The famed “broken windows” theory of James Q. Wilson and George Kelling argues that that ignoring little problems like graffiti, litter, and shattered glass creates a sense of irreversible decline that leads people to abandon a community or to stay away, the Washington Post notes. The theory spawned a revolution in law enforcement and neighborhood activism. Social psychologists Robert J. Sampson of Harvard University and Stephen W. Raudenbush of the University of Michigan say that taking such steps may clean up a neighborhood, but don’t expect those measures alone to keep people from moving or bring people back. In 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.
The surveys 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. As the proportion of black residents in a neighborhood increased, whites’ 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. Researchers 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 rose out of proportion to the neighborhood’s rating. Blacks apparently 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.