Filipinos and Affirmative Action

It’s #TBT. Given the June 23rd, 2016 #SCOTUS decision on #AffirmativeAction and the fact that we’ve just concluded graduation season (including the celebration of #FilGrad at different university campuses) I think its important to revisit the issue of affirmative action for Filipinos. What has been worrying me lately is that folks are celebrating Filipino graduation as if it’s just some “ethnic pride” or “cultural” thing. The fact is, many of us organized Filipino graduation as a political act and more specifically, we organized Filipino graduation as a means of resisting the passage of Proposition 209 which eliminated affirmative action programs in public institutions like the University of California.

Many if not all Filipino graduations were first organized in the mid-1990s. I was a student at UC Santa Barbara during that time, was heavily involved in the fight against Prop.209 and one of the organizers of the first Filipino graduations there. For me, Filipino graduation was not just a celebration of the completion of our degrees, it was also a way to take a stand and insist that our people belonged in the University of California system and recognize that affirmative action programs were vital to getting us there. To take away affirmative action was to exclude Filipinos, along with other brown and black communities, from a university education. And it did.

Even though I have critiques of affirmative action (I basically don’t think it goes far enough…but that’s for another time), I believe it is high time for the California to rescind 209.

Today, I’m posting a speech I gave at UC Davis’ Filipino graduation in 2011. I had just been offered a position by the Asian American Studies department. Though I wasn’t officially on the payroll yet, the students at the time were excited that Filipino faculty members (Sarita See was hired with me) were finally being brought in to teach Filipino Studies after a long absence from the curriculum. I miss them. I feel as if many of the current Filipino students at UCD really don’t appreciate what it means that Filipino Studies is even offered at their university (again, that’s for another time). Anyhow, in the speech I speak about affirmative action and the Filipino community and I remind graduates that Filipino graduation is above all a celebration of collective, not individual, achievements.

Here it is:

I am greatly honored to have this opportunity to speak to you today as the incoming Filipino studies scholar to join the Asian American Studies department here at UC Davis after a rather lengthy period of time without one. I want to thank those of you amongst the graduates who supported my candidacy. I am here because of you. I am finally, finally actually able to be what I wanted to be when I grew up: a scholar who researches and publishes on issues concerning the Filipino community and a teacher who can offer up that knowledge to Filipino students especially ones with whom I share a similar background. As a person who grew up in the Bay Area in a predominantly Filipino community […]this job is especially important to me. Maraming salamat.

I am especially honored to be here as one of the founders of Filipino graduation at UCSB where I earned my undergraduate degree ( I am proud to say that it is in its 16th year […]), it’s an honor to be here moreover having been a participant of Filipino graduation. The stole I wear now is from graduation when I earned my PhD at UC Berkeley in 2005. As both a founder and participant in Filipino graduations past, I am all too aware of the importance of a ceremony that marks our individual and collective achievements as a community. Filipino students across the University of California have never had it easy neither in terms of recruitment (I’ve learned for instance, that only 3% of the UC Davis campus is Filipino) nor in terms of retention (Filipinos have amongst the lowest retention rates on this campus). I know that these trends are generally true for the other campuses.

Indeed, in today’s talk I’d like to reflect on the significance of celebration specifically a Filipino graduation (as opposed to or in addition to the general graduation ceremonies that are celebrated this time of year) and I’d like us to reflect on this significance from a sociological perspective [given my background and training].

Since most of you haven’t had the good fortune of having me in the classroom […] I’m going to use this speech as kind of Soc. 101. […] Well, the basic definition of sociology is that it is the science of society, the study of social life. Amongst the kinds of big questions a sociologist might ask is what explains the inequalities between countries? Why is the United States as wealthy as it is, for instance, and why the Philippines so poor? My own research, as elaborated in my recent book, “Migrants for Export” [sorry guys, had to do some product placement…support Filipino scholarship and read the book…buy it on Amazon] has examined why and how it is that the Philippines, a tiny archipelago in the Pacific has managed to the number one labor-exporting country in the world. Labor migration from the Philippines is unmatched by any other country as thousands of Filipinos leave the country on a daily basis for work in hundreds of countries across the planet […] at the core of what it means to thinking sociologically is to understand the intersection of biography and history. The intersection of biography and history […].

Now let’s break that down a bit: Biography: well, that’s easy enough. We all know our own individual biographies and we are living them out on a daily basis. We all know and can reflect on our individual lives. Today we are celebrating each and every one of your achievements as students here at UCD. Later, you will have a chance to go up one by one to get special recognition as unique individuals who, through your own hard work […] will be able to walk across this stage degree in hand. Yet today is FILIPINO graduation. We are coming together as Filipinos, collectively, not only to celebrate our individual accomplishments, but our collective accomplishment. Indeed, it is during an occasion like this when the sociological perspective becomes important. [Remember the sociological perspective…] is the intersection of biography and history. The intersection of biography and history.

Today’s graduation could not have been more well-timed, especially given the theme of today’s speech, as it also falls on the occasion of the Philippines’ independence from the Spanish. What is important about that historical event as we reflect upon it today is that it was in the build-up and struggle toward independence that the very idea of the “Filipino” was born. Once a disparate people divided by language and custom, the Filipino was constituted as a collective identity. It is important to remember on this day, here at this graduation, that we are not Filipinos merely because were born in the Philippines or are descendants from people born in the Philippines, but we are Filipinos in large part due to the collective and valiant efforts of our ancestors, women and men, to imagine ourselves, despite our many differences as one people with a shared future. It is through struggle that came to define ourselves it is through struggle that we can to define our futures.

