- Living with Immigrants in a Context of Difference:Exclusion, Assimilation, or Pluralism
in their book American Philosophy: From Wounded Knee to the Present, contemporary philosophers Erin McKenna and Scott Pratt identify "living in a context of difference" as the central philosophical issue in the history of the United States. They credit W. E. B. Du Bois with having identified racial difference as one particular version of this general issue: "Du Bois once declared that the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line—the problem of the coexistence of differences that figure in our existence as members of communities" (McKenna and Pratt 2). For McKenna and Pratt, this continues to be the central philosophical problem in the United States, and perhaps globally, today: "From the perspective of the post-9/11 world, the formative problem continues to be the coexistence of difference" (2).
As they point out, one possible response by members of hegemonic groups in contexts of difference is to force a dichotomy upon members of other groups: either assimilate or be excluded. The alternative response is pluralism: differences in moral values, philosophical ideals, and religious beliefs among peoples and groups, for instance, are real, but different peoples and groups can coexist and even cooperate.
For McKenna and Pratt, there is an American pluralist tradition that can be traced historically through the mainstream philosophical voices of classical pragmatist philosophers like Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, and through philosophically neglected voices such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Simon Pokagon, and many others. In my interpretation of their view, pluralism means the principled embracing and nurturing of difference in philosophical ideals, moral values, religious beliefs, and political and economic arrangements among peoples who co-exist and cooperate. [End Page 109]
In the case of the pragmatists, their pluralism resulted from the centrality that they gave to experience in their philosophies. McKenna and Pratt write: "For Peirce, James, and Dewey, philosophy worth the name began in response to experienced problems—situations marked by confusion, doubt, indeterminacy—and then returned to these problems, aiming to transform and reconstruct them in ways that allowed the inquirer to go forward to encounter still more experience" (3).
Philosophy today, for instance, should arise from the need to solve actual problems—experienced ones, like hunger, inequality, poverty, war, fear of the unknown and of difference—that assail us. Dewey called these the problems of people, not of philosophers.
From our diverse experiences in different biological, social, cultural, and historical environments arise plural values, ideals, concepts, practices, and so on. Such pluralism, however, is a source of experiential richness and well-being, not a problem to be solved by assimilation or exclusion.
In what follows, I aim to clarify pragmatically the meaning of these American philosophical ideas in terms of actual experience. Specifically, I want to illustrate how exclusionary, assimilationist, and pluralist belief-habits affect the response of members of receiving communities in the United States toward incoming immigrants who are different from them. Brief experiential narratives serve this purpose. They also inform intertwined reflections about the possibilities of American pluralist philosophies for fostering habits of solidarity, cooperation, and loving care between members of receiving and immigrant communities in our contemporary United States.
Exclusionary Threats in a Pennsylvania Sports Bar
D, G, and I were enjoying our beers and having a conversation at a sports bar in a college town in Pennsylvania. D and I are from Costa Rica, G from the Dominican Republic. Naturally, we were speaking in Spanish. D is a lean, wiry triathlete. He is brown-sugar-skinned and at that time cropped his black hair very short with clippers. I have a lighter skin tone but was tanned that summer, and I had slightly curled, dirty blonde hair. G is black-coffee-with-a-drop-of-milk-skinned. He wore his black hair in thick, free curls. He is one of the kindest, most joyful persons I know, with a soft manner and an easy smile about him.
As we talked, I noticed there was a small group of ROTC students from the university in a table near us drinking some pitchers of beer. All...