The greatest flaw of European colonialism, among many others, was that it was inseparably linked with racism. Native peoples were viewed as savages, in need of civilizing and unfit to lead governments and hold representation in the motherland. But this clearly racist sentiment should not command any country’s decision-making today.
I do not believe that if Uganda, Guyana or any of the other lands in the colonial British Empire had held seats in Parliament, that the British dominion over those areas would be so detested both by the Native peoples and by modern members of society looking back; nothing prevents the exploitation of a people as effectively as them holding political power.
However, I fear that the United States, in our treatment of the vestiges of our colonial empire, is following the same path as the colonial powers of Europe did. If we do not correct course, we will be viewed by future generations as oppressors profiting off of a racist and undemocratic system, just as colonizers of previous centuries are today.
More than 4 million Americans live without representation in their government, in Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., Guam, the Virgin Islands, Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands. These are Americans who pay taxes, serve in the U.S. military, die for their country and give use of their land for its defense. Yet, these Americans are permitted no representation in Congress and, with the exception of Washington, D.C., may not cast votes in any presidential elections.
Our treatment of these territories is rooted in the same vile racism as the British, Spanish, French, Belgian, German, Dutch, Portuguese and Italian treatment of their colonies in Africa, Asia and the Americas were. The system that we have developed to deprive these Americans of their rights was established by a number of Supreme Court cases in 1901, the so-called Insular Cases.
These opinions, written by the same justice, Justice Henry Brown — who also wrote the majority opinion of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the case that enshrined segregation into U.S. law — determined that the U.S. Constitution does not apply in these areas because the “alien races” inhabiting them are incapable of comprehending “Anglo-Saxon principles” of law and government.
In the years since, American culture at large has moved further, if not completely, from the outdated ideas of the “white man’s burden” and “savage peoples” that shaped the outcome of these cases. But our treatment of the territories has not.
Why is Hawaii — annexed by the United States only one year before Puerto Rico, with less than half Puerto Rico’s population — a state while Puerto Rico is not? Perhaps this decision is related to Hawaii’s significant white population, almost 32% when granted statehood, compared to Puerto Rico’s more than 98% Hispanic, largely Spanish-speaking population? Now, even in the recent past, we have seen racist tropes decrying a people unfit to govern themselves dragged out to justify depriving the majority-minority community of representation.
Spain’s colonial empire is no more, dissolved into nothingness. The Netherlands has elevated its remaining colonies to constituent countries on equal standing with the Dutch in Europe; Denmark has done the same. France has made many of her former colonies — French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Mayotte and others — fully fledged and equal departments of France, which take part in elections and are represented in government.
While Europe has, in many cases, corrected the mistakes of its past to recognize the humanity of the people living in these territories, the United States has maintained the same racist, undemocratic system that was established at the height of the age of imperialism. If we do not allow all citizens of the United States to have fair representation in their own government, how are we any better than the colonial powers of Europe?
In order to avoid continuing an oppressive system, we must grant representation to these territories. This can only be done by Congress, and luckily some steps are being made. Recently, the House of Representatives passed HR 51, which would admit Washington, D.C., as a state. Last October, New York Rep. Jose Serrano sponsored HR 4901, which would admit Puerto Rico as a state.
We have the power to fix this disaster of representative design. The lawmakers capable of pushing these laws through remain in office only by the approval of the people. So, by showing our support for this cause, we can move them to action. It is incumbent upon us to make it clear to our senators — who will hopefully soon vote on HR 51 — and to our representatives — who still have not voted on HR 4901 — that we expect them to make right this situation.
Ian Stephens is a political scientist, the owner of lucretiareport.com and a progressive activist working for Oakland-based nonprofit Hip Hop For Change.
A previous version of the illustration that accompanies this article depicted the Samoan flag instead of the American Samoan flag.