Finding Filipino American History In The Dred Scott Decision; And, Ishmael Reed’s New Play
by Emil Guillermo
This October marks the coincidence of the new Supreme Court session, the Filipino American History Month, and the opening of a new satirical history of race in America by the esteemed African American writer Ishmael Reed.
Let’s start with the Supreme Court. No matter how much we hail and praise Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s arrival, the first African American woman to serve on the court will not be able to mitigate the foulness we are about to experience.
Affirmative action, gay rights, abortion rights, voting rights, we are almost certainly assured that the hits will keep on coming.
But if you think it’s bad now, you should have seen SCOTUS in 1857.
That’s when the high court rendered by a 7-2 vote what some have called the worst SCOTUS decision ever, the Dred Scott opinion, written by Chief Justice Roger Taney.
Most people know of the case from history, if history hasn’t been banned from your school yet (if you’re young). Or if the history has been totally forgotten (if you’re older). I dread if you stop any American today at random and ask about Dred Scott, you might hear something vague like, “It’s about slavery, right?”
To refresh, the case involved Scott, a slave who had been allowed to move from Missouri to a free state (Illinois), but then sued his owner for his freedom in Missouri.
Taney’s majority opinion ruled for Scott’s owner primarily because African Americans couldn’t be citizens, and that Congress couldn’t prohibit slavery in new U.S. territories like Missouri in the first place.
More startling was the finding that people of African ancestry had, to quote Taney, “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
Whites were simply seen as superior. So, what does this have to do with Filipino American History Month?
Chief Justice Taney based his terrible Dred Scott opinion on an 1840 case in which Taney himself wrote the opinion regarding one Lorenzo Dow.
Dow was a Filipino-born sailor on an American ship, who had been accused of murder and tried in Maryland.
In the U.S. v. Dow decision, Taney used for the first time the notion that whites were a master race (“the race of which the masters were composed”). That was the proof of superiority since only those of European backgrounds could be part of political society in the colonies. Therefore, the only question Taney saw as significant was whether Dow was a person who had any rights at all, meaning “a white Christian person.”
He was not, and Dow’s conviction of murder was upheld.
Seventeen years later, Taney used the Filipino Dow to reason that non-white, or essentially all people of color, could be reduced to slavery for the white man’s benefit.
It wasn’t an African American, or a Native American. It was a Filipino in America who was at the heart of what is arguably the worst Supreme Court decision ever.
More than a footnote, the unheralded Dow should be seen as a foundational building block of America’s racist history.
All those “inalienable rights” under the Constitution were indeed whites only and did not include any people of color. Including Filipinos.
Ponder that as you wish people a happy Filipino American History Month.
As Dow proves, it’s not just for Filipino Americans.
It is a history for all people of color in America.
Ishmael Reed’s “The Conductor”
This month, I will again be telling stories of the first Filipinos to arrive in the U.S. in 1587. As well as the tales of Filipinos like my dad who skipped Hawaii and went straight from Ilocos to San Francisco. Or of Fil-Am unionist Larry Itliong who merged civil rights and labor rights when he started the Delano Grape Strike of 1965.
And that’s just a small part of Filipino American history.
But Filipino American history is also personal history. This month, I honor the noted African American novelist, essayist, poet and playwright Ishmael Reed.
When I was in graduate school at Wash U. in St. Louis, I wanted to be a funny novelist like Philip Roth. But my professors said I had too many Filipino characters and should take them out.
Reed, a visiting writer from Oakland, told me to put the Filipinos back in.
No one told me that. But Reed did.
This week, New York’s Theater for the New City presents a reading of Reed new play, “The Conductor.”
Reed’s satirical view of America’s race situation targets the recent recalls of progressive politicians in San Francisco led by conservative Asian Americans.
Reed provides a twist, a fictive Indian prime minister who creates an international scene that forces Indians to flee the U.S.
That includes Shashi Parmar, one of the Indians who led the recall effort.
Parmar, on the run, seeks help from a new “underground railroad” to get to Canada. And the conductor? It’s a character named Warren Chipp, a columnist who was fired for speaking out against the recall.
As Chipp and Parmar engage and debate, you’ll learn a lot about everything from Asian American history to African American history to the current status of Dalit women in India.
Provocative? Of course. The “N” word is used—about Asians.
The virtual reading means you can check in from anywhere, Oct. 13 to 16.
I have a very small part as a Fox News-type commentator. Think Tucker Carlson in brownface.
But “The Conductor” is all Reed, and his vision of how people of color have been mistreated historically in America. In a theatrical reading, that vision comes through loud and clear.
EMIL GUILLERMO is a journalist and commentator. He talks about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” his AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on www.amok.com.