The U.S. Refuses to Give Up Its Colonies

At a Congressional hearing on July 28, representatives of several United States’ island territories demanded that Congress take action to correct the racist and colonial policies that have kept the nearly four million inhabitants of these territories locked in a second-class status, unable to participate fully in their government.

Several Supreme Court justices made racist arguments, claiming that the people of the territories are members of “alien races” who were not ready for democracy.

The representatives of the U.S. territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands presented a united front as they called on Congress to either help them move toward independence or grant them the same rights as the residents of the fifty states. These include full voting rights, equal representation in Congress, and equal treatment under the law. 

It’s not at all an outlandish idea. Michael F. Q. San Nicolas, the U.S. Representative of Guam, said during the hearing that the U.S. government should be “graduating its territories into whole parts of it or setting them free.”

Today, the United States controls five inhabited island territories: Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The people of American Samoa are U.S. nationals, and the inhabitants of the four other territories are U.S. citizens. 

The five territories are integral parts of the United States, populated by Americans who have proven their dedication to their country. Territory residents in Guam and American Samoa serve in the military at much higher rates than those in the states. The territories are also home to more than 100,000 veterans

Still, the Americans who live in these territories are denied basic rights that most citizens take for granted. They are not represented in the Senate, and their Representatives in the House cannot vote on legislation. They are not even allