Toppling the Melting Pot: Immigration and Multiculturalism in American Pragmatism

Toppling the Melting Pot: Immigration and Multiculturalism in American Pragmatism

by José-Antonio Orosco


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The catalyst for much of classical pragmatist political thought was the great waves of migration to the United States in the early twentieth century. José-Antonio Orosco examines the work of several pragmatist social thinkers, including John Dewey, W. E. B. Du Bois, Josiah Royce, and Jane Addams, regarding the challenges large-scale immigration brings to American democracy. Orosco argues that the ideas of the classical pragmatists can help us understand the ways in which immigrants might strengthen the cultural foundations of the United States in order to achieve a more deliberative and participatory democracy. Like earlier pragmatists, Orosco begins with a critique of the melting pot in favor of finding new ways to imagine the civic role of our immigrant population. He concludes that by applying the insights of American pragmatism, we can find guidance through controversial contemporary issues such as undocumented immigration, multicultural education, and racialized conceptions of citizenship.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253022745
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 10/17/2016
Series: American Philosophy
Pages: 168
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

José-Antonio Orosco is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Oregon State University in Corvallis. His main interests are in social and political philosophy with an emphasis on social movements and democratic theory, US American pragmatism, and Latin / Latin American thought. He has taught previously at the Universidad Latina de America in Morelia, Mexico, and at the National University of Rosario, in Rosario, Argentina. He is author of Cesar Chavez and the Common Sense of Nonviolence.

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Toppling the Melting Pot

Immigration and Multiculturalism in American Pragmatism

By José-Antonio Orosco

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2016 José-Antonio Orosco
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02322-3


Three Models of the Melting Pot

Que assimilated, brother, yo soy asimilao.

— Tato Laviera, asimilao

Historical experience, political commentator Patrick J. Buchanan explains, teaches us that "when it comes to the ability to assimilate into a nation like the United States, all nationalities, creeds, and cultures are not equal." Nuyorican poet Tato Laviera might agree. In his poem, "asimilao," Laviera rejects a simple melting pot narrative for Puerto Ricans who leave the island. According to cultural critic Juan Flores, Laviera is describing the complicated process that Puerto Ricans undergo when they come to the mainland United States. They definitely become different from island inhabitants, but they do not, thereby, turn out to be culturally comparable to middle-class, white US Americans — they are not assimilated, but asimilaos. That is, they learn to take on new cultural habits as they interact with different ethnic groups in US cities, while they also keep hold of old traditions. Thus, Puerto Ricans, because of their particular cultural and racial heritage, undergo a unique cultural transformation that is not the same, or equal to, previous groups that immigrated to the United States. They do not experience the same melting pot.

Political scientist Samuel Huntington would no doubt take Flores's account of Puerto Rican identity as evidence for his thesis that the melting pot ideal is a wholly inaccurate way to describe the experience of immigration to the United States. In Who Are We?: The Challenges to America's National Identity, Huntington rejects the melting pot metaphor, along with the traditional characterization of the United States as an immigrant society. US American nationality, he argues, is built on a specific foundation of Anglo-Protestant values and traditions brought over by the founding settlers. New immigrant groups have adopted this perspective as their own in order to be accepted as members of society, but they have not fundamentally added to its character. For Huntington, too, being asimilao is not the same as being assimilated. Being asimilao is a sign, he would argue, that Latinos/ Latinas have not properly internalized the values necessary for appreciating, and participating effectively in, US American political democracy. To the extent that Puerto Ricans (even though they are US American citizens by birth), and other Latinos/Latinas, insist on resisting the assimilation in favor of being asimilao, there is a reason for suspecting their loyalty to the United States. In chapter 7, I take on Huntington's claim about Latino/Latina loyalty, but for now I accept his general lesson that how we understand the relationship of immigrants and newcomers to dominant, mainstream society impacts how we assess the stability of our political institutions and the well-being of our communities in the face of diversity. Getting clear on the conceptual frameworks for understanding immigration and the moral obligations of assimilation is therefore crucial.

In this chapter, I trace the historical and conceptual development of three different versions of the melting pot ideal in the United States. I call these three (1) the Anglo-Saxon conformity model, (2) the fusion model, and (3) the Americanization model. All three models are assimilationist in nature; that is, they are meant to describe an ideal process of cultural adaptation wherein immigrants are expected to become members of US American society by discarding their Old World identities and taking on cultural traits, traditions, and habits of the dominant society, however it is conceived. Except in the special case of the fusion model, US American society, as the receiver of immigrants, is not expected to be altered by, or to accommodate, the cultural traits, traditions, and habits of immigrants in any significant sense.

