washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Unconventional Wisdom
Richard Morin

A Crack in the Broken-Windows Theory

By Richard Morin
Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page B05

What causes some neighborhoods to thrive, while others decay? It's a question that has fascinated social scientists for decades and led directly to the Broken Windows theory, which holds that ignoring the little problems -- graffiti, litter, shattered glass -- creates a sense of irreversible decline that leads people to abandon the community or to stay away.

That theory, in turn, spawned a revolution in law enforcement and neighborhood activism. Broken windows? Get building owners to replace them. Graffiti on the walls? Scrub them clean, then get tough with graffiti artists. Abandoned cars? Haul them away. Drunks on the sidewalks? Get them off the streets, too.

_____Unconventional Wisdom_____
When Mother Nature Attacks (The Washington Post, Jan 16, 2005)
The Salmon Effect (The Washington Post, Dec 19, 2004)
Stay in School (And Out of the Maternity Ward) (The Washington Post, Dec 5, 2004)
Previous Columns
E-mail Rich Morin at morinr@washpost.com.

But wait a minute, say social psychologists Robert J. Sampson of Harvard University and Stephen W. Raudenbush of the University of Michigan. Taking such steps may clean up a neighborhood, but don't expect those measures alone to keep people from moving or bring people back, they assert in the current issue of Social Psychology Quarterly. They found that race and class may be more important than the actual levels of disorder in shaping how whites, blacks and Latinos perceive the health of a neighborhood.

The researchers reached their conclusions after an elaborate study of 196 census tracts in Chicago. From the census data, they compiled a detailed statistical profile of every neighborhood in the tracts, including the residents' average income, the racial makeup and other demographic factors. Then they surveyed 3,585 randomly selected residents in the study area, asking them how they felt about their neighborhood. Did they see graffiti or litter as a problem? What about abandoned buildings? Did neighborhood teens cause much trouble? From these and other questions, they developed a scale measuring perceptions of disorder in each neighborhood. They also collected demographic data from survey respondents.

Next they made home movies. Or more precisely, they made videos of the homes and businesses along the streets in the neighborhoods where they had conducted the surveys. Trained raters then watched these videos and used a set of criteria to describe the physical condition of each neighborhood.

The survey results showed that race was a factor in how residents perceived their neighborhood. White residents were far more likely to report disorder than black or Latino residents living in the same neighborhood -- sensitivities that might explain, they theorized, why whites are relatively scarce in many city neighborhoods.

But then the number-crunching got really interesting. As the proportion of black residents in a neighborhood increased, white residents' perception of disorder also soared -- even in neighborhoods that the raters had judged to be no more ramshackle than others with a smaller proportion of black residents. The researchers found the same thing when they looked at the percentage of families living in poverty: In neighborhoods with more poor people, residents perceived more disorder, regardless of the objective condition of the neighborhood.

Much to the researchers' surprise, they saw the same patterns when they looked at the perceptions of black residents. As the percentage of African Americans in the neighborhood increased, the percentage of black residents who judged their neighborhood to be in disarray also rose -- out of proportion to the neighborhood's rating. In fact, the perceptions of blacks were no less likely than those of whites to be negatively affected by an increasing number of black residents.

Among Latinos, the pattern was even starker. They were far more likely than either blacks or whites to be negatively affected by the increased presence of black residents, the researchers found.

What explains these reactions? For Latinos and whites, the answer might seem obvious: racism. Researchers have known for years that new immigrants quickly learn on their arrival to the United States that blacks are a stigmatized group and are to be avoided at all costs. "Latino immigrants therefore may draw too heavily on the presence of blacks as a proxy for disorder," Sampson and Raudenbush wrote.

But racial bias is not the whole answer, claim Sampson and Raudenbush. If it were, why were blacks as likely as whites to see more disorder than was really there?

The answer, they argue, seems to be that blacks had bought into the same negative stereotypes as whites, and have come to associate black neighborhoods -- any black neighborhood -- with decay and dysfunction, regardless of the objective condition of the area.

These findings splash a bit of cold water on the Broken Windows theory, the researchers assert in their article. "It may well be that reducing actual levels of disorder will not remedy psychological discomfort, as that discomfort stems from more insidious sources. . . . Simply removing (or adding) graffiti may lead to nothing" in terms of stabilizing the neighborhood, they conclude.

The People Speak, The Wiz Listens

Ah, your Unconventional Wiz could listen to the Vox Pop forever. That's because adults say the darnedest things, particularly when they're asked questions in public opinion polls.

CONTINUED    1 2    Next >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company