Dylann Roof and the Southern Code

“Someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me,” Dylann Roof wrote on the Web about defending the white race. On June 17, 2015, to the black members of the Charleston church whom he was about to shoot, he allegedly said, “I have to do it. You’re raping our women and taking over the country. You have to go.”

Roof’s perceptions of his personal obligation to take revenge were not personal quirks or even purely a matter of racism. They place him in a long tradition of violence in the American South.

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Stephen Pinker’s study of declining violent deaths globally, Pinker examines the exception that is America and especially the American South.

It’s not that America is gun-happy. Even if you subtract all the killings with firearms and count only the ones with rope, knives, lead pipes, wrenches, candlesticks, and so on, Americans commit murders at a higher rate than Europeans. (Kindle location 2255)

Within the U. S., murder rates by gun and other means have been the lowest in the northern band of states from New England to the northwest, and highest in the south.

The difference is not just a matter of southern racial conflict. Today, although blacks show higher rates of violence than whites nationally, the South is highest for the rates of both races. “Southern whites are more violent than northern whites, and southern blacks are more violent than northern blacks” (2278).

Why has the South had such a long history of violence? …[In Europe, monarchs controlled arms before nations became democratic. But] in America, the people took over the state before it had forced them to lay down their arms—which, as the Second Amendment famously affirms, they reserved the right to keep and bear. In other words Americans, and especially Americans in the South and West, never fully signed on to a social contract that would vest the government with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. (2354)

Dylann Roof was following a social contract of a different kind, the South’s venerable code of honor. The code stipulates that homicides in the cause of personal grievances or defense of self and property, while punishable, need not be viewed too severely. Even today, “Southerners do not outkill northerners in homicides carried out during robberies…, only in those sparked by quarrels” (2371).

Here is the basis for Roof’s self-proclaimed role as avenger of the white race. His state of mind, the availability of guns, the paranoia of racism, all played roles in the killing. But beneath them is the region’s historical weakness in the legal constraints, the cultural inhibitions, and the empathy that, for Pinker, are what a society needs if deadly violence is to decline.

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