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Why Filipino Americans Should Be In Solidarity With Black Lives Matter: Lessons From American History

Categories: News

By Bobby Dalton G. Roy
FANHS National Trustee

The Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) is horrified by the murders of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN; Breonna Taylor in Louisville, KY; Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, GA; Tony McDade in Tallahassee, FL; and countless other African American individuals. The anti-Black violence and systemic oppression of Black people must stop. As historians, we know very well how too many Americans, Filipino Americans included, endured segregation and racist violence through the 20th and 21st centuries, fought bravely against fascism during World War II, struggled for civil rights for all Americans, and endure ongoing discrimination today. Black Lives Matter.

One central mission of FANHS is to promote understanding and education about the history of Filipino Americans–the third largest Asian American group and one of the largest immigrant groups in the US. Despite the fact that Filipinxs are the first Asian group to set foot on what is now known as the continental United States on October 18, 1587, and are embedded into the fabric of American society, studies support that 99% of Filipinx Americans report experiencing racism on a regular basis. The recent protests throughout the world are a collective cry for social justice, and are a reflection of a continuous history of rightful democratic struggles against generations of racism. We particularly recognize that experiences with law enforcement and the legal system have been fraught with racial discrimination and struggle, and we stand in solidarity with the Black community.

The history of the Filipinx community and the Black community in the US is intertwined and we share common threads in the continued struggle for freedom, dignity, and equality.

The Jenkins Family - First Filipino American Family of Seattle since 1909

Graphic by FANHS Seattle Chapter

It is important to recognize our community is composed of many multiracial Black-Filipino families. The first Filipino American community settlement in the late 1700s was in the bayous of Louisiana, where “Manilamen”, who had jumped ship to escape their Spanish Galleon masters, intermarried with Black and Cajun women. Their families are now in their 9th generation. Other historic Filipino-African American families include Rufina Clemente Jenkins and Buffalo Soldier Sgt. Francis Jenkins, the first Filipino American family to settle in Seattle in 1909 (whose descendants, like daughter Dolores Bradley, became civil rights activists in the Central District of Seattle) and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) activist Cecelia Suyat Marshall (whose descendants have gone on to continue in public service). Others include Latin soul musician Joe Bataan (New York, NY), Seattle Seahawks Superbowl Champion Doug Baldwin (Seattle, WA), and Grammy Award Winner H.E.R. (Gabriella Wilson [Vallejo, CA]), all of whom celebrate their Black and Filipino American heritage.

Filipinx and Black solidarity is also witnessed in 1899, during the Philippine-American War, or as it was called by the Philippines’ eventual colonizers, the “Philippine Insurrection”. Filipinos were fighting against United States colonialism and for their independence. Within the Black American community, there was considerable opposition to intervention in the Philippines. Many Black newspaper articles and leaders supported the idea of Philippine independence and felt that it was wrong for the United States to subjugate non-whites in the development of what was perceived to be the beginnings of a colonial empire. Among them were Ida B. Wells and Bishop Henry M. Turner, who characterized the venture in the Philippines as “an unholy war of conquest.”

As the often forgotten and never-talked-about war between the Philippines and the US from 1899-1913 progressed, many Black soldiers increasingly felt they were being used in an unjust racial war. They sympathized with the Filipinos who were fighting to keep their sovereignty and independence. As Filipino scholar Luzviminda Francisco writes:

The Americans were contemptuous of Filipinos generally and they had little respect for the fighting ability of the Philippine Army. They referred to the Filipinos as “n*****s,” “barbarians,” and “savages,” reflecting both the racist and imperialist attitudes of American society at large.

The Americans were elated by their initial success and their commander, the rather wooden and unimaginative Gen. Elwell Otis, confidently predicted that the war would be ended in a matter of weeks. Otis had convinced himself that the opposition to U.S. rule came only from the Tagalog “tribe,” which (it was claimed) was only one of eighty or so “tribes” in the Philippines. This theme, which was trotted out by domestic U.S. annexationists at every opportunity, gave the impression that the war in the Philippines was but a slight variation of the familiar Indian wars of the American West.

During the Philippine-American War, many Black Americans known as Buffalo Soldiers, like David Fagen, became disillusioned with the US occupation of the Philippines, especially after hearing the use of the N-word by the White soldiers in referring to the Filipinos. The Filipino freedom fighters recruited Black soldiers encouraging them to defect and desert their US military positions. Posters and leaflets addressed to “The Colored American Soldier” described the lynching and discrimination against Black people in the US and discouraged them from being the instrument of their White masters’ ambitions to oppress another “people of color.” Black American soldiers who deserted to the Filipino nationalist cause were welcomed and given positions of responsibility.

