceived problems? It’s now been several generations.”

    I ponder this frequently, and often leads me to profound skepticism about “progress.”

  18. As studies of geography and history show, the Union troops prevailed for one American Republic, 1492 to present. Congress is where regionalism and sectionalism plays out daily, those North-Border-South trenches still apparent to tourists who can drive cars. As we know, we are the South for our Arctic Circle ancestry since 1003 A.D. and what makes the complement for NEW(North East South). Hallway Hoosier studies are not all for one, one for all — not even at Bloomington and West Lafayette for ANNUAL awards of earned doctorates.
    Besides that one war of yet again the EAST coast “North-South” cities still visible, we had those shootings at the Fedex field to add to English title lists of now mass murders and total failure of Employment Security in the Ivy League States in 2001. So much for arming “the North” with think tanks. Slavery is not lawful 1801 to present ANYWHERE among civilizations. Penalties ARE lawful for criminal behavior and fraudulent blue books, green books, red grade books.

    The South will rise again is from what date in anyone’s Ph.D. work personally, like B.F. Skinner white rat tortures to prove Earthlings die without water? Maybe schools could get some new laboratory manuals to use by cooperative research studies of old library books by adult thinkers and sculptors.

  19. Fascinating post! Thank you for a good read, Sheila!

    So far as I know, Southern Culture began as an import of English Cavalier Culture. I would hesitate to ascribe to slavery its tendency to be an “honor culture” until I had studied the honor culture of the Cavaliers, who did not own many slaves in England.

    Regardless of whatever one might think of Thomas Sowell’s conservative politics, I believe he decisively showed how immigrant groups brought with them their culture and how their culture shaped them in America. In detail after detail, I believe Southern Culture is to some large extent owed to the Cavaliers.

  20. Every one wants to be respected, and younger people who feel disrespected act out. Younger people is a metaphor for immature.

  21. Playing off the post title about the South rising again, I think that we might find since WWII an increasing “Southernization” of American culture. The cultural dominance of the North since the Civil War appears to be gradually giving way to the South.

    For instance, George H. W. Bush represented an attitude towards public service that was deeply rooted in the culture of New England and the Northeast. Naturally it was elitist attitude, but it also sought to be somewhat socially responsible in dealing with non-elites. His son represented a resurgent Southern “conservative” attitude that is comparatively irresponsible in dealing with non-elites.

    We may yet live to see the day when the take over of American culture by the South is so complete the only Nobel Prizes won by Americans will be in literature.

  22. Hmm, so today we blame history’s immigrants for our cultural meanness? How do we purport to be consistent and rational when yesterday we condemned present anti-immigrant ideology? It seems as if many of us are giving immigrant haters abundant free ammunition.

    I blame John Wayne and the pre-John Wayne myth that set the stage for his success: “If you think you are right, that righteousness gives you license to engage in any manner of violence.”

    Our culture is the product of many powerful myths, and the idea that right excuses might is among the most powerful myths. Making our myth-encouraged violence worse has been the coaching from some twentieth century philosophers and psychiatrists for the individual to determine for himself what is right. Does anyone else see a problem with that?

  23. “folks from the ‘appellations'” . . . . folks from the Appalachians will find that just a tad confusing! Those beautiful mountain people are part of my DNA, so, careful there, JS.

  24. Well Betty, me thinks you should read the entire post and then try and use a little comprehension with the comment. On my mother’s side of the family, my ancestry has been traced back to
    Appalachia in the early 1800s, a lot of records were ravaged during the war of independence. Honestly I see nothing confusing about it whatsoever!

  25. Any further explanation that it’s spelled Appalachians, not “appellations”, would be five minutes I can’t get back. Never mind.

  26. I’m sure the southern students were Democrats. At the end of the Cival War EVERY slave owner was a -Democrat. Sheila is a Democrat. Hmmmm.

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