Virginia Tech

On one of the foreign language teacher listservs the incident at Virginia Tech was discussed in a few posts. One in particular was poignant: a teacher in Oakland pointed out the gun deaths that haunt her students everyday, gundeaths which receive no attention. I think she might have been saying, “If these kids were White, the newspaper headlines would be screaming for something to be done.”

She didn’t say that. Here’s my response to her post:

“The authorities are analyzing the Virginia Tech incident now to find ways to head off such tragedies. Later, the academics will chime in. All along, the news people will be offering their sometimes trenchant, sometimes

exploitative observations and facts.

One fact stands out: the U.S. is alone among the advanced countries of the world in its citizens’ willingness to shoot each other. My personal question is: why is anyone surprised? Throughout our history, we have had to enculturate the society at large to keep one tenth to half the population (depending on where you lived) in subjugation, and that was done with violence. Everyone had to be willing to torture and kill people they lived cheek by jowl with and perhaps even loved. They had to remove children from their parents if they wanted to make a profit. They had to maintain, up to my own youth, a system of brutality similar to what we see visited on people by the Taliban and other terrorists.

This extreme violence was associated primarily with the South but leaked into the society everywhere. In my personal opinion, the vehement calls for the death penalty even for the retarded reflect the fear people had historically, surrounded as they were by people they had to punish, whip, torture, starve, and kill just to get them to work for free.

With that background, is it any wonder Americans feel that it is normal to kill people who show disrespect for them? After all, if you let them get away with a slight now, it could grow into open defiance and even aggression; you cutting me off in traffic means you don’t respect me and I must show you that you do that at your peril.

Even someone born elsewhere and raised in an immigrant family can pick up this aspect of our culture. “You disrespect me and my honor must be satisfied.”

This is why we will never deal directly with this issue, why we will never have sensible gun laws: it would force us to face what we were and what we have become: a people who act with violence when anyone defies us or even threatens to part ways with us. Respect must be maintained through fear and guns very nicely create fear.”

What I would say in full is that few people recognize the extent to which the general population of White people in this country had to be dragooned into protecting the slave-owning populace. Most slave-holders only had 2 or 3 slaves but the larger plantations could have 50 and more slaves. In many areas of the South, it was not unusual for Africans to make up from 50% to 90% of the population of a county. Needless to say, White slave-holders lived in constant fear of rebellion.

To control this vast slave population, a system of brutality was devised which enlisted the support of not only other Whites but even of Blacks. Those Blacks received a degree of favor and protection for helping control other Blacks.

One other factor needs to be added in and this IS associated only with the South: the Cavalier tradition. This tradition was one of extreme sensibility whose code of personal conduct was rigidly enforced with dueling and other forms of violence as the undergirding of the whole system of personal honor. This, too, fed into the intricate relationships of the Old South where White men of various social classes struggled for a place in what was often a frontier society with vast pretentions to nobility and superiority.

Even New York was 20% Black in the 1700s. Areas of Pennsylvania and other Northern states maintained slavery in some numbers up until the 1830s, just a couple of decades before the outbreak of sectional war in 1861. So the notion that this heritage of blood can be restricted to the South is nonsense. The traditions and customs of slavery reach into every nook and cranny of American society.

However, the prickly sense of personal honor that so easily ignites deadly fights seems to be much more prevalent in the South and among people of recent Southern origin living in the North and West. Many of those migrants to the North and West are Black. They carry the attitude with them but in a convoluted form, since they had to eat bitter insults from Whites if they were to survive but they sure didn’t need to take any from other Blacks. As Blacks migrated North and West, they encountered residential segregation which kept them isolated culturally as well as economically, so the strictures of honor and respect did not dilute in the broader suburban culture of the 50s and 60s the way it may have for Southern Whites who settled in among Americans of other origins. The stresses of poverty and discrimination fueled a sense of outrage and resentment which manifested itself in self-hatred and internecine violence.

We need only look at the literature on child abuse to account for any elevated rate of violence among African-Americans: children who grow up seeing violence tend to use violence to achieve their ends or simply to relieve stress. One Iraqi psychologist was commenting on the up-coming crisis among young Iraqis due to living with unpredictable and unpreventable violence, arbitrary violence.

The easy availability of handguns makes it unlikely we will see a cessation of such violence soon. The only thing that has worked – and I saw it work duing the Clinton years -is full employment. People are busy and stress is lessened. During those years, crimes of violence dropped. The idea that that was because we had locked up the “violent offenders” is nonsense: the individualization of violent response is a conservative perception: it’s all due to individuals failing to exercise self-restraint. No. The rate goes up and down in response to stress levels in the society.

This relates to the classroom because kids under stress tend to resort to violence in our society because that’s always been the template. Even our foreign policy reflects this turn of mind: you frustrate me in getting what I want or you show me disrespect by not doing what I want, I bomb you. You do something really bad, I execute you. ’Dealing death is an appropriate response’ is what our kids learn. Violent attempts in the classroom to maintain this fragile status leads to loss of learning time, teacher burn out, student expulsions and much other waste.

This has been a ramble in part because I’m trying to keep it short. I would love to discuss the ins-and-outs of this controversial view. I have studied it and thought about it a lot over the past 20 years or so and hope to hear some viewpoints different from my own or contradictory to them. I will be glad to supply citations for some of my interpreatations and facts after May 25.

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