Americans' perceptions of neighborhood disorder are a function of race and class composition

January 14, 2005

WASHINGTON, DC -- Objective signs of physical and social disorder in a neighborhood are much less influential in shaping people's perceptions of disorder than are the racial, ethnic, and class composition of that neighborhood. Residents perceive more disorder in predominately Black than in predominately White neighborhoods, even when the observable evidence of disorder is identical in these neighborhoods. The poverty level and Latino concentration in a neighborhood also distorts subjective perceptions of disorder. Surprisingly, neighborhood residents of all races perceive heightened disorder in mostly Black or mostly poor neighborhoods, even when objective indicators of neighborhood conditions are equivalent, according to an article in the latest Social Psychology Quarterly, a peer-reviewed science journal published by the American Sociological Association.

The study, conducted by Robert J. Sampson, Harvard University, and Stephen W. Raudenbush, University of Michigan, helps explain the persistence of poverty and segregation that plague many urban neighborhoods. "Perceptions of disorder likely create a 'self-fulfilling prophecy' whereby residents are increasingly likely to disinvest in or move away from Black areas viewed as having high risk for disorder," said Sampson.

However, the researchers found that Whites perceive significantly more disorder than do Blacks, Latinos, and Asians, even when living in the same neighborhood. While all groups perceive increasing disorder when the concentration of Blacks and other disadvantaged groups increases, regardless of how much actual disorder there is, Whites therefore have a lower threshold for seeing disorder as a problem. "Whites are more sensitive in the first place and consequently are the first to move. In this way, implicit bias in perceptions of disorder may be one of the under-appreciated causes of continued racial segregation in the United States," Sampson said.

To assess neighborhood disorder the research team drove a sport utility vehicle at three miles per hour along some 22,000 street blocks of Chicago, videotaping everything in public view. Trained observers also systematically coded and audio recorded what they saw in these neighborhoods and what happened on the streets. The researchers used systematic procedures in every neighborhood to measure multiple aspects of physical and social disorder, such as broken bottles, graffiti, discarded condoms in the streets, presence of residential and commercial security gates, vacant housing, loitering, evidence of prostitution, bars, and other factors. The researchers interviewed more than 3,500 residents and more than 700 community leaders who worked in the neighborhoods, asking them how much of a problem each aspect of public disorder was in the same neighborhoods.

Data analysis showed that the observable disorder in a local neighborhood does predict beliefs about disorder. However, there is much more to what people "see." Residents and leaders alike supplement their perceptions of disorder with prior beliefs informed by the racial stereotypes and stigmatization associated with urban ghettos. In fact, Sampson's and Raudenbush's study shows that Blacks are no less likely than Whites to be influenced by racial composition in assessing disorder. For all race and ethnic groups studied and after controlling for a number of potentially confounding variables, the percentage of Black residents in a neighborhood predicts subjectively perceived disorder substantially more than the objectively measured level of disorder in the neighborhood.

"Neighborhoods with high concentrations of minority and poor residents have been historically burdened by problems of crime and disorder that have deep roots in American history," said Sampson. "Over time, the image of the disorderly slum has come to shape what is referred to as implicit bias, or unconscious stereotypes about race that may be incorrect about a given neighborhood but are not necessarily 'irrational' or reflective of simple racial prejudice."

If the meaning of "disorder" is socially constructed, then proactive efforts to overcome differentially perceived disorder (such as implementing a policy of quickly fixing "broken windows" and graffiti) may have unintended consequences. For example, disproportionate police crackdowns in minority communities can needlessly generate community distrust and hostility toward public agencies. Perceived disorder thus matters--with regard to perpetuating urban racial inequality--for reasons that go well beyond the mere presence of "broken windows."
The full article, "Seeing Disorder: Neighborhood Stigma and the Social Construction of Broken Windows," is published in Social Psychology Quarterly (December 2004), by Robert J. Sampson and Stephen W. Raudenbush.

American Sociological Association

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