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In Chapters V and IX of Jacob A. Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, the reader is given insight into the anti-immigration sentiments of late-19th Century America. This is first demonstrated by impressions of Italian immigrants offered in Chapter V. The author describes poor conditions for Italian immigrants in both residential and vocational pursuits, settling for unfair contracts with tenants and low-paying jobs where they’re unable to receive the entirety of their earned wages. This is reminiscent of earlier depictions of colonial indentured servitude; in both cases, the U.S. was advertised as a country of grand opportunity but turned out to welcome new populations in states of oppression. Riis goes on to attribute Italians’ agreements to adverse conditions to a certain ignorance inherent to their ethnicity, explaining that they are unable to learn English as successfully as other immigrants and that they are therefore of inferior intelligence. This perpetuates the notion of American linguistic imperialism and the sentiment that cultures speaking other languages are inferior to those that speak English. Riis later describes Italians as being driven by political impulse rather than civility, characterizing them as less socially advanced than the desirable English-American standard.

Chapter IX focuses on negative sentiments toward Chinese immigrants. Similarly to the devaluation of Italians because of their inability to speak English, Riis insults Chinese immigrants for being unwilling to convert to Christianity, thus exercising a sense of superiority in another aspect of English-American culture, religion. He goes on to denounce the reserved appearances of Chinese neighborhoods as dreary and lacking of spectacle-like scenery, asserting an orientalist notion that Eastern cultures exist to please people of European origin as viewers and can be viewed as inferior when they fail to do so. Riis marvels at Chinese men’s tendency of cleanliness and subsequent prominence within the domestic sphere, relating it to what he perceives as weak submissiveness to women in other areas of life, establishing a sense of English-American cultural superiority through gender roles. He further portrays Chinese men as sexual predators, suggesting that young girls are “wrecked” by Chinese communities while visiting their “dens.” Finally, Riis illustrates Chinese immigrants’ reserved nature as suspicious due to their “menacing” contributions to society and asserts that the Chinese population can’t safely be left alone. Overall, Riis summarizes the Chinese population as undesirable to society because of its lack of “useful purpose,” asserting the imperialist notion that immigrants are only worthy of human value if they are able to offer vocational value.

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