Patti McConville

“The Message”: Order Maintenance and Its Discontents

Michael Javen Fortner

October 25, 2022

What can survey data tell us about how racial minorities think about crime, disorder and the police?

What can survey data tell us about how racial minorities think about crime, disorder and the police?

“It’s like a jungle sometimes / It makes me wonder how I keep from going under,” begins the 1982 hip-hop classic “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, a haunting lamentation about poverty and urban decline in New York City. The first verse decries social disorder: “Broken glass everywhere / People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care / I can’t take the smell, can’t take the noise.” The narrator is stuck: “Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice.” Exasperated, he exclaims, “Don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge / I’m tryin’ not to lose my head.” How do individuals caught in this intricate web of disadvantage and despair frame and negotiate their circumstances? How do they recover a sense of personal safety?

George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson hazarded a response to these questions. In their famous “Broken Windows” article, which came out the same year as “The Message,” they argue that while people are “primarily” frightened by violence, focusing on these concerns obscures “another source of fear — the fear of being bothered by disorderly people.” By this they mean “disreputable or obstreperous or unpredictable people,” including “panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers, prostitutes, loiterers, the mentally disturbed.” Furthermore, individuals who fear “worrisome encounters” with “disorderly people” are not simply making moral distinctions. They are, as Kelling and Wilson put it, expressing a “bit of folk wisdom that happens to be a correct generalization — namely, that serious street crime flourishes in areas in which disorderly behavior goes unchecked.”

The fearful person, then, seeks, above all else, social order. According to Kelling and Wilson, in communities with a vibrant economic and civic life, “many aspects of order maintenance ... can probably best be handled in ways that involve the police minimally if at all.” Yet in disadvantaged communities torn asunder by deindustrialization and disinvestment, the purpose of the police is to “reinforce the informal control mechanisms of the community itself.”

Surveys of New Yorkers from the late 1960s until today offer some support for Kelling and Wilson’s theories.

Nonetheless, it’s not immediately clear that minorities would either fear or forsake so-called “disreputable” or “obstreperous” members of their communities. “The Message” speaks of a child being born “with no state of mind / Blind to the ways of mankind” who comes to admire all “the number book takers / Thugs, pimps and pushers and the big money makers,” and “smugglers, scramblers, burglars, gamblers / Pickpockets, peddlers and even panhandlers.” It’s also not immediately clear that individuals who have endured a history of police violence would beseech law enforcement for relief. The song ends with the cops stopping the narrator and his friends. He asks, “Officer, officer, what is the problem?” To which the officer responds, “You the problem.”

Surveys of New Yorkers from the late 1960s until today offer some support for Kelling and Wilson’s theories. As violent crime began its precipitous rise and heroin devastated neighborhoods in the late 1960s, racial minorities, in poll after poll, reported feeling “unsafe” and cited a host of quality-of-life issues as sources of their alarm, including “drug addicts in the neighborhood,” “gangs, kids, fights,” and “winos, junkies in areas.” Views expressed in a 1969 Harris survey of residents’ view of housing in New York City echo passages from “The Message.” The litany of grievances included crime, drug addicts, unaffordable housing, dilapidated buildings, garbage and rats and roaches. When asked to list the “most important problem” and a proposed solution, 40 percent listed “crime” or “unsafe streets” and “need more police protection or policemen.” This was followed by “drug addicts” as the “most important problem” and “get rid of pushers and addicts” as the preferred solution. Others mentioned crime without referencing law enforcement. A few said, “need better-lit streets.” Several cited “hoods,” “loiterers,” “noisy people” or “juvenile delinquents” as problems. Preferred remedies for these ran the gamut from “more employment opportunities” to “get after parents.”

A 1970 survey of residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, further complicates the Kelling and Wilson story. Residents were certainly exercised over illegal narcotics: 46 percent called drug addiction a “very serious” problem, and another 19 percent deemed it “fairly serious.” Many complained about seeing drug users on street corners and in buildings. When asked what police should be spending “more time” doing, over 70 percent said “arresting narcotics pushers,” and another 58 percent said “arresting narcotics users.” Forty percent wanted police to spend more time “quieting rowdy, noisy youth.” Thirty-nine percent said “picking up drunks and panhandlers.” And 38 percent said “breaking up street fights and barroom brawls.”

As the crack epidemic began to ravage the city in the mid-to-late 1980s, racial minorities began to fret once more about drug dealers and users.

Yet residents did not completely abandon “disorderly people.” They overwhelmingly endorsed a variety of rehabilitative solutions for drug users, including providing treatment programs within neighborhood hospitals and opening clinics and residential treatment facilities in the neighborhood. Thus, these residents viewed public safety in multiple dimensions. Consistent with Kelling and Wilson’s thesis, they were disquieted by disorder and demanded more policing to spare them from this distress. At the same time, they also insisted that their long-term safety required “root-cause” solutions, such as more rehabilitation resources for users and recreational and employment opportunities for young people.

