E Pluribus Unum?

By José-Antonio Orosco

Jose-Antonio Orosco
Jose-Antonio Orosco

In 1908, a Broadway premiere changed the way Americans understood what it means to belong to this country. At the time, the United States was experiencing one of the biggest waves of immigration in its history. In language that mirrors today’s campaign slogans, nativists raged that immigrants were criminals, illiterates, carriers of disease, and that their cultural traditions were not compatible with the American way of life.

The play, The Melting Pot, provided the nation with a metaphor for imagining how diverse people from all around the world could transform into American citizens. The Melting Pot told the story of David and Vera, two children of immigrant parents who fall in love. Their families were at odds in their home country, separated by fear and prejudice. But instead of being a tale of star-crossed lovers, the play revels in the fact that here, the couple can forge a new relationship that is not weighed down by religious intolerance. In the U.S., the baggage of the Old World disappears, and a new race of liberty- and equality-loving people can be born.

The metaphor of the melting pot captured the imaginations of millions — and it still does. In a poll conducted in 2010, a majority of Americans agreed that the melting pot is the ideal way to think of the requirements of immigration: Immigrants who want to live in the United States ought to give up certain parts of their cultural identity.

But starting in the 1920s, a group of American philosophers, including Horace Kallen, John Dewey, W.E.B Du Bois, and Jane Addams started to question this ideal.  Was it ethical to expect immigrants to shed their culture and traditions to assimilate into the United States? Was it compatible with the democratic ideals of the nation to force newcomers to alter their ways of life and abandon their heritage? Their answers were “no” to both of these questions. Instead, they attempted to topple the melting pot and to envision a democratic society that welcomed immigrants for the unique contributions they might make to our social and political life.

The alternative they sketched out was based on different principles. First, immigrants and other minority cultures should have the right to maintain their traditions, languages and practices. Second, we should learn not just to tolerate differences, but to be open to and affirming of them. Finally, we ought to think about how to establish spaces for ongoing dialogue in our communities on how our traditions and policies affect different communities, so that we can avoid harm and misunderstanding.

These ideals, the philosophers argued, were truer to our founding values and strengthened American democracy. Several of these ideals later found their way into social movements, including labor organizing and Cesar Chavez’s effort to unionize farmworkers. Yet the struggle continues to imagine what role immigrants should play in building a culturally pluralistic democracy.

Editor’s note: José-Antonio Orosco’s new book, Toppling the Melting Pot: Immigration and Multiculturalism in American Pragmatism, is due to be published in October 2016 by Indiana University Press.