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With mass immigration from Central, Southern, Eastern Europe, and Asia into New York City and the Great Migration of Blacks from the South into Chicago and other Northern cities around the turn of the twentieth century, the Northern old-stock White Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite came into contact with new arrivals. How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis and Race Riot by William Tuttle both show the attitudes by the elites towards those new migrants and the migrants’ self-identity as Americans. While the W.A.S.P. elite of New York City saw the new European and Chinese immigrants as un-Christian threats—rowdy tenement behavior, uncleanliness, involvement in criminal activity, drunkenness, and violations of Victorian decency—that can be dealt with by helping them, the native industrial elite of Chicago saw Blacks as docile, cheap, obedient non-union labor—unlike the Chicago white non-elites, who saw Blacks as a labor threat. The Blacks of Chicago, born and raised in the United States, fought to be part of mainstream American identity, while the immigrants of New York City were concerned primarily with livelihood rather than identity as Americans.
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Jacob Riis wrote How the Other Half Lives with the premise that it was a way to convince his native-born elite audience to help the immigrants living in tenements . Riis’ book, which has to appeal to its audience’s values and sensibilities, allows readers to infer its intended audience’s view of immigrants through Riis’ tailored descriptions of immigrant groups and his solutions. Riis focuses on both the implied threats immigrant communities posed to native-born whites by fusing them with images of Protestant vices, such as gambling, drinking, and prostitution, indicative of his audience’s attitudes.
Riis first focuses on the practicality of helping immigrants as a way to prevent their vices from threatening the existing white population. Riis begins the first half of his book with a harrowing description of the general uncleanliness of the tenements, but soon starts specifically labelling the tenements as breeding grounds for “all kinds of infectious disease” , citing the high child mortality rate: “of 138 children born in it in less than three years 61 had died” . While Riis admits that epidemics “scarcely touched the clean wards” , he also states tenements have appeared where “the stolid Dutch burgher [middle-class resident of the seventeenth century] grew his tulips” . The juxtaposition of depicting tenements as centers of epidemic and their encroachment on previously old-stock neighborhoods, as in the case of the “Dutch burgher,” in very close proximity shows that his audience, old-stock elites, have a genuine fear, of immigrant tenements spreading disease throughout the city. Riis also scapegoats “the Irish landlord” as promoting unsanitary conditions by crowding the maximum number of tenets per tenement. Scapegoating landlords, often immigrant themselves, reveals how the W.A.S.P. elite saw immigrant tenets’ condition as a result of exploitation by other immigrants, adding on to the threat of immigrants. The Jewish sweater outcompeting its Christian rival appeals both to the elites’ Christian religion, and the threat of Jewish business acumen, which Riis relates to how “Money is their God” when referring to Jews. Depicting how criminal gangs form in immigrant communities also reveals elites’ views that immigrants bring crime. While Riis described immigrants in a way revealing of his audience’s perception of these new migrants being threats, he also preaches help to those groups by appealing to his audience’s Protestant religious values.
Invoking religion to convince his audience to help the tenements reveals Riis’ church-going audience’s attitude towards immigrants’ un-Protestant behavior as threats that can be neutralized if Victorian Protestant values are adopted. Riis’ audience, like himself, views “conversion to Christianity as the solution to the problems posed by the Other Half” . Victorian Protestant values of the era frowned upon vices including drinking, prostitution, and gambling, even if Victorians secretly practiced those vices themselves. Riis and his audience also wanted to hold on to Victorian values at a time when it was being phased out; enforcing those values on immigrants could also be seen as a way of clinging on to those fading values. Riis provides an example of un-Christian threats by characterizing the Chinese as “celestials” who are unable to be converted , resulting in vices such as the “fan tan [a form of gambling]” , “white slaves [prostitution]” , but with some hope of salvation in the form of allowing Chinese immigrants to bring their wives to alleviate their “base passions” that threaten White society with its vices. For Riis and his audience, the presence of a real wife is civilizing, and Christian, influence. While Riis did not believe the Chinese could be fully “Christianized,” he emphasized that religious values can stem immorality and the problems stemming from it.