The Anglo-Saxon Conformity Model

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Anglo-Saxon conformity model was quite common in political thought and academic writing. This model holds that that there is a fixed cultural core to US American national identity, and immigrants who wish to live in the United States must leave behind their Old World identities and adopt or mimic these new values. These new values and traditions are very culturally specific: they are derived from English customs, and later German traditions, brought here by the original settlers and early immigrants. Speaking about one hundred years before Patrick Buchanan and Samuel Huntington — two contemporary writers who continue this model to some extent — President Theodore Roosevelt told visitors at the 1907 Jamestown Exposition that even though most contemporary US Americans have little English heritage that "in no way alters the fact that this nation was founded by Englishmen, by the Cavalier, and the Puritan." For Roosevelt, history was clear in that it was "men of English stock who did most in casting the mold into which our natural character has run."

The most distinctive point about this version of the melting pot is that the Anglo-Saxon values at the heart of US American identity are thought to be obviously superior to any of the traditions brought over, or maintained by, other immigrants. One of the most common themes among advocates of the Anglo-Saxon conformity model was that immigrants arriving to the United States at the end of the nineteenth century were a threat to the ethnic homogeneity of the country, and therefore, to its civic and political institutions. Army Medical Corps doctor Charles E. Woodruff argued in 1909 that the United States had been settled and populated by succeeding generations of "Aryans" that brought with them long histories of democratic practice going back to Germanic tribal rituals. However, the early decade of the twentieth century saw the arrival of new kinds of immigrants that, in his view, threatened to derail US American civilization: "A change took place twenty-five years ago. The immigrants are now from parts of Europe and Asia where there is much less brain than the Aryan possesses. Men of different breeds difficult to amalgamate with Aryans. Hordes of illiterate 'scum of Europe,' 'paupers,' Hebrews, Poles, Slovaks, Croatians, Magyars, Italians, Syrians who cannot understand Aryan democracy, have never been able to resist Aryans, have waxed numerous in the high civilization built up by Aryans for thousands of years and have always been commensal organisms." Woodruff was joined in this assessment of immigration trends by education expert Ellwood Cubberly who believed, in 1909, that "These southern and eastern Europeans are a very different type from the north European who preceded them. Illiterate, docile, lacking in self-confidence and initiative and not possessing Anglo-Teutonic conceptions of law, order, and government, their coming has served to dilute tremendously our national stock, and to corrupt our civic life."

Because of these waves of newcomers, sociologist Edward Ross forecast, in 1912, an end to the "American pioneering breed" by the end of the twentieth century. He believed the original founding stock of Americans would be extinguished by waves of non-Anglo immigrants who would swarm the nation: "When immigration has ceased of itself, when the dogma of the sacred right of immigration has wrought its perfect work and when the blood of the old pioneering breed has faded out of the motley, polyglot, polychrome, caste-riven population that will crowd this continent to a Chinese density, let there be reared a commemorative monument bearing these words: To the American Pioneering Breed/The Victim of Too Much Humanitarianism and/Too Little Common Sense."

The foremost proponent of the Anglo-Saxon conformity model and the one who had, perhaps, the single greatest impact in entrenching it in US American society was Madison Grant. Born to a prosperous and prominent New York family in 1865, Grant was well-known as an advocate for environmental conservation and wildlife management. He helped to found the Bronx Zoo, several national parks in the US American West, such as Glacier and Denali, and numerous environmental organizations. His concern with saving animals from extinction, however, also extended to what he thought were the human "races" threatened by other invasive "species." In 1916, he published his most famous book, The Passing of the Great Race. It argued that the "Nordic race," which he considered responsible for much of modern civilization across the globe, faced a formidable threat to its existence from weaker and inferior races that were crowding it out of its habitats. In the United States, this meant Anglo-Americans being outnumbered by immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. Grant recommended that American citizens of Northwestern Eur opean heritage develop "race consciousness" — a sense of themselves as one people despite their class or particular white ethnic background — and agitate for public policy that would prevent "weaker races" from mingling with and diluting Nordic stock.

Grant's race theories sparked the interest of national political leaders who were debating immigration policy. He was appointed chair of the Eugenics Committee of the United States Committee on Selective Immigration that was charged to inform members of Congress about options for immigration legislation. The Passing of the Great Race appeared as a foundational text for congressional lawmakers, many of whom studied passages of the book together in their offices. Ultimately, Grant's committee issued a report that recommended immigration restrictions based on national origin. Immigrants from Eastern and Southern European countries ought to be limited to 2 percent of their group's population in the United States based on census totals from 1890. Congress eventually adopted these quotas in the Immigration Act, or the Johnson-Reed Act, of 1924. This federal law ultimately led to a drop in Eastern and Southern European immigrants and a significant increase in the number of immigrants from Northwestern Europe in the following decades. These demographic shifts firmly solidified the connection between US American national identity and white ethnicity for most of the rest of the twentieth century.

