The relationship between the United States and its territories is “rooted in systemic racism,” said Neil Weare, an advocate for full citizenship rights, as he opened a virtual panel discussion on the subject Wednesday night.
The ensuing remarks from the two panelists, Donna Christensen, who served as delegate to Congress from the U.S. Virgin Islands from 1997 to 2014, and Robert Underwood, congressional delegate from Guam from 1993 to 2003, sustained that theme.
The situations are not identical in the two territories. Guam has a population that includes a large proportion of Chamorros, an indigenous people, whereas the U.S. Virgin Islands native population consists primarily of people whose ancestors were brought to the islands as slaves from Africa.
But, as the discussion highlighted, they have a lot in common as U.S. possessions.
There’s a tenet of democracy that the right to govern is conferred by the people who are governed, Underwood said. “That is clearly absent in all the territories,” he said.
He and Christensen both zeroed in on the so-called “Insular Cases” as establishing an unequal treatment of people in U.S. territories from the start.
The original decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court were issued in 1901 to deal with questions about how to manage newly acquired territory after the Spanish-American war. They apparently took their name from the War Department’s Bureau of Insular Affairs which was administering the territories at the time.
Some scholars use the term “Insular Cases” to refer to six specific cases decided in 1901; others apply it also to some later cases that apply to other territories, including the Virgin Islands which the U.S. purchased from Denmark in 1917.
The Insular Cases refer to people living in the territories as “alien races” that need to be “trained” and educated before they can become U.S. citizens with all the same rights as other U.S. citizens, Underwood said.
Following those Court decisions, Congress recognized a two-tier citizenship. Territories on track to become states (like Alaska and Hawaii) were deemed “incorporated.” Others, including the Virgin Islands, became “unincorporated” a term Christensen referred to as “a figment of someone’s imagination.”
In practice, the term has allowed the U.S. to apply rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution on a case-by-case basis. Supposedly even the right of citizenship was something conferred by Congress rather than defined by the Constitution.
Underwood said people in the territories have been kept in a perpetual state of dependency. They receive federal programs and federal money, in lieu of the authority to govern themselves.
The worst part of it, he added, is “so many people in the territories believe that” they aren’t prepared to govern themselves and they accept their lot as a dependency.
The first problem facing America in dealing with its colonies, Underwood said, is that the country denies it has colonies.
The U.S. has responsibilities to the people living in the colonies, but it gives them short shrift, according to Underwood. They are administered by one of the weakest of government departments: Interior, and “to my knowledge the assistant secretary for Insular Affairs has yet to be selected,” by the Biden administration. “That speaks volumes about where you stand.”
Christensen agreed, saying, “There’s no policy for the territories, really … We exist at the pleasure of Congress.”
Prompted by Weare, both former delegates also talked about ongoing attitudes towards the territories.
“There’s a lot of ignorance (about them) even in Congress,” Christensen said. She shared stories of congressional colleagues telling her they had recently visited her “district” when they returned to Washington from Jamaica and of referring to the Virgin Islands’ governor as its “ambassador.”
For Underwood, “It’s the patronizing condescension” that rankles. He said Ron de Lugo, the first USVI delegate to Congress, once told him that when he got to Washington, there was serious discussion over whether his salary should be less than other representatives and if he should have a reduced level of staffing.
The U.S. has often made decisions that significantly impact territory residents – such as designating roughly two-thirds of St. John as National Park – while ignoring input from the residents, the former delegates said.
Despite the seriousness of the topic, the discussion included some lighter moments.
What was included in the “sale” of the Virgin Islands? Underwood asked, suggesting its residents were.
“I guess we’re just part of the landscape,” Christensen quipped.
What will it take to get the federal government to become “re-engaged” with territorial issues? Weare asked.
“Revolution,” Underwood said with a laugh. More seriously, he said the people of the territories have to take an active role. Concerns for more autonomy must be clear and must emanate from the territories.
Christensen said the Insular Cases should be overturned, a point Underwood also made.
Weare, who has spearheaded several court challenges to various conditions effecting territory residents in recent years, said he is currently preparing just such a suit, attempting to get the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the Insular Cases. He said specifics will be announced in a few weeks.
The discussion was sponsored by a non-profit Weare founded and leads, Equally American, which formerly was called We the People Project.