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Another sampling—Riis lists numerous more examples—of Riis’, and his audience’s, insistence on enforcing Protestant restraints on vice is his distaste of alcohol: “Where God builds a church the devil builds next door [a] saloon” . By invoking religion, and equating bars to the devil, Riis reveals his audience believes in this equivalence as well. This vice of alcohol prevalent in immigrant communities, and the political machines operating from saloons, corrupt both “criminals and policemen alike” , and Riis goes as far as suggesting alcohol breeds poverty, fosters crime, and “saps the very vitals of society” . Riis implies alcohol is the root cause of all problems immigrants encounter, and of almost all the ways immigrants are threats to native-born elites. Riis also implies saloons should be more tightly controlled by complaining about law enforcement’s inability to enforce anti-alcohol laws . With both appeal to practicality and “good Protestant virtues,” Riis’s plea to fellow elites reveals how they saw immigrant vices as threats stemming from a lack of Protestant values, and if Protestant values are adopted by immigrants with help from the native-born, both the threat will be eliminated and the immigrants would be uplifted with Christian “civilizing.” Riis revealed his audience’s view of immigrant as threats that needed to be neutralized through help with adopting Christian values in his appeal to practicality and religion.
The Chicago industrial elite, in contrast, saw their migrant group—Blacks from the South—not as threats, but rather as convenient labor for their economic interests, tools to neutralize their biggest threat—union strikes by laborers of European descent. Although the meatpackers—the primary employers of Blacks—denied “the charge of importation” of Blacks from the South, Tuttle writes it is likely many meatpackers enticed Blacks from the South , using labor agents to convince Blacks to leave sharecropping plantations in the South to work in Chicago . The explicit luring of Blacks to their plants shows how the Chicago industrial elite did not see Blacks as threats; it is not logical to actively bring in threats. During the stockyard strikes of 1894, industrialists brought in Black strikebreakers to end the strike . Black workers were so important to the industrial elites that factory owners even used their political clout to conjure a plan with the police to bring black laborers back to work after the 1919 race riots . White Republican politicians also viewed Blacks as an effective voting bloc, with mayor Thompson building trust among Blacks and gaining their vote through acts like appointing Blacks to political posts . When Blacks were accused of arson, judges belonging to the White political elite dismissed those claims to keep workplaces safe for Black labor , showing that the White political and industrial elite colluded with each other to keep Blacks—the non-union docile labor force in their eyes—working. White industrialists saw Blacks as reliable labor because they were less inclined to join unions, partially because unions were racially exclusive . The industrialists by no means saw migrant Blacks as equal, but they viewed them as more reliable workers than strike-prone Whites , contrasting both the New York City elites’ views of immigrant communities and non-elite White Chicagoans, both of whom saw their respective migrant groups as threats.
White union workers, and the White press, despised Blacks as strikebreakers. Calling Blacks the “scab race” , White union workers saw Blacks threats to labor as strikebreakers, similar to how New York City elites saw immigrant groups, especially the Jews, as economic competition to native-born Christian workers. The image of Blacks as strikebreakers pushed already-existing racial hatred over the top, and their status as threats, resulted in open racial violence . The open racial violence, stemming in part from labor competition, shows how Chicago White non-elites let their underlying racial hatred boil over when Blacks became threats. Before the Great Migration, before Blacks became labor competition, Blacks children were even invited “the white kids’ parties” . The attitude of the White working class changed after Black labor threat. The Irish, who had a history of labor conflict with the Blacks since the Civil War , and considered “White” by the 1919 race riots, particularly saw “inferior” Black laborers as a threat to their newly-attained whiteness. As a result, they heavily participated in the race riots via their “athletic clubs” . The White press preyed on those existing racial tensions, labelling Black migrants as “swarms” , and exaggerating headlines on sexual assault on white women . While Black press such as The Defender also fueled racial tensions, the White press was able to prey upon ordinary Whites’ fear of Blacks. The non-elite White Chicagoans and White press viewed Blacks as threatening strikebreakers, increasing existing racial hatred.
