Many a fight springs from defense of honor

July 24, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

I was younger then. Had more hair, more vigor, no potbelly. I wasn't exactly handsome, because I never was. Just less ugly than I am now. Oh, did I mention I was stupider?

I was walking from Franklin and Marshall College to my apartment in downtown Lancaster, Pa., with my roommate and his younger brother. It was a calm, late summer night. Kind of mild, a slight breeze in the air. It was a typical peaceful evening in what was, at that time, a peaceful mid-Pennsylvania city.

The peace was soon shattered by a group of guys who had decided they wanted to violate the Code. There were four of them -- all white guys, in a car, parked near some abandoned railroad tracks. They had come all the way from York just for the honor of hurling one of America's most cherished -- or "notorious," depending on your feelings about brotherhood, I suppose -- epithets at us. You know, the one starting with the letter N.

The three of us immediately approached the car, the better to give these guys a crash course in Attitude Adjustment 101. A fist-to-face talk was in order here. These guys had violated the Code, the one that black American men have about being called the N word. The code, briefly explained, says that when a white guy calls you that word, he gets his ass kicked. No debate. No discussion. No pleas for clemency. Forget about appealing to a higher court.

"Care to repeat that word?" we asked.

"What word?" they wanted to know. Their memories had suddenly failed them. No N-word had come from their car. No sirree. That word? Uttered in this paradise of racial harmony? Heaven forfend.

When we persisted, the driver of the car revved the engine and tried to run us over. He obviously wanted no part of our crash course in attitude adjustment. When he tried to run us down a second time, we gleefully smashed the windshield of his car with bricks. Lancaster police intervened and sent us all packing before we could get down to the really nasty business of mauling each other.

A racial incident, you say? Some 23 years later, I'm inclined to think not. Oh, on the surface it was racial: a group of black guys squaring off against a group of white guys over the use of a racial epithet. But the issue that night was maleness and the baggage that comes with it: testosterone surging through the body, honor, upholding the Code, pure, undiluted macho idiocy.

How often do women of either race engage in such conduct? Well, some do, but most don't. I'm talking violence -- and the usual lame excuses for it -- as a guy thing here. The usual excuses -- OK, justifications, if you prefer -- are honor and the Code.

The Code is at work on the streets of black America today, claiming young African-Americans at a shocking and staggering rate. That's why blacks who insist on blaming the homicide rate on white racism are way off base. That's why that rate continues to soar: We can't even identify the correct cause.

The cause of the Code is the notion of honor, of defending that honor violently if an affront to it is perceived. And I will repeat again that black men didn't develop that notion of honor. White men did. Black men just emulated it.

Recently, two psychologists -- Richard Nisbett of the University of Michigan and Dov Cohen of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign -- conducted some experiments with some students at Nisbett's school. They found white Southern men bumped and insulted in a hallway spoiled for a fight. They concluded, according to a wire story by Associated Press science writer Malcolm Ritter, that "Southern white men subscribe to a 'culture of honor,' in which threats to one's reputation for toughness are likely to start a fight."

It is such notions of honor that lead to a Civil War, to Wyatt Earp and his brothers shooting it out with a rival faction at the O.K. Corral, to, in essence, the entire historical continuum of American violence.

Ritter reported that the two psychologists collected data showing Southern white men kill at higher rates than white men from the North. Fox Butterfield, in his superb work "All God's Children," said black men in the South learned the code of honor from their white counterparts and brought it to the inner cities of the North. The homicide rate among black men is not a black thing. It's downright American.

Gregory P. Kane's column appears Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Pub Date: 7/24/96

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.