OPINION: The white man’s burden

Manolo Quezon - The Explainer

Posted at Feb 21 2017 06:04 AM

If you have the chance, watch this movie, starring Ryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame as President Lyndon Johnson. It’s a great movie about politics –how, to get something good –in this case, the Civil Rights Act of 1964—LBJ used every trick in the political book, and then some, to get it passed. 

At the end of the film, he tells a Southern senator, “Well, we’ve just lost the South for a generation.” He was wrong. The South went Republican and has, with only occasional exceptions, stayed Republican ever since. 

There’s another major law LBJ signed, that’s relevant to our topic today. It’s the Immigration Act of 1965, when immigration to the USA as we know it today, began. Here is LBJ signing it, with the Kennedys behind him, themselves descended from immigrants. Like the Civil Rights Act, the immigration reforms of LBJ changed America forever –quotas based on countries were abolished, and the majority of immigrants, including Filipino immigrants, made it to America because of this law. 

As you well know, civil rights and immigration gave birth to a slogan that enabled Donald J. Trump to win the presidency –take our country back, he said, in a message meant to whip up White resentment against blacks, and other people of color. Donald J. Trump vowed to let the cops crack down on Blacks, and he promised to toughen up on immigration. Upon assuming office, Trump announced he would push through with his big, beautiful wall on the border with Mexico; and he signed an Executive Order that unleashed a crackdown against Muslims –and other people too. I’m sure you’ve heard your fair share of stories of Filipinos, even those with Green Cards, who suddenly faced a tough time at the immigration counter as they returned to America from Christmas vacation. 

Just last Friday, the Associated Press reported that Trump was considering using the National Guard to round up illegal immigrants. The White House has denied this, but at the same time, it said a new executive order would be signed, to compensate for the legal defects that led to The Donald’s original crackdown on immigration to be challenged in court.

The truth is, for us Filipinos, America has had an ambivalent attitude about us. This cover from the British satirical magazine Punch puts it in pen and ink: for the Anglo-Saxons, we were, as Rudyard Kipling put it in his poem, “half devil and half child.”

But America at the turn of the last century was filled with messianic zeal; it took up what Kipling called “The White Man’s Burden.” They would civilize us, and even, as President McKinley put it, Christianize us. But only to a certain extent and as this contemporary cartoon showed, we were just like the Blacks in the White world view. 

As Filipinos we should remember with admiration and affection, the prominent Americans who were bothered by this and opposed the conquest of our country. These Americans called themselves The Anti Imperialist League. Among them was the writer Mark Twain. But even these good people bore the limitations of thinking of their era. One big reason they gave for opposing the Philippine American War was this: if they become part of our country, what will happen to our White women? They might produce half-breed babies.    


Still we lost, America won, they Americans needed cheap labor for pineapples and sugar in Hawaii and in California, so the first wave of Filipinos went over the 1910s and 1920s.

And to be fair, when it comes to racism even being White is no guarantee against bigotry, which finds fertile ground during times of economic crisis. In 1921, the United States passed a highly restrictive Immigration Act, imposing a quota on immigrants based on their country of origin –designed to let in “good” immigrants while restricting “bad ones,” such as Eastern Europeans and Asians.

The 1920s and 1930s found White Americans sparking anti-Filipino race riots, particularly in California. There is a fascinating web page, titled “Americans of Filipino Descent –FAQs” by Eloisa Gomez Borah and in it, she features this poster and the next one you’ll see. 

Race riots in America were part and parcel of a world-view where only White Lives Mattered. As late as the 1930s Teodoro M. Locsin would remember the sign, “No Dogs and Filipinos Allowed” in the Army and Navy Club in Manila, and Emmanuel Pelaez was thrown out when he tried to step foot in the club. 

In America, the twin menace of Filipinos marrying white women and taking away the jobs of white men was perhaps, a minor reason that led to Congressional support for Philippine Independence (economic protectionism of American agriculture was the main reason, combined with an unwillingness to take on the responsibility of defending the Philippines from Japan), which would mean the Philippines would be just another country limited by an immigration quota.  

During World War II, the Japanese tried to make resentment against White Supremacy part of their propaganda, but overall, it failed in the Philippines. Filipinos and Americans had fought and suffered together in Bataan and Corregidor, after all. Here’s an interesting photo of a Filipino selling vegetables in San Lorenzo, California in 1942

And in America, Filipinos there were now allies, so while Japanese-Americans were rounded up and thrown in internment camps, Filipinos joined the US Army and were viewed with respect.


Still, after World War II, Filipinos got a mixed deal from America. Our veterans were denied the benefits of the GI Bill, but the immigration quota for the Philippines was increased –to 100 people a year.

Which brings us back to LBJ, the Immigration Act of 1965, and this chart from the Migration Policy website. It was during the 60s to the 90s that Filipinos got to enter America based on their work qualifications, or for being related to previous migrants or veterans of World War II. Petitioning became a way of life, and for thousands of Filipinos, a way forward. 

In that half century of migration, the FilAm was created: a community, a culture, a way of life.

And one of the biggest umbilical cords of our economy. The economic and social opportunities resulted in what we discussed here on ANC during our election coverage last November: for all the tens of thousands of legal immigrants, there are also 300,000 of our fellow Filipinos living in the legal shadows as illegals.

Last Thursday, protests were held around the United States, on what was called “A Day without Immigrants.” Whether a Filipino here at home or a FilAm watching on TFC: did you know? And did you even care?

A French historian once told me that we Filipinos are more like the Germans than the French. In what sense, I asked him. He said, we view being Filipino as a matter of blood –to whom were you born, unlike, say, the French, for whom being French is about where you were born.

Which leads me to ask you, the viewer, a question. For the 300,000 or more Filipinos who now join the Mexicans and other people in the USA, worrying about what the crackdown will bring, will your attitude be one of empathy, and even solidarity? Or will you be first line to pick up the phone, and call the INS to report on your fellow Filipinos? We are the same country, after all, that once gave birth to the Makapili.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.