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Barack Obama and the re-education of Fil-Am voters

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By Ted Regencia Contributor AT the height of the US presidential primaries that pitted Chicago's very own Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, one Filipino American social butterfly emphatically said, "Ay, ayaw ko kay Obama! Baka yung White House magiging Black House (Oh, I don't want Obama! The White House might turn into a Black House)." It's a sentiment not so few of Chicago's Filipino-Americans feel towards their very own senator who is an African-American. Now that he is the Democratic nominee for president, a historic achievement for a black candidate, the antagonism has only intensified. It all started when Obama won the Iowa caucus on January 3. Shortly after, an online group of Filipinos received a forwarded email attacking Obama's "Muslim upbringing." The email asked, "Are you aware that Obama's middle name is Mohammed (It's actually Hussein, which means "the handsome one" in Arabic). Strip away his nice looks, the big smile and smooth talk and what do you get?" It warned that Obama is "possibly a covert worshiper of the Muslim faith, even today." "This guy desires to rule over America while his loyalty is totally vested in a Black Africa," it added. The smear provoked a sharp response from Chicago-based Filipino publisher and editor, Mariano Santos, who described it as "worse than witch-hunt." "People who started this fear-mongering are more dangerous than their black propaganda. Filipinos had lived through this dark age, when they cannot even rent a house in a white neighborhood, or date a white American without being in danger of lynching. Now these pathetic Pinoys are circulating this email like they are scions of the Ku Klux Klan," he said referring to the white supremacist group, KKK. "These rumor mongers have only prejudice and lies to peddle. They are the danger to true American way of life," Santos said while castigating the source, a Filipino American and devout Catholic. The online message turned out to be just an initial assault of the candidate. A second version of the email immediately followed. This time, it accuses Obama of having "a black Muslim" father "a white atheist" mother, and "a radical Muslim" Indonesian step-father. "Let us all remain alert concerning Obama's presidential candidacy. The Muslims have said they plan on destroying the US from the inside out, what better way to start than at the highest level," it warned. Curiously, the attacks were not based on Obama's liberal policy positions, like his support of abortion rights and civil unions for gay couples. Or even his Iraq withdrawal plan. Rather, it was an in-your-face attack of his race, and his "Muslim links." Reports of Obama's Muslim upbringing, however, have been repeatedly debunked by international news organizations like CNN and New York Times. Americans of the Muslim faith also assailed the malicious implication that being a Muslim automatically equates to being unpatriotic, or worse, a supporter of terrorists. By March, as the odds of an Obama nomination increased, the voices of opposition within the Filipino community became even louder. A former president of the Filipino-American Council of Greater Chicago taunted the Chicago-based publication, PINOY Newsmagazine, by e-mailing altered pictures with the heading, "If Obama wins." One image shows the Kentucky Fried Chicken logo with Colonel Sanders wearing a turban. Another photo shows the iconic McDonald's sign changed to McHammed's. The Chicago alumni president of a very reputable Catholic university in Manila chimed-in by forwarding a message with the subject entitled, "Interesting: Barack H. Obama, 50 Lies and Counting." Asked by one of the recipients, who is he recommending for president, his loaded reply was, "The one who tells the TRUTH." When confronted, he feigned innocence by saying that he was only trying to pass the information around. Yet another personality, who was crowned Mrs. Philippines in Chicago, was more direct. Santos, the newspaper publisher, recalled that after writing about Senator Obama, he was confronted in public by the said individual who claimed "in loud and emotional outburst" that Obama is an "evil man." That same community leader also heads the Philippine Lions Club of Chicago. The onslaught of racially-charged denunciations continued by the start of Spring. On the 40th Death Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. last April, for instance, this reporter invited a friend to watch a one-act play honoring the legacy of the foremost civil rights leader. Out of nowhere, a pointed rejection came: "Those blacks are parasites" followed by an Obama-bashing comment. Another friend, a graduate of the Philippines' oldest university, could not hide his disdain of Obama either. As a healthcare practitioner, he said that he had encountered a number of African-American patients. He said that they are "lazy" and dependent on government dole-outs. He concluded that a win by Obama will only perpetuate the black's sense of victimhood. Suspicions and mistrusts towards the African American community run deep, and the Filipino community is not immune to those false impressions. For one, many