Riis, while a progressive and deeply sympathetic to the poor and downtrodden people that were his subjects, was hardly immune to the racial attitudes of his time. His most famous work, "How the Other Half Lives," characterizes blacks in a condescending way, suggesting that due to their natural docility, they accepted their degraded condition in the tenements of New York:
Poverty, abuse, and injustice alike the negro accepts with imperturbable cheerfulness. . . . With all his ludicrous incongruities, his sensuality and his lack of moral accountability, his superstition and other faults that are the effect of temperament and of centuries of slavery, he has his eminently good points...
On the other hand, Riis argued that the conditions African-Americans had historically faced were the origins of their alleged "lack of moral accountability." This was actually his central thesis. While he accepted and perpetuated the racial and ethnic stereotypes of his day, he also believed that many of these supposed traits were the result of their environment rather than inborn traits, as many people believed about race at the time. We see, both in the text and the photographs that Riis published, blacks portrayed as degraded and debauched, and, as mentioned earlier, generally accepting of their condition. But throughout his work, these attitudes are in tension with newer, sociological views of race and inner-city conditions.