Emil Guillermo: Take the long view on affirmative action, race, and the Supreme Court

July 9, 2018 2:59 PM

This week will mark the 90th year since my father's arrival to America from the Philippines.

Which means, if he was as horny as they said Filipinos were in those days, I should be at least 90 years old today. Or dead.

But I'm not. 

Lucky me. And that's just one of the positive benefits of racism.

It's a core story in my show, "Amok: All Pucked Up," which I'm doing for one night in the San Francisco Bay Area this Aug. 17, in the small, intimate space at the I-Hotel/Manilatown Center, on the edge of Chinatown on Kearny Street. (Tickets will go on sale soon, but email me at emil@amok.com and I'll make sure you'll be the first to know. And if you can't make it that night, let's figure out a way to bring the show to your town, community or campus center, or walk-in closet.)


I mention this historical marker of my father's arrival, because 90 years ago wasn't a great time to be Asian American. 

There were 30,000 Filipino men, mostly in California and the west, who came primarily as a labor force. Just in time for the Great Depression. The catch was these ethnic Filipino men  were all colonized Americans, no green card necessary. arrival. 

Whites feared that Filipinos were taking white jobs and white women (there were too few Filipino women to stick to one's own kind). The xenophobic sentiment drove a movement in California to change Filipinos' status from U.S. nationals to aliens. 

It was just a cover for a white supremacy/ethnic purity subtext. 

For Filipinos, it made California like the Jim Crow South. There was mob violence against Filipinos resulting in deaths, even lynchings.   

The anti-Asian politics of the day brought on the Filipino version of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which, along with the laws preventing Filipinos from intermarrying, put Filipino American life on the slow track and out of synch forever.  

There's a lost Filipino generation out there that no one ever talks about. Except me, because I'm one of the lost and out of step.

But here I am, found again and looking at the current situation at the southern border as new lives are destroyed by a bad mix of wrongheaded immigration politics and fear. 

I share this with you as a reminder that our country has always had a problem with new people coming in to take part in what really makes America great.

And the historical pattern keeps repeating. 

In the recent travel ban ruling, Korematsu and the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII were central reference points.

Filipinos in the '20s and '30s faced xenophobia.

Chinese were the targets of exclusionary laws in the 1880s. 

We could strengthen our democracy by learning our history and never forgetting. 

But we don't.  

There's a default lesson that comes in time: we will overcome racism.

It's not just a song.

It just helps to take the long view, which may take you the long way around. 

You may even end up missing a generation or two. Like the American Filipino community.

Affirmative Action/SCOTUS Pick
I'm not waiting around for the SCOTUS pick to denounce it. Do we really need a reality show-type of reveal to herald the likely backward march of American society?


We all know it's going to a conservative to preserve the 5-4 split, the mark of a divided court and a divided America. 

Without a solid bloc of Democrats (including those in red states) who hang tough, or a few Republican senators, will it be possible to stop the trumping of the high court?

Some people have talked about doing an FDR to change the court. The court's nine-member composition isn't set in stone, like, say, a nine-person baseball team. 

Back in my father's time in the '30s, Roosevelt wanted 15. Wouldn't 8-7 decisions sound more fair than 5-4?

Some have suggested making the high court an 11-person squad, like a football team. It makes ordering stuff easy. Order a dozen robes and you'll always have an extra.

Conservatives have it 5-4 now. Just add 2 principled liberals, and it could be a 6-5 liberal majority on the court.

Easier said than done. Just win everything in the midterms. And the presidency. 

If that doesn't happen, 5-4 will likely remain modern code for America's great march backward into time.

The country before civil rights, voting rights, abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, affirmative action? 

A repeat of the '50s, '60s? Try '30s and '40s. 

The rollback has already begun, even before the Supreme Court vacancy has been filled. The Department of Justice and the Education Department have rescinded the guidances on affirmative action established by the Obama administration.

Last week before the July 4th holiday, the Trump administration issued the memo that tells colleges and universities to stick to race-neutral policies. And wink-wink, you know what that means.

"The Departments have reviewed the documents and have concluded that they advocate policy preferences and positions beyond the requirements of the Constitution, Title IV and Title VI,"  the letter reads. "Moreover, the documents prematurely decide, or appear to decide, whether particular actions violate the Constitution or federal law."

So the new anti-guidance tells universities to feel free to do their rightward, backward, anti-diversity thing. 

The Trump administration is looking the other way. It's playing hardball on the southern border against mothers and their children.

FIVE-A Asians
A group named Asian Americans Against Affirmative Action, which I call the Five As, was quick to gloat how this reversal of the Obama guidances was "a new chapter for Asian American Children."

Don't kid yourself. 

This rollback doesn't change court decisions that have permitted holistic approaches to admissions. And it won't assure the kid with the highest test scores and best grades gets in (what every ambitious Tiger Mom wants). 

What gets you into Harvard? Jared Kushner, who didn't have the highest grades and scores in prep school, knows: Have your father, an NYU grad, pledge $2.5 million to Harvard.  

That's what gets Jared Kushner admitted to Harvard, as Daniel Golden wrote in his 2006 book, "The Price of Admission," which shows how the rich buy their way to admission. 

The poor have to do it the normal way. Qualify. Or write a nice handwritten essay about your Filipino father coming to America.

Now as a journalist, I don't think I've given more than a few hundred bucks to Harvard---ever. Which is the only reason why I mention my connection as much as I do (this time I waited at least three-quarters of a column).  

My record "talking about Harvard" is better than my donation record. And look where that's got me. Free pub doesn't translate into admission. None of my kids who even bothered to apply to Harvard got in. (Though their UC degrees don't seem like consolation prizes.) But it does prove that the legacy thing has no legs unless it comes with a check.

Affirmative action? It's when the Ivory Tower chimes "ka-ching."

The Supreme Court and the Trump dump of the Obama guidance doesn't even address that.  

In the meantime, let's not forget that the law of the land is still Fisher until further notice. Race can be considered as one of several factors in a holistic admissions process. 

Still, Trump has enabled all the dormant advocates who want laws that ban a woman's right to choose, prevent a gay person's right to marry, and withhold opportunities for women and people of color throughout society, even their right to vote. And these advocates just love to use Asian Americans as a wedge to divide all people of color--especially on affirmative action. 

So Trump's pick for the Supreme Court comes at a critical moment.

All the wrongheaded and bigoted actions we fought against and made illegal, may soon be legal again. Just as they were in my father's day.

Instead of despondence, it should be a signal to all to never give up hope.

We've seen darker moments just in Asian American history.

As we have in the past, we'll get through it all. But only if we stand and take action together.

*     *     *
Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.
The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF's views or policies.

Posted by:Emil Guillermo

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the views or policies of AALDEF.


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