One salient feature of the parts of New York that Riis examines is the diversity of ethnicities, languages, and traditions to be found in the poorest areas of the city. Already a journalist and photographer, Riis also puts on the hat of ethnographer, studying the specific and distinct cultural practices of many of these groups. But even as he argues for greater equality for certain marginalized populations, his typologies tend to reduce many of the people he studies to stereotypes about their ethnic, racial, or national identity.
Riis tends to explain behavior by culture—even as he objects to others explaining poverty by immorality. Acknowledging a common stereotype linking Jews to greed and penny-pinching, for instance, he claims that young Jewish children of Polish heritage know how to count before they learn how to talk. Italians are cheerful and exuberant, Irishmen are quick to anger, Germans love order: not all Riis’s sweeping characterizations are negative, but they do engage in what today we might call cultural essentialism—that is, reducing people to their cultural heritage and grouping them according to stereotypes.
Sometimes, this kind of characterization enables Riis to make arguments against the social and economic exclusion of certain groups. Long before the era of Civil Rights, Riis points out the unfairness of barring African-Americans from certain buildings and even entire neighborhoods. If he is less than eager to differentiate among people within racial groups, he does at least pay attention to the ways people are discriminated against on the basis of those identities.
For Riis, though, multiculturalism in and of itself is not a value to be celebrated—instead, with enough time and work, he thinks, new arrivers in America should leave behind their old identities and adapt their behavior to mainstream attitudes. He reserves his harshest critiques for the Chinese immigrant population in New York, who he says have failed to assimilate into “American” lifestyles. In his suspicion and disapproval of a number of their customs, this example reveals that there is a limit to Riis’s ability to imaginatively sympathize with customs and identities very different from his own—even as he also exposes the harsh reality behind the “American dream” that so many of these immigrants came to the United States to seek.
Diversity, Cosmopolitanism, and Ethnic Prejudice ThemeTracker
Diversity, Cosmopolitanism, and Ethnic Prejudice Quotes in How the Other Half Lives
In their place has come this queer conglomerate mass of heterogeneous elements, ever striving and working like whiskey and water in one glass, and with the like result: final union and a prevailing taint of whiskey.
At the risk of distressing some well-meaning, but, I fear, too trustful people, I state it in advance as my opinion, based on the steady observation of years, that all attempts to make an effective Christian of John Chinaman will remain abortive in this generation; of the next I have, if anything, less hope.
Granted, that the Chinese are in no sense a desirable element of the population, that they serve no useful purpose here, whatever they may have done elsewhere in other days, yet to this it is a sufficient answer that they are here, and that, having let them in, we must make the best of it.
As scholars, the children of the most ignorant Polish Jew keep fairly abreast of their more favored playmates, until it comes to mental arithmetic, when they leave them behind with a bound. It is surprising to see how strong the instinct of dollars and cents is in them. They can count, and correctly, almost before they can talk.
I state but the misgivings as to the result of some of the practical minds that have busied themselves with the problem. Its keynote evidently is the ignorance of the immigrants. They must be taught the language of the country they have chosen as their home, as the first and most necessary step.
As we stop in front of a tenement to watch one of these groups, a dirty baby in a single brief garment—yet a sweet, human little baby despite its dirt and tatters—tumbles off the lowest step, rolls over once, clutches my leg with unconscious grip, and goes to sleep on the flagstone, its curly head pillowed on my boot.
If, when the account is made up between the races, it shall be claimed that [the Negro] falls short of the result to be expected from twenty-five years of freedom, it may be well to turn to the other side of the ledger and see how much of the blame is borne by the prejudice and greed that have kept him from rising under a burden of responsibility to which he could hardly be equal.
But of the thousands, who are travelling the road they trod to the end, with the hot blood of youth in their veins, with the love of life and of the beautiful world to which not even sixty cents a day can shut their eyes—who is to blame if their feet find the paths of shame that are “always open to them”?