Filipino immigrants have limited understanding of the very violent black experience in America. As Filipinos migrate to America, many bring with them, some deep-seated prejudice against people of darker color, in itself a product of colonial mentality that dictates that everything white is superior. Even religious upbringing may have unwittingly played a role in forming these pre-conceived notions about color. In church, black always represents sin and bad omen. A wild child in the family is called a "black sheep." It's not always the fault of Filipinos migrants to have brought with them these views from the motherland. Many are hard-working, decent and God-fearing individuals who only have the best interest of their families and community in their hearts. But, as they become part of a multi-cultural and pluralistic society like the United States, it is also necessary for them to understand the new dynamics of the whole community, including the important issue of race. Ignorance of that can create misinformed if not bigoted views. A deep economic disparity, however, generally prevents Filipino Americans from interacting with their African-American brothers and sisters. An estimated 60 percent of Filipino-Americans have income over $50,000 a year, allowing them to live in middle-class and upper middle-class neighborhoods. Meanwhile, majority of blacks who suffered many decades of racial discrimination remains disproportionately stuck in the lowest income level, pushing many of them to live in urban ghettos. Many become unemployed for long periods and get involved in various crimes. Absent those physical bonds, the opportunity to have a healthy social integration and interaction between the African American and Filipino-American communities is vastly limited. The only exposure many Filipinos may have of blacks is when they appear in the news about gang shootings and drug arrests, and that only exacerbates the already dysfunctional view towards the black community. The recent spike in murder rate in Chicago -- which is naturally getting intense media attention -- only highlights those existing unease. It's not unusual to hear comments by Filipinos like, "They're lazy! "How come we've managed to improve our way of life here in America, when we are only here for five, 10 years?" "These blacks have been here in America their whole life, and they're still poor." While maybe true, comments such as those are myopic and ill-informed. It does not take into account the long history of slavery and racial discrimination. It also misses the fact that a significant number of African-Americans have climbed up the economic scale by sheer hard work, just like many others. Indeed, even here in the Windy City, home of well-loved African Americans like the entertainment titan Oprah Winfrey and sports legend Michael Jordan, racial understanding still has a long way to go. And that's the fragile scenario, where all these political dramas about Senator Obama are being played. As the new face of politics, the Hawaii-born and Harvard-educated politician has become "a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views." As CNN political commentator Donna Brazile said, "Race is one of the most difficult issues to navigate in presidential politics especially when often the race card is played. So it all depends if the race card is play and whether or not Barrack Obama will be able to navigate that. Bottom of the deck." In this 2008 presidential derby, the challenge for the Filipino-American voters is to avoid being dealt with those race cards, as they decide on their choice for president. A vote for Republican candidate Senator John McCain should not be a vote against Senator Obama's skin color. Rather it should be about what the Arizona senator stands for on critical issues at that matter. Let it be about the debate on the economy and national security, and never about who does and doesn't look "All-American." It was not too long ago when Filipinos from all over the world were up in arms over the perceived racist treatment of Filipino doctors by the popular US television show, "Desperate Housewives." And rightly so, for indeed Filipino doctors are of the highest caliber. Locally in Chicago, Pinoys slammed the department store H&M for the racist slur directed at a Filipino-American customer Frannie Richards, who is a nurse and a U.S. Air Force Reserve Staff Sgt. There was also the brouhaha over the identification by a local television station, of a crime suspect as "Filipino." The protesters argued that by calling the suspect by his country of origin, it stigmatized the whole Filipino community. The station would later apologize, while the suspect was convicted. Filipino-Americans cannot claim to be victims of racism, while turning a blind eye on its own prejudice towards the black community and the candidacy of Barack Obama. The larger point is, Filipino-Americans cannot allow the stain of racism smudge its image as a model community. It must confront it head on and condemn it with full force. So when history is written, we will not be sidelined with a footnote as a bunch of racist minority. Ted Regencia is a Chicago-based Filipino journalist. He is a journalism graduate at Silliman University in Dumaguete City.

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