Before lecturing the world on democracy, the US should allow its territories the right to self-determination or statehood
The US loves to lecture other countries about freedom, democracy, and self-determination, but its treatment of its unincorporated territories tells a completely different story.
At the turn of the 19th century, the United States of America officially became exactly what it had aspired to be for so long: a living, breathing empire not unlike those that helped create it. As part of the 1898 Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American War, the United States gained control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, while having also unilaterally annexed Hawaii earlier that same year.
The US acquired its very own colonies to compete against the existing colonial powers of that time, something that had been America’s aim since at least the adoption of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. But not only did the US elbow out those colonial powers from the Western Hemisphere, it began its expansion into a truly global empire that to this day has far-reaching territories.
The myriad American military bases around the world speak to this, but so do those American overseas territories that are de jure parts of the United States of America while not actually being states. As Daniel Immerwahr wrote in his book ‘How to Hide an Empire’, much of this story is actually hidden. For example, most Americans are totally unaware of the fact that the Philippines is the site of the worst attack on American soil in history – not Pearl Harbor or Manhattan.
In fact, Immerwahr noted, in the lead-up to America’s entry into World War II, the administration of then-President Franklin Roosevelt made a concerted effort to focus the media on the attack on Pearl Harbor, rather than the attacks on other American territories in the Pacific – like the Japanese conquest and occupation of the Philippines that had left about 500,000 Filipinos dead – because Pearl Harbor had a higher proportion of white residents.
Not surprisingly, this is why Hawaii, along with Alaska, had been granted statehood in 1959 – to allow their proportionately whiter residents to enjoy the full privileges of statehood while the rest of the US colonies were, literally, second-class citizens.
The famous Insular Cases that began in 1901 set the stage for the classification of non-citizen US nationals that still persists today, for example in territories like Swains Island and American Samoa, and was watched closely by European nations wondering what to do about their own colonial subjects.
The Nazis even drew heavy inspiration from the outcomes of these cases for German citizenship laws during that period, which is perhaps less surprising when considering the language used by the Supreme Court to describe America’s colonial subjects in these cases.
As Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote in ‘Downes v. Bidwell’, “If those possessions are inhabited by alien races, differing from us in religion, customs, laws, methods of taxation, and modes of thought, the administration of government and justice, according to Anglo-Saxon principles, may for a time be impossible.”
It was all, to put it plainly, a deliberate attempt to reinforce white supremacy by disenfranchising non-white colonial subjects. America’s grotesque immigration laws during this time also speak to the exact same fear, that somehow “alien races” would overrun the country and seize political power.
The creation of and continuation of ‘unincorporated territories’ – US territories where the constitution does not fully apply – also has the same objective. After all, if every US territory became a state, it would at the very least immediately change the entire composition and political direction of the US Senate.
This is why there is a renewed debate over self-determination. In March, New York representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velazquez – joined by New Jersey’s Bob Menendez in the Senate – introduced the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act of 2021. If passed, it would allow Puerto Ricans to finally define their relationship with the United States.
It follows a referendum on the same issue that took place in 2020 in which, yet again, the people of Puerto Rico made clear that they would like to be a state like any other, with the same rights and privileges. They could, if given the chance to decide their own fate, finally shirk off the federally imposed fiscal control board and stand up to government neglect after Hurricane Maria.
But why stop there? Each and every US territory should be allowed to determine its own fate as a matter of principle. Self-determination rights would only ensure one of the most basic American principles, which is that there should be “no taxation without representation.”
Moreover, the District of Columbia also deserves inclusion into the Union. No other country in the world lacks political representation for its capital region, and the arguments against DC statehood – though often well-cited in legalisms – do little to address the underlying principles.
In the year 2021, America has the most diverse administration and Congress in its history – both with an exceptionally strong mandate from the public. There is simply no reason to continue this overt system of colonialism that has rendered millions of Americans second-class citizens, especially as the US lectures other countries about these issues.