Regional differences linked to violence Some blame homicide rate on South's culture of honor

March 27, 1998|By BOSTON GLOBE

Two college students are walking down a corridor. One is bumped and called a profanity; he accepts it and ambles on. The second gets red-faced and raises his middle finger in defiance.

The first is a Northerner, the second is from the South.

Their responses, from a University of Michigan study, are repeated with dozens more male students, and a pattern emerges: Southerners more often respond with anger; Northerners with amusement.

The study isn't the only one that seems to defy the image of Southerners as courtly and to suggest that, when it comes to defending their honor, they may be more prone to anger -- and violence.

Add to that the easier availability of guns in the South, criminologists say, and you have a potentially compelling explanation of why homicide rates are higher there than in other regions and why incidents like Tuesday's ambush in Arkansas raise questions about a propensity for violence below the Mason-Dixon Line.

"The South has a culture of honor in which insults and affronts often are responded to with violence," said Dov Cohen, co-author of the Michigan study and of a book titled "Culture of Honor."

"In many ways, the North and South are converging, but in this area of a culture of honor and violence, they still are distinct."

Kenneth Land, a sociology professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C., has observed similar patterns.

"There seems to be a fairly general consensus that there's a Southern subculture of violence.

"What can be done? The first step, as the women's movement said back in the 1970s, is to raise our consciousness," Land said.

"Then we need to let people, through the media and the democratic process, try to come to grips with this type of cultural heritage."

The notion of such regional differences doesn't mean that violence isn't also a problem in many parts of the North, particularly in urban centers.

What it means, researchers say, is that the numbers and the tests suggesting proclivities to violence in the South can't be ignored, no matter how controversial they may be.

"Homicide rates in the South are disproportionately high," said James Alan Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University.

The trend is especially apparent with teen-agers, he added, with the 11 states of the old Confederacy accounting for eight of the 20 states with the highest murder rates among 14- to 17-year-olds in 1996.

In Arkansas, the teen-age murder rate was slightly higher than in Connecticut and nearly three times as high as in Massachusetts.

"People might be more likely in the South to respond to a dispute with fists or guns," Fox says, "whereas in the North they might do it in the courts."

Land said, "The highest homicide rates in the South tend to be in highland areas settled by Scots originally, or Scot-Irish.

"If you go back culturally to Scotland, you find a dueling tradition. And among Europeans, Scots tend to have relatively high homicide rates."

Jeff Walker, who teaches criminology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, accepts the premise that the South has higher rates of homicide.

But he does not accept that it is because Southerners are more violent, or because rifles and shotguns are easier to come by.

As plausible an explanation for the higher rates of fatal crimes in the South, he said, is that "if someone is shot in New York City or Boston they're not very far from a hospital, but if they're shot in rural Kentucky they may be hours from a hospital and are more likely to die."

And while the South has looser gun laws, Walker added, young people there also are more likely to know how to use guns safely.

Pub Date: 3/27/98

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