If June 12th marked independence from one colonizer, it also inaugurated the beginnings of colonization by another: this time the United States. Though we as a community don’t often like to acknowledge the fact of U.S. colonization and many of its negative effects on contemporary Philippine society and indeed, its effects on the experiences of living in the United States at present, nevertheless, to understand why we find ourselves as one of the top immigrant groups to the U.S. why we find ourselves in California (in the cities of Union City, Daly City, Vallejo’s Stockton, Sacramento, etc) of this state, in this very room is as a result of U.S. colonization in the Philippines from what some might consider its benefits to the Philippines (like the expansion of public education ) to its exploitation of the Philippines including its natural resources and perhaps more pertinent to the history of Philippine immigration to the U.S., it exploitation of Philippine labor. If today, the fields that line highways 101 or 5 are populated by workers from Mexico, at the turn of the twentieth century and to some extent even to this day, Filipinos were the laborers working those fields. If today, Mexican immigrant workers are considered by some to be pariahs, in an earlier period, Filipino immigrant workers were pariahs. We were accused of taking jobs away from native-born Americans, we were accused of depressing wages, we were accused of contaminating American culture with our depraved ways. Much of what is being said of Mexicans today was said of our people in the past. It was in response to the exploitation of Filipino farm workers into the 1960s and in response to the invisibilization of the Philippines and the Filipino immigrant experiences in American history books, that students engaged in the “Third World Strike” which took place at the San Francisco State University and also involved students from the University of California Berkeley in the late 60s. Many of the student activists engaged in mobilizing for the campus strike were simultaneously engaged in supporting the labor struggles of Asian and Labor immigrant workers [more specifically Filipino and Mexican immigrant workers] in the United Farm Workers (UFW). The students were joined by their progressive faculty, campus workers and the broader community in making three sets of demands: 1) the admission of greater numbers of students of color, especially working class students; 2) the introduction of courses that both reflected the experiences of students of color and would provide the skills to help their communities; and 3) related to transformations in the substance of education, the increased community control of higher education to ensure that it serves the interests of broader constituencies. The “Third World Strike” would ultimate lead to the institutionalization of department of Asian American studies, like the one in which I will teach, the very department that has played an important role in shaping many of you who are here.

What was at stake for the activists then, and what is relevant to us gathered here today, is that those activists recognized that the University is hardly a place where true academic merit is what determines admission and graduation, recruitment and retention. They recognized that what was often true is that University education was increasingly being reserved only for the privileged few. Rather than being a vehicle for opportunity, higher education was a mechanism for reinforcing inequalities between groups, with minorities groups in particular, suffering the most. In addition to the institutionalization of Asian American Studies programs, the strike and similar struggles around the country led to the introduction of affirmative action programs. Programs that were aimed not at giving some groups undue advantage, but recognizing that the playing field is NOT EQUAL and that there ought to be measures to better ensure equality of opportunity. Those struggles would lead to the eventual flourishing of Filipino studies scholarship, and the increasing of Filipino students at the UCs.

When affirmative action programs were eliminated in the 1990s with Proposition 209, however, Filipino enrollments dropped dramatically. In the immediate wake of 209’s passage, there were NO Filipinos enrolled in UC Berkeley’s prestigious Boalt Law School. The visible absence of Filipinos in the state’s most prestigious institutions is incredibly apparent. It is not to say that Filipinos aren’t good enough. That’s the vital lesson that the strikes and indeed a sociological perspective teaches us: it is the unequal and uneven relationship between the Philippines and the U.S. that has played a key role in shaping our communities’ trajectory, irrespective of our individual merits. The legacies of this relationship matter […] Our individual fortunes and misfortunes are never fully our own, we are tied to longer histories and the social structures they produce; these histories shape and constrain the possibilities for our futures. And it is the recognition of the kinds of struggles we collectively face at the University of California that the need for Filipino graduation emerged. And it is in light of these struggles that we must all the more celebrate, in a special and distinct way, all that you have accomplished.

To conclude: the message I hope to leave to this year’s Filipino graduates is this: though it is rather cliché to say this, what we do fail to recall is that another term used to describe graduation is commencement. That is, “the beginning” or “to start.” The degrees you all will be holding your hands are not some guarantee of some perfect future that you may imagine for yourselves like some high-paying job […]. In fact, what the immediate future will hold for you is much uncertainty and insecurity. You may find yourselves disappointed. You may find yourselves struggling. Yet, what our collective history as Filipinos offers us is a testament to the promise and possibility that comes through struggle [especially collective struggle]. It is in struggle that we come to a sharper and clearer sense of ourselves, it is in struggle that we forge visions and carve out opportunities for a better future toward which we [can all] strive. Today is the beginning of your struggle but rather than daunt us, it should embolden us. As the brave youth of a few short decades ago declared in the streets of the Philippines in the face of one of the greatest obstacles to their collective futures, the Marcos dictatorship declared: Makibaka Huwag matakot: struggle, don’t be afraid.