James Q. Wilson: "Crime in the Streets" and "The Urban Unease" in the 1960s

In his National Affairs article published in 1966, “Crime in the Streets,” Wilson directly addressed accusations regarding racism and policing. When discussing the arrests rates and hysteria over the “urban crime wave,” Wilson asserted, “Some well-intentioned people believe that crime figures are inflated by the propensity of the police to arrest Negros for every little infraction…If the police didn’t discriminate against the Negro in this way, the argument goes, the crime figures would be lower and, in addition, the Negro would lose his undeserved reputation for having higher a crime rate than whites.”[1] Wilson went on to claim, “Nobody who has spent much time with the police in Negro sections of our big cities could accept this argument…Residents of lower-class Negro neighborhoods tolerate more disorder, are less trusting of police, and are less willing to inform on their neighbors than are residents of higher-status neighborhoods.”[2]

Essentially, Wilson understood that policing activities disproportionately affected African Americans. However, he dismissed the possibility that police discrimination alone caused disparate amounts of contact between law enforcement and people of color in cities when compared to whites living in the suburbs. Instead, Wilson emphasized how rates of “Negro crime” and rampant trends of “disorderly conduct” in minority neighborhoods, in his mind, justified increased police surveillance in urban areas. Furthermore, he accused lawmakers and intellectuals of promoting this flawed logic in order to shackle the police, encourage urban violence, and “mollycoddle” street criminals.[3]

While Wilson often expressed disproval of arguments about racial biases within law enforcement often espoused by Black Power activists, Wilson acknowledged the virtue of the Black Power Movement in his article, “The Urban Unease,” published in 1969. He emphasized how “the long-term implications [of Black Power] seem to be a growing pride in self and in the community, and these are prerequisites for the creation and maintenance of communal order.”[1] Wilson stressed that racial friction stemmed from prolonged injustices inflicted against blacks by whites since slavery. However, Wilson contended that “the fundamental urban problems, though partly economic and political, are at root questions of values…and for some time to come the situation will remain desperately precarious.”[2] Meaning, Wilson believed that the imbalance of power between blacks and whites resulted in violent retaliation and rioting by “black radicals” attempting to assert their “self respect” within American society.[3] These festering tensions precipitated the urban unease that Wilson identified as a major contributing factor to growing fears of crime in metropolitan areas.

[1] James Q. Wilson, "The Urban Unease," The Public Interest, Number 5, Fall 1969.

[2] James Q. Wilson, "The Urban Unease: Community vs. City," The Public Interest, Number 12, Summer 1968.

[3] Ibid.

[1] James Q. Wilson, "Crime in the Streets," The Public Interest, Number 5, Fall 1966.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.