As the crack epidemic began to ravage the city in the mid-to-late 1980s, racial minorities began to fret once more about drug dealers and users. In a 1988 Gallup poll of city residents, 40 percent of whites, 61 percent of Blacks and 55 percent of Latinos reported that drug-related crime had increased in their neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, 75 percent of whites, 70 percent of Blacks and 68 percent of Latinos supported the city’s seizure of “crack houses.” As with heroin in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the issue with crack was not simply the use of the drug but how addiction to it and trafficking of it degraded social life in already struggling communities. A longtime Harlem resident remembered: “Crack was something else. And I don’t mean the drug itself. ... What I mean is what it did to the community, to the family. People couldn’t trust their own kids. It was like a prison. Nobody wanted to let their children leave the house because you never knew what was gonna be waiting outside.”

The crack epidemic petered out and crime rates fell from the heights of the early 1990s, but city residents remained frustrated by the state of public safety. When asked in a 1997 Quinnipiac poll of New Yorkers to identify the “most important problem” in the city, pluralities of whites, Blacks and Latinos mentioned “crime/drugs/lack of police.” Although Rudolph Giuliani’s combative mayoralty polarized the city around race, his aggressive quality-of-life policing methods were not entirely unwelcome in communities of color. Nearly 70 percent of Blacks in a 1999 Quinnipiac poll reported that police were “tougher” on them than other groups and a plurality (48 percent) disapproved of Giuliani’s handling of crime. Yet a plurality (44 percent) of Blacks also believed that his policies had caused crime to decrease in the city. Additionally, 66 percent of Latinos approved of Giuliani’s handling of crime and 64 percent felt his policies were responsible for falling crime rates.

A 2001 survey conducted by the Citizens Crime Commission documented minority misgivings about the police and contextualized their endorsement of aggressive law enforcement methods. Once again, Blacks reported that police were tougher on them and that police brutality was more common than rare. As “The Message” suggests, many Blacks believed that most police officers saw them as a “problem.” Notwithstanding these concerns, they endorsed Kelling and Wilson’s broken windows theory. When asked whether they believed “minor breakdowns in the neighborhood,” including “disorderly teens, boombox radios, small time drug dealing, buildings not fixed and clean,” contribute to more crime, whites recorded an average score of 4.0 on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 5 (definitely). Blacks scored 4.0 and Hispanics scored 4.1. Although Blacks acknowledged discriminatory and harmful law enforcement strategies, they felt so encumbered by blight and “worrisome encounters” — pushed to the edge by disorder — that they summoned police to reestablish calm in their communities.

Today, crime rates are far from the heights they reached in the early 1990s, but we are witnessing a resurgent fear of crime. In a recent survey of subway riders, “personal safety and security” topped the list of things that would improve rider satisfaction. Their list of concerns also included “homeless people,” “people behaving erratically,” “wait times” and “cleanliness.” It’s not surprising then that increasing numbers of New Yorkers desire a greater police presence on the subways. Among Democratic voters, 62 percent of whites “strongly agree” or “agree” that the number of uniformed police officers in the subways should be increased. Though high, that is less than the 77 percent of Blacks and 69 percent of Hispanics that endorsed an increase.

While a greater police presence would make racial minorities in New York City feel safer, they continue to endorse a full range of policy interventions for both violence and “worrisome encounters.” In a 2021 survey of New Yorkers commissioned by Democrat Brad Lander, 52 percent of Blacks and 62 percent of Latinos said that “more police presence” would make them feel safer in their neighborhood. However, they prioritized other strategies. Blacks, for example, selected the following over more police presence: “more stable and affordable housing,” “more mental health support and outreach,” “more job opportunities for young people,” “more constructive activities for young people,” and “less unhoused people living on the street.” Latinos reported similar priorities.

open in new tab
Download: Data, Chart Image

Kelling and Wilson got some things right. Quality of life is a significant component of how individuals assess their safety and the relevance of “crime” in their lives. When evaluating their own risk, individuals, especially racial minorities, are not mechanically responding to statistical shifts in crime rates or simply being manipulated by the media. Their fear is also dictated by a sense of discomfort and trepidation informed by their day-to-day interactions with disorder. Most Blacks and Latinos wish to live unaccosted in their homes, on their streets and on the subway. They don’t want to live in places where broken glass is everywhere.

Of course, the sentiments of those deemed “disreputable” or “obstreperous” by some rarely appear in public opinion surveys, and their preferences are rarely considered. Indeed, order-maintenance policing has not only been deployed against behaviors that bother but also on behalf of social biases. Even Kelling and Wilson wondered, “How do we ensure, in short, that the police do not become the agents of neighborhood bigotry?” They had no answer. Additionally, those concerned about “worrisome encounters” with “disorderly” people also dread harassment by discourteous police. As such, it behooves policymakers to consider the consequences — intended or otherwise — of order-maintenance policing.

Racial minorities prefer to live in strong, vibrant communities where informal social controls are sufficient and police activity is minimal.

That’s why it’s critical to attend to the full scope of the “folk wisdom” in communities of color. When pushed to the edge, many in disadvantaged neighborhoods call on police for immediate relief. They also hold out hope for long-term structural solutions. Although they don’t want to be disturbed by the homeless, they seek quality and affordable housing for all — homes without rats and roaches, streets without garbage. They’re aggravated by drug users loitering around their buildings yet support rehabilitative resources for those wishing to escape their addiction. Gang activity frightens them, but they also seek better schools, expanded recreational options and more job training programs for young people who might come to “admire all the number book-takers / Thugs, pimps and pushers and the big money-makers.” The message is clear: racial minorities prefer to live in strong, vibrant communities where informal social controls are sufficient and police activity is minimal.