Seeing through “broken windows”

By Michelle Chen Apr 14, 2009

The “broken windows” theory has loomed large in urban law enforcement policies for years. Officials have framed public safety in urban neighborhoods as a matter of stamping out “disorder,” contending that the decline of a community starts with small signs of chaos—a broken street lamp, a blighted storefront—that feed on themselves by creating an atmosphere of disengagement and apathy. As one seminal Atlantic article put it in the 1982, an atmosphere projects an air of “communal barriers” and “civility” will actually deter crime. But Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson recently challenged traditional assumptions about certain “visual cues” that signal disorder and “entice potential predators.” In studies of culturally and racially heterogeneous neighborhoods in Chicago, he found that “perceptions of disorder” are surprisingly subjective, depending on who’s looking and who’s being looked at. In many cases, race colors the view. And the way we imagine those neighborhoods in turn shapes the trajectory of urban change. In a British Journal of Sociology article, Sampson presents a continual dialogue between two social contexts, where racial bias—often subconscious—calibrates an individual’s sense of “safety":

Beliefs about disorder are reinforced by the historical association of non-voluntary racial segregation with concentrated poverty, which in turn is linked to institutional disinvestments and neighbourhood decline… while race may be denied as a legitimate biological classification, dark skin is an easily observable trait that has become a statistical marker in American society, one imbued with meanings about crime, disorder and violence that stigmatize not only people but also the places in which they are concentrated.

If this analysis applies to America’s segregated cities, we can see racial lines weaving communities into a cruel self-fulfilling prophecy; starved of resources, they unravel, feed negative stereotypes, and are pushed ever farther onto the country’s political and economic margins. But there’s an upshot: increased diversity through immigration, which can break down entrenched social barriers, is tied to positive long-term community change. Sampson points out what might appear to be “disorder” in a disadvantaged community may be perfectly acceptable in a city’s more privileged enclaves.

…access to private space is structured such that disorder by the disadvantaged consists of doing many things in public that would be (and are) legitimate in private (e.g., drinking, hanging out). That is, privileged status enhances private access, reducing everyday exposure to public disorder. The resulting social structure of public spaces reinforces the stereotype that disorder is a problem mainly in poor, African-American communities. This stereotype feeds racial stigma and the creation of a durable spoiled identity for the modern American ghetto.

Young people are most vulnerable to this kind of ghettoization. In some neighborhoods, public order laws against "disorderly conduct" and “loitering” sweep Black males into the criminal justice system at alarmingly disproportionate rates. Police surveillance at schools and the systematic labeling of children as delinquents all feed perceptions that create realities that further deepen stigma. In our “disorderly” neighborhoods, where struggling families may see themselves as survivors of social trauma while others denigrate them as perpetrators, it’s not the windows that are broken; it’s the lens through which society views them. Image: Affordable Housing Institute