During the Fall of 2014, I taught an Introduction to Sociology course at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). We covered numerous concepts & theories, including Broken Windows Theory. This theory was developed by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling to illustrate how one broken window left unrepaired in a building is an invitation for more windows to be broken. If not repaired there can be a downward-spiral of vandalism that culminates into lawlessness. Basically, Broken Windows Theory explains how we rely upon social contexts and cues to assess and/or engage in behaviors considered deviant.
Harvard University is a campus largely absent of broken windows and other forms of esthetic disrepair. When teaching at UNL, I have used Harvard as an elite reference point and will now do so in this article. While working on my PhD at Harvard, I lived in an undergraduate Residence House (that’s Harvard speak for “dormitory”) and worked as a Resident Tutor (that’s Harvard speak for “resident assistant”). I had conversations with Harvard undergrads on numerous occasions including breakfast/lunch/dinner. I was always amazed by the privileged backgrounds of typical Harvard students. Though from a low-income background, I gained knowledge about the mannerisms, dress, and linguistic maneuvers of elitism while an undergrad at Georgetown University. I was, however, quick to correct persons at Harvard who assumed I shared their elite origins. Still, interactions with Harvard students from elite backgrounds moved me to empathize with the vulnerabilities of elite youths.
Among vulnerable students were wealthy sons emotionally neglected by their wealthy parents; sons desperate for emotional support. There were wealthy daughters deeply worried that they would fail parental expectations by wanting to play in a rock band instead of becoming doctors/lawyers/scientists/professors, and so on.
Two students that I came to know quite well shared stories of tribulation and triumph. One student, TJ, had hypothesized a fantastic science project despite inadequate support for his idea. After access to a Harvard science lab and a thoughtfully written report, TJ earned an “A”. Another student, GW, endured a confrontational encounter with a rude police officer; GW stood his ground and called for mutual respect. A third student, DJ, had shoplifted some goods before coming to Harvard. His parents used their clout to prevent DJ from serving jail/prison time. (Though vastly true, I have modified minor details of these stories to protect the students’ anonymity.)
At Harvard broken windows are constantly repaired. Transgressions are washed away or significantly minimized by a “Hahvarhd” affiliation. DJ and many elite students with histories of juvenile delinquency like him are now successful Harvard alums.
As I share stories about students I met while at Harvard, what images come to mind: Images of wealthy, White, students full of complex humanity; students who deserve to achieve their dreams; young women/men who are not easily reduced to individual mistakes or parental shortcomings? Actually, two examples above are NOT about Harvard students. What happens to the image of these students as I reveal that “TJ” was an African American teen and “GW” was an Afro-Latino-American teen; both were from low-income neighborhoods in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Are TJ and GW suddenly less deserving of the benefit of the doubt; do racial/ethnic and class details strip away their complex humanity? To learn more about TJ (aka “Malik”) and GW (aka “Robbie”), read my book Tough Fronts (2002). I came to know them while at Harvard not because they were Harvard students, but because they were middle and high school students from low-income neighborhoods in Cambridge who shared stories of mistreatment and oppression eclipsed by Harvard’s affluence. I interviewed them for my dissertation and for Tough Fronts. I arranged Malik’s access to the Harvard science lab. Doing so briefly bestowed Malik with enough Harvard clout to cause his middle-school teacher to suddenly see his potential to be an A-student in 8th-grade science. Of course, Malik’s Harvard clout was fleeting. As for Robbie, his respect for Cambridge police was not reciprocated. Malik and Robbie were (and still are) no less complexly human than the Harvard students with whom I lived; yet they were constantly treated as such by powerful social institutions like schools, police departments, and social service agencies.
What happens to your image of Harvard when I tell you that in addition to DJ there are Harvard students—and I’m talking about wealthy, White students—who shoplift and commit other crimes. This was the case well before I went to Harvard. It was the case while I attended Harvard during the 1990s. And continues well after I graduated with my PhD. For example, Harvard students who shoplift include the daughter of Rudy Giuliani.
Let’s return to DJ, who actually was one of the Harvard students from my Residence House and who was White and Male and Wealthy. Let’s update his story and try to strip DJ of his complex humanity by providing his shoplifting story with a different ending.
In August of 2014, before his freshman year at Harvard, DJ shoplifts some limited edition Gurkha Maharaja Cigars costing $2,000 per cigar, from M&M Cigar and Gift in Norwalk, Connecticut. DJ returns to his neighborhood of wealthy White professionals in Darien, Connecticut. As DJ exits his 2014 Porsche 911 Carrera, a police car pulls onto his street. DJ, known for being spoiled and obnoxious, has hubris enough to be confrontational with the police officer. At what point does this White police office fire a gun at this 18-year-old, Harvard bound, White male suspected of shoplifting? At what point does this police officer continue shooting at DJ who has now walked away from the confrontation? At what point does the officer continue to fire as DJ turns around with his hands up? At what point does the officer use deadly force and kill DJ? At what point is DJ’s body left on the street in his White professional, Darien, Connecticut neighborhood for four hours? At what point do the police prevent DJ’s parents from going to their son’s dead body? At what point is the police officer not held accountable once it is clear that he shot and killed an unarmed, college-bound, 18-year-old? At what point does the Assistant District Attorney tell the Grand Jury that the police officer had the right to shoot DJ because he had turned to flee? Few if any of these things would happen to a Wealthy, White teen like DJ, yet most if not all happened to Michael Brown, who was also a college-bound 18-year old male.
Experiences with Harvard students, especially wealthy, White male students, lead me to conclude that at no point would DJ share Michael’s fate. If DJ had been caught stealing the cigars, he would probably have been detained at the store while his parents were contacted. Or as was the case with Rudy Giuliani’s daughter, Caroline Giuliani, store managers may call the police yet decline to press charges! In elite places where broken windows are constantly repaired, people honor the complex humanity of young people, who commit or are suspected of committing criminal acts. Unlike unprivileged youths, privileged youths are not easily stripped of their complex humanity.
I can personally assure you that the absence of broken windows at Harvard does not mean an absence of deviant behavior. Despite well-manicured lawns and unbroken windows there are Harvard students who deal drugs as well as those who commit rape and other heinous acts. Studies on the youths of privilege reveal that they have higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other destructive behaviors than non-privileged youths. Furthermore, the presence of broken windows in urban communities of color does not mean an absence of complex humanity.
I have been to the place where Michael Brown was shot dead as if he were an aggressive monster instead of an unarmed teenager, like DJ; it is not a neighborhood full of broken windows. But even if it were, Michael and Black youths like him, whether males or females, deserve the same benefit of the doubt as privileged youths like DJ and Caroline Giuliani. And for places where windows are rarely repaired, the police should honor the humanity of youths as they would honor the humanity of spoiled and obnoxious rich kids. And at the very least, instead of destroying more windows with bullets from guns aimed to kill unarmed teens, police and other government officials should assist residents to restore shattered lives and broken windows. This is all the more necessary in Ferguson, Missouri where the police and government officials share a legacy of shattering the lives of African Americans.
L. Janelle Dance, Associate Professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Senior Researcher at Lund University in Sweden, with sociological input from Selma Hedlund, Sociology Master’s Student, Columbia University.