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University of Iowa News Release

Oct. 19, 2005

UI Sociologists Suggest South's Legacy Of Lynching A Factor In Modern Violence

Two University of Iowa sociologists have combined historical and sociological data to arrive at a new theory explaining the disproportionate violence in the southern United States, as compared with the North. The South's legacy of lynching, they say, has contributed to a culture in which violence and taking the law into one's own hands are considered appropriate means of resolving disputes.

Matthew P. Zevenbergen, a UI graduate student in sociology, and Robert D. Baller, assistant professor of sociology, collaborated with Steven F. Messner of the University at Albany-State University of New York on what they believe to be one of the first detailed, quantitative studies focused on a historical aspect of a criminological phenomenon. The study was published in the August 2005 issue of the American Sociological Review, the leading journal for the field of sociology.

"For decades we've searched for some proxy measure of culture to explain why Southerners on average are more violent than Northerners," Zevenbergen said. He believes that history suggests a partial answer.

The authors looked at data from 10 southern states for which reliable information on the incidence and prevalence of lynching is available: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. They compared lynching rates with current statistics on homicide rates in these states, using data from the FBI and the National Center for Health Statistics.

Mapping the areas in which the rates for both historical lynching and modern-day homicide rates are highest showed a strong correlation, though not perfect overlap, they found. Subsequent statistical tests, that controlled for known covariates, supported the relationship present in the comparative maps.

"Homicide rates in the latter decades of the 20th century were very high in the Mississippi Delta. Less extreme but high rates can also be observed along a path extending from North Carolina through Georgia, the northern parts of Florida, and the southern parts of Alabama," the authors note. "Extreme lynching activity occurred in roughly the same areas."

The violence that characterized the so-called "era of lynching," roughly the end of Reconstruction to the beginning of the Great Depression, created a culture of acceptance and even celebration of brutality among white people, the authors hypothesize. The same violence led to "self-help adaptations" in the black population, they suggest. Unable to rely on law enforcement for protection, black residents in the South developed various tactics to help and protect themselves and their families, often meeting violence with violence. Thus, acceptance of violence was prevalent across racial lines.

The authors theorize that these cultural attitudes and behaviors are maintained through the generations as children learn from their parents and grandparents how to respond to challenges and threats, leading to a regional culture in which violence is expected and accepted, Zevenbergen said.

"Through socialization, children in the South are raised to be more self-help oriented," he said. "They are taught to stand up to bullies and solve problems with fistfights. We posit that this behavior, which has its roots in a brutal historical era, demonstrates the impact that lynching still has on Southern culture."

This research was supported by the UI Center for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies, an interdisciplinary forum for research and training in the areas of crime, law, mental health, corrections, and social control. The center is based in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Department of Sociology. Its objectives are to promote scholarly research on law, crime and deviance, to stimulate interdisciplinary research ties, and to train graduate students in multidisciplinary studies of law and crime.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

CONTACTS: Media: Mary Geraghty Kenyon, 319-384-0011, mary-kenyon@uiowa.edu; Program: Matthew Zevenbergen, matthew-zevenbergen@uiowa.edu