At the same time, the US government sought to establish a system of government and education that mimicked its own. In 1901, a group of teachers from the US went to the Philippines to establish a formal educational system. One of the supervisors was Carter G. Woodson, the man considered as the “Father of Black History” and who started the recognition now known as Black History Month. By the time Woodson ended his stint as a supervisor in the Philippines in 1907, his direct participation in and observation of the US miseducation process in the Philippines had informed his understanding of the miseducation of Black communities in the U.S. In 1933, Woodson published “The Mis-Education of the Negro”. In 1959, Filipino scholar Renato Constantino, inspired by Woodson’s work, published “The Miseducation of the Filipino”.

Graphic by FANHS Seattle Chapter

Carlos Bulosan, arguably the most influential Filipino American poet and novelist in US history who wrote prolifically about the experiences of Filipinos in the US during the early to mid-1900s—related the struggles of early Filipinos in the US to those of the struggles of Black individuals (and other groups). For instance, in his most famous work America is in the Heart: A Personal History, Bulosan wrote:

America is not a land of one race or one class of men. We are all Americans that have toiled and suffered and known oppression and defeat, from the first Indian that offered peace in Manhattan to the last Filipino pea pickers. America is not bound by geographical latitudes. America is not merely a land or an institution. America is in the hearts of men (and women) that died for freedom; it is also in the eyes of men (and women) that are building a new world. … America is also the nameless foreigner, the homeless refugee, the hungry boy begging for a job and the black body dangling from a tree. America is the illiterate immigrant who is ashamed that the world of books and intellectual opportunities is closed to him. We are that nameless foreigner, that homeless refugee, that hungry boy, that illiterate immigrant and that lynched black body. All of us, from the first Adams to the last Filipino, native born or alien, educated or illiterate — We are America!

We stand against any attempt to take our country back to those dark days of US history.

Another example of similar or shared struggles can be found in the history of anti-miscegenation laws in the US, which banned interracial marriage and sometimes criminalized sex between people of different races. While there have been no federal anti-miscegenation laws, many local laws prohibited miscegenation in numerous states and counties in the US. All anti-miscegenation laws banned the marriage of Whites and non-White groups, which primarily targeted interracial relationships with Black people. However, in certain states there were laws that prohibited sexual or romantic relationships between White people with indigenous people or Asians. In the 1930s case Roldan v. Los Angeles County, Salvador Roldan, a Filipino man, fought a legal battle to marry a White British woman, Marjorie Rogers. He ended up winning, but less than a week after winning, California lawmakers passed a law to make the marriage illegal once again. Three decades later, the racist laws were overturned nationwide by the Supreme Court in 1967, in the case of Loving v. Viagra, in which a Black woman and a White man fought for their right to be married. Thus, we acknowledge that all people have the right to marry outside of their race in the U.S. today, as a result of Black activism.

Further, Filipinx Americans and other Asian Americans were able to immigrate to this country in large numbers because of the work of Black activists, as the victories of the Civil Rights Movement opened the door to the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. That legislation put an end to all race-based immigration restrictions, which previously permitted only 50 (and later 100) Filipinos to immigrate to the U.S. each year.

In 1968, under the umbrella of the Third World Liberation Front, the Pilipino American Collegiate Endeavor (PACE), along with Asian American, Latinx, Chicana/o, and indigenous students, as well as progressive white students, joined forces with the Black Student Union to carry out the longest student strike in history. Together, they made history by winning their demands for an Ethnic Studies department, a place to tell their stories. These are not just stories limited to those particular ethnic groups’ struggles. These are truths about what it means to be human; what it means to be resilient.

As a historical society, we understand that policing, law enforcement, and the legal system have affected Black, indigenous, and people of color differently from White people – signifying the role that historic and institutionalized racism has played in America. There are many more historical and modern-day realities that tie the Black experience and the Filipinx experience together. By becoming aware of the long and meaningful connections between us, we can begin to address the pervasive anti-Black sentiments in the Filipino community. As Filipinx Americans, we must recognize our own history of colonialism and oppression, the legacies of which include the colorism and racism that still negatively affects how we look at ourselves, Black people, and other people of color today.

Sadly, in 2020, we now return to what the late historian and FANHS National Scholar Dr. Dawn Bohulano Mabalon wrote after the killings in Charlottesville in 2017:

FANHS stands staunchly against all forms of racism, white supremacy, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant sentiment, sexism, and anti-LGBTQ sentiment. We condemn the racist domestic terrorism that is happening particularly against Black lives. We urge all Americans to study our history well, so that we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of our past, and to find inspiration in the courage of all who, over the centuries, have fought so bravely against hate for the rights we enjoy today in our nation. Because of the courage of activists and our elders and ancestors, we live in a society in which hate and inequality have no place, and we honor their sacrifices when we take up their struggle. We must take up the fight against injustice, stand in solidarity with all Americans against hate, and remain steadfast in our commitment to justice, equity, and equality.

The mission of the Filipino American National Historical Society is to promote understanding, education, enlightenment, appreciation, and enrichment through the identification, gathering, preservation, and dissemination of the history and culture of Filipino Americans in the United States.