Riis begin this chapter by making literal the metaphor of the “color line,” the boundary that excludes African Americans from certain neighborhoods. He describes how landlords actively draw and shade such lines—even if, as he says, their pencils don’t make as black a mark as they used to. Their weakening pressure is a hopeful sign, Riis thinks, though this has happened despite and not because of the actions of landlords.
Riis now discusses the African-American population in New York tenement neighborhoods, and he shows the same kind of compassion that he had directed toward Bohemians. Riis finds the “color line” that discriminates against black people to be a shocking injustice.
Riis explains that since the Civil War, black people have moved to New York from Southern cities at increasingly rapid rates. Unfortunately, trades like carpentry or masonry are barred to black people in the North, so they accept menial unskilled jobs. While the black population was initially confined to the “Africa” neighborhood filled with houses of bad reputation, the increase of other kinds of immigration has meant that this population has expanded elsewhere. The fact that black people have correspondingly become better tenants is, Riis thinks, proof that abhorrent environments (and not innate qualities) debase people. The settlement of black people occupying the East Side from Yorkville to Harlem is, he says, one of the cleanest and most orderly in the city.
Riis traces a history of a different kind of immigration, not across an ocean but from the South—where slavery had been abolished only thirty years before he was writing—to the Northern states. Like foreign immigrants, these people came in search of opportunity, but also were met with low wages and shoddy housing. However, this population’s experience allows Riis to underline the connection he wants to draw between housing and moral status, the former creating the latter rather than the other way around.
Riis points out that though black tenants’ cleanliness is much higher than that of Italians and Polish Jews, they’ve always had to pay higher rents, in part because many white people refuse to live in the same house with them. Still, Riis quotes one large real estate firm as saying that it would prefer black tenants to the “lower grades of foreign white people” as cleaner and steadier tenants. But he reproduces a chart showing how much more black tenants pay than white tenants, a “despotism” that Riis criticizes as stemming from racial prejudice.
Here Riis exposes some of the effects of racial discrimination, even while he continues to characterize large swaths of people by lumping them together with their racial or ethnic group. As with his arguments about other communities, such essentialism cuts both ways, causing Riis to alternately condemn or protest certain conditions and standards.
Riis discusses the black population’s cheerfulness and optimism in the face of poverty, abuse, and injustice. These tenants, he says, prefer fine clothes and good living to savings in the bank account, and know how to make a pleasant home out of limited resources. Their passion for gambling is their biggest vice, causing them to waste much of their wages, though they do not deal with such loss with much regret.
Engaging in more stereotyping, Riis contrasts the collective “personality” of African-American people to other groups like Jews, Italians, or Bohemians, drawing some connections in the process—gambling is a shared pastime among various groups, for instance, while Riis distinguishes and praises black people’s “optimism.”
Riis asks whether “Africa” has been improved now that Italians have begun to move into Thompson Street. He argues that this street in particular has always been a place of moral degradation, for both black and white people. The fights that happen there can be vicious: over three quarters of the policemen’s encounters with the black population take place in this small area. Still, Riis argues that only 25 years after the end of slavery, the relative poverty of the black population has more to do with prejudice and greed by others than its own responsibility.
Here Riis seems to contradict his earlier arguments about the relationship between identity group and character: instead he returns to his major assertion about the ways in which dilapidated environments create a standard of moral degradation for anyone who lives there, no matter the race. Riis’s arguments against racial inequality in this specific sense were quite ahead of his time.