Despite his public policy success with the Immigration Act, Grant continued to press for even further immigration restrictions. However, his emphasis changed from a concern strictly with eugenics to one about the ethnic conditions necessary for the preservation of American government in particular. In 1928, he published The Founders of the Republic on Immigration, Naturalization, and Aliens, a collection of writings from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and others that was meant to demonstrate how the Founders supported restrictive immigration policies. Grant warned that the United States faced a domestic danger from "alien races" that were unfit by their "habit of mind and inheritance to uphold a form of government, traditions, and institutions which their mentality ignores." In pragmatist terms, Grant worried about the effect of immigrants on deep democracy. The form of government at risk mentioned here is representative democracy, with its the traditions of respect for liberty and the rule of law, along with a capacity for self-government. While he did not name these alien races specifically, Grant did suggest that newer immigrant groups were the ones trying to force the United States to shift from a representative, or republican government, to a more direct democratic model in which their specific cultural and group perspectives would become matters of public interest. In essence, he worried about what we could today call identity politics and about the formation of a multicultural and multiracial democracy that would question the superiority of so-called Nordic values.

Indeed, Progressive Era political reforms around this time, such as the Seventeenth (1913) and Nineteenth (1920) Amendments to the Constitution that respectively called for the direct election of federal senators and for women's suffrage, were opening US American politics to the concerns of a wider range of society. These sorts of developments would only lead to a "tyranny of the mob," according to Grant, rather than a reasoned approach to policy matters: "That the process of introducing discordant elements into the body politic is fraught with danger has been the opinion of the thoughtful for many years." It is clear that he did not think that non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants could contribute anything to the preservation of US American society and government. Instead, they represented the potential dissolution of the union into "separate political entities of various sorts" because of their different "outlook" and "instinct" and presumably, their adherence to maintaining their ethnic or cultural heritage. In this judgment, Grant was joined by President Woodrow Wilson, who, at the beginning of World War I, warned of the potential treason of those immigrants who might place an ethnic or national name before "American." Wilson maintained that any person in the United States "who carries a hyphen about him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic."

Today, this line of thinking extends through the works of Samuel Huntington and Patrick Buchanan, as well as other cultural nativists, such as Victor Davis Hanson and Heather McDonald. They all argue, in various ways, that there are core cultural values that explain the power and success of the United States up to the present day. These values can be traced to the original settler people who arrived in North America and established the political, economic, social, and legal foundations of the nation. Current immigration threatens the stability and future prosperity of the United States because it is composed of people from ethnic groups, particularly Latinos/Latinas, who do not share those core cultural traits and do not display a ready willingness to assimilate.

The Fusion Model

The fusion interpretation of the melting pot holds that US American identity is unique, dynamic, not yet fixed, and always in progress. Immigrants come to the United States and discard their native identities by interacting with settled US Americans and other immigrant people. In the process of living together, US Americans and immigrants begin to transform themselves into members of a community unlike any other in human history. One early definition of this kind of assimilation process was offered by University of Chicago sociologist Robert Park and E. W. Burgess in 1921. To them, assimilation is "a process of interpenetration and fusion in which persons and groups acquire the memories, sentiments, and attitudes of other persons and groups and, by sharing their experiences and history, are incorporated with them in a common cultural life."

The fusion ideal can be traced back to J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer in 1782. Crevecoeur, a French immigrant, described a US American as: "Either an European, or a descendent of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you find in no other country. ... He is an American who leaves behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. ... Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world." As this passage indicates, de Crevecoeur sets the tone for the fusion melting pot ideal by juxtaposing Europe and the United States as Old and New Worlds and emphasizing that US American identity involves a conscious rejection of the folkways of the Old World. The notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson display how this imagery about novelty and creativity persisted l ater on in US American life. In 1845, Emerson wrote about the United States as a "smelting pot" in which diverse peoples, and not just Europeans, would gather to form a new race, new religions, new forms of literature, and new forms of governance not yet seen in human history. Frederick Jackson Turner, in his famous essay on the importance of the frontier in 1893, discussed the "composite nationality" of the United States formed in a "crucible" that "fused" US Americans into a unique mixed-race people.


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Table of Contents

1. Three Models of the Melting Pot
2. Cultural Pluralism and Principles of Pragmatist Solidarity
3. From Plymouth Rock to Ellis Island: Louis Adamic and Cultural Flourishing
4. W.E.B. Du Bois and the Black Cultural Contribution to US Deep Democracy
5. Josiah Royce’s Deliberative Democracy for Multicultural Conflict and Education
6. Aliens and Neighbors: Jane Addams and the Reframing of the Undocumented Immigration Debate
7. Cesar Chavez and the Pluralist Foundations of US American Democracy

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editor of Pragmatism, Nation, Race - Eduardo Mendieta

An original and distinct contribution to the scholarship on immigration and how American philosophy has contributed to providing our society with resources to deal with it in ways that are proper to the country's political morality . . . an extremely timely book.

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