Sociologist Explores What Helps Diversity Work in 'Live and Let Live'

Aug 15, 2017

People around the country are continuing to react with anger and horror to the events that took place at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

It was at this time last year that racial tensions bubbled to the surface in Milwaukee. The violence that erupted in Sherman Park following a police shooting put the challenges of Milwaukee’s black-white relations front and center for the world to see. 

But as many residents of Sherman Park would urge the country to take a more nuanced view of their neighborhood, writer Evie Perry suggests there’s another area that’s important to study for how diversity can work. 

Perry is a sociology professor at Rhodes College in Tennessee, but a native of the Milwaukee area, and author of the book, Live and Let Live: Diversity, Conflict and Community in an Integrated Neighborhood. The book looks at Milwaukee's Riverwest neighborhood as a way of exploring how integrated neighborhoods function. 

"I think there's something about 'doing the life' of a neighborhood as a new person that makes you really, really sensitive to the ways in which you are adjusting to a new place."

She says previously researchers have either held up integration as the only solution to racial harmony or focused merely on the pitfalls of integration. Perry explains, "That seemed to me like a perfect place to step in and say, 'Well, instead of what it can be or what it's failing to be, what is it actually?'"

Perry lived in Riverwest for three years and became embedded in community life there. "I think there's something about 'doing the life' of a neighborhood as a new person that makes you really, really sensitive to the ways in which you are adjusting to a new place and how people deal with it in really different ways from you and different ways from one another." 

She interviewed people about their experiences in the neighborhood and documented her own experiences in Riverwest. Perry says she was "astounded" by how open people were willing to be with her, and when she sat down to review all of her notes, she was surprised at how much her own view had changed on the neighborhood. 

"These little conflicts produced these opportunities to get to know people, to understand... what our standards are."

One of the themes that emerged from her notes was the importance of conflict in creating understanding among neighbors. The conflicts in question were the kinds of things most neighborhoods deal with: differing opinions on property maintenance, noise level, or any public activities that might be done in view of other neighbors.

"These little conflicts produced these opportunities to get to know people, to understand... what our standards are, as flexible and kind of fluid as they may seem, and to not have one standard for a way to be in a neighborhood that had so many kinds of different people being in so many different kinds of ways," says Perry. "And without that conflict, I feel like the most dominant would win and they would sort of push down their way of being in the world on the rest."