Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that criminologist Richard Wright is affiliated with the University of Minnesota. He is affiliated with the University of Missouri.

What Obama Might Learn From Emily Dickinson

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, April 21, 2008

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant/Success in Circuit lies/Too bright for our infirm Delight/The Truth's superb surprise . . .

-- Emily Dickinson

In 1880, a journalist called Horace Redfield published a book about homicide rates in America. He found that states belonging to the former Confederacy had a murder rate four to 15 times higher than that of Northern states.

"In Kentucky that year there were more homicides than in the eight States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota," Redfield wrote in "Homicide: North and South," referring to the year 1878. "In South Carolina that year there were more homicides than in the eight States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Michigan, and Minnesota."

Redfield's access to good data was limited, but his findings have been replicated many times in the last century. Whites living in rural areas in Southern states still have a homicide rate 1 1/2 times higher than that of their Northern counterparts, said Matthew Lee, a Louisiana State University sociologist. Poverty exacerbates the risk of gun violence: The homicide rate among rural whites with an annual income of $20,000 is nearly three times the rate among rural whites with an income of $50,000.

Redfield was not running for president, but he showed more caution in his book than presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who suggested at a recent California fundraiser that economic deprivation in small-town America caused people to turn to guns, religion and xenophobia.

The controversy around Obama's comments highlights a problem that social scientists have recognized since 1880: There is a delicate tension between telling people the truth -- that social, economic and cultural structures play powerful roles in shaping human behavior -- and giving the impression that you are blaming people whose lives are difficult to begin with.

Redfield stressed that he was not disparaging Southerners: "There is more good than evil in the South; more that is lovable than there is that is reprehensible; more cause for hope than for despondency."

Lee, whose new analysis of homicide rates in the country was published in the Social Science Journal, said he has conducted surveys in white, small-town America -- the places Obama was talking about -- on whether people would call the police or reach for a gun if a burglar entered their home. People in Southern states overwhelmingly told Lee that they would shoot first and pick up the phone afterward.

"When you ask, 'Is it okay to shoot a burglar in your house?' [rural Southerners] look at you as if you have two heads on your shoulder," Lee said. "Their culture dictates that of course you shoot someone who is burglarizing your house."

Lee's data show that poverty, like the Southern code of honor and self-reliance, increases the risk that people will turn to guns to solve personal problems. His analysis, conducted jointly with LSU colleague Shaun A. Thomas and Timothy C. Hayes at the University of North Carolina, was based on 934 rural counties across the United States, FBI statistics on homicides in those counties and U.S. Census data on educational levels, family structures and economic opportunities.

While Obama's contention that poverty breeds resentment and increases the odds that people cling to guns is partly supported by Lee's analysis of the factors linked to homicide in rural, white America, it is also supported by research in an urban environment by criminologist Richard Wright at the University of Minnesota. Wright and colleague Scott Decker managed to track down around 80 armed robbers in St. Louis -- criminals who were on the streets, not in jail.

Under the terms of a federal grant that offered the robbers confidentiality in exchange for participation in a study -- and an agreement from the local police department not to get involved -- Wright and Decker asked the robbers why they chose particular victims and particular locales for their crimes.

While the stickups invariably involved people who were desperate for money to feed drug habits and high-roller lifestyles, Wright found that the armed robbers picked targets based less on how much money they thought they could extract, and more on feelings of animosity. Robbers told Wright and Decker that they went after people who made them feel inferior.

"If you listen to what robbers say to people, it is not a rational process" of merely extracting money, Wright said. "There is a strong element of putting people down."

According to a transcript, one robber, called Ne-Ne, told Wright, "I do the people that drive the fancy cars, and they be on they phones, they be high countin' you know -- they think they got all this. Them the ones I get."

Obama was certainly generalizing, but Wright said the idea that poverty and straitened circumstances make people resentful, and that this increases the risk they will turn to guns and violence, is a little like saying that fish swim in water.

That still doesn't mean you can say this aloud if you are running for president. Wright laughed ruefully and said: "I have been an academic long enough to know what the general public thinks about us."

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