The Racialization of “Civilization” in the U.S.-Philippine War

“Race-Making and Colonial Violence in the U.S. Empire” centers on the experiences of Filipinos after their revolution against Spanish colonial rule, and how the U.S.’s military intervention served to continue the same racism that the Philippines had tried to fight back against with Spain. The intervention was overtly framed as a “race war”, especially so by President Theodore Roosevelt and the U.S. military occupation. Race was prevalent in one of two ways; first, elite quests for recognition on the part of Filipinos, especially the affirmation of civilizational status that could lead to political rights and independence, and second, U.S. racial denigration of Filipinos by finding in them a lack of civilization for engaging in nontraditional battle tactics.

During occupation by the U.S., but before it formed a postwar treaty with Spain, Filipinos for the most part tended to welcome U.S. inspectors with great hospitality and fanfare, so as to impart upon them the fact that they are a civilized people. This would ideally aid Filipino efforts in presenting themselves as capable of self-governance or organization, given the uncertainty of their fate in the face of U.S.-Spain postwar negotiations. In the reporting of the newspaper, La Independencia, the sovereignty of the Republic was reinforced through focuses on the successful rule in the provinces, humanitarian treatment of Spanish prisoners, and explorations of just government practices. However, U.S. soldiers for their part usually brought racial practices with them from the U.S., applying racial slurs often reserved for blacks towards Filipinos. Filipinos were generally looked at as uncivilized and filthy.

The Americans put great emphasis on the idea of a “civilized war”, urging Filipino revolutionaries to surrender with honor, lest they betray common notions of “civilization” through their guerilla campaigns. Fighters who reject the principles of proper surrender in a war, and continuing prolonged and “useless” war, would out themselves as being incompetent in managing civil affairs. Filipino revolutionary leaders counterargued that the same laws of war that authorize strong nations’ use of “powerful weapons of combat” against weak ones also justified the weak to use guerilla warfare, especially in defending themselves against invaders. In essence, this would serve to separate guerilla warfare from the ethnological to being simply tactical, and to maintain the claim to civilization that the Filipino revolutionaries so desired in their attempts at attaining self-governance.


The key take-away from this piece would be to emphasize the U.S. racial denigration of Filipino revolutionaries overall. This was accomplished first by U.S. soldiers bringing racist culture and understandings with them, treating Filipinos the same way they would blacks. Local residents and newspapers would peacefully counter racist assertions through emphasis on their civilized self-rule, humanitarianism, and interests in the complex facets of government building. The second dimension was that of the U.S. occupancy framing Filipino guerilla warfare as being uncharacteristic of a civilized society and attempting to collapse their claims to self-governance on them. Filipino revolutionaries for their part would point to the hypocrisy of these claims, as the same honor in stronger states subjugating weaker states would then give them the justification to fight back and defend themselves against the invaders.

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