Blacks in Chicago, fought against this unacceptance in a bid to fit into the American identity. The Defender urged Blacks to think of themselves as American citizens, and should be proud of their contribution to American society . Blacks saw their service in the First World War as warranting their equal inclusion in the American identity , and The Defender also told Blacks to adopt “new habits of self-respect and cleanliness” . Self-respect, cleanliness, and pride of military service showed that Blacks wanted to fit into the mainstream American identity, and were not satisfied with their caricature as docile primitives. Their “armed resistance” , in line with the “New Negro” ideology—refusal to submit to discrimination—towards White mobs, even when they knew police would be biased, showed their resolve in not sitting idly by as Whites forcefully excluded them from mainstream America. The Defender’s advocacy of Black inclusion in unions and creation of Black-centric unions also showed Blacks’ desire to integrate into America through joining an integral element of the American working class. All the Blacks’ actions showed how they wanted, and fought, to be part of the American identity, in sharp contrast to the immigrants of New York City, who were more concerned with the “American Dream” of making a living than being “American.”
The immigrants of New York City had less economic opportunities as Blacks, who were eagerly hired as strikebreakers, and naturally cared less about their identity as Americans than their livelihoods, or the “American Dream.” Riis’ book focuses heavily on poverty, describing the wages of immigrants in working in Jewish-owned sweatshops, even giving a to-the-dollar budget of an immigrant family’s expenses, listing how “twenty dollars a month” in rent consumed most of the immigrant family’s money. Similar families that have suffered through similar hardships saved up and Riis describes one that “will be a prosperous sweater” employing other immigrants. Riis also begins his book by citing self-improvement, with the German rag-picker becoming “the thrifty tradesman or prosperous fanner” , the ‘Italian scavenger” becoming owners of small businesses, the “Irish hod-carrier” becoming “a brick-layer, if not the Alderman of his ward” , “while the Chinese coolie is in almost exclusive possession of the laundry business” . Riis summarizes this by stating “the poorest immigrant comes here with the purpose and ambition to better himself, and given half a chance, might be reasonably expected to make the most of it” . The self-improvement Riis cites is evidence of immigrants’ desire to improve their lives through the American dream, while immigrant newspapers themselves referred to “American” as W.A.S.P., showing immigrants were more focused on the economic self-improvement of the “American Dream” trying to become “American.” The segregation of neighborhoods , and rarity of immigrants—even those culturally and ethnically similar to old-stock Americans like the German immigrants—venturing out of their respective neighborhoods, also reveal immigrants’ preoccupation of making a financial foothold over assimilating into other immigrant communities or the wider American community even when they had the financial means, and cultural acceptance, to do so. For the immigrants of New York City, the “American Dream” took priority over trying to be “American,” which the Blacks of Chicago fought for.
Elites of Chicago and New York City viewed their migrants differently, with New York City native-born Whites viewing immigrants as threats that can be neutralized through religious uplifting work, and Chicago industrialists viewing Black migrants as a convenient source of labor, clashing with the hostile views of Chicago non-elite Whites. Those contrasting views promoted the different paths immigrants saw themselves; Blacks, without the financial hardships as severe as the immigrants faced, focused on being “American,” while immigrants were occupied making a living and achieving the “American Dream.” The differing attitudes Riis and Tuttle depict have similarities in modern-day America as well. American elites and workers from the Sun Belt view immigrants from Mexico as threats, while Silicon Valley entrepreneurs openly embrace tech-savvy immigrants from Asian and Eastern Europe. The two groups have different perceptions of themselves too, with varying degrees of assimilation. People react strangely to the new, the different, and “native-born” Americans of both the turn of the twentieth and the twenty-first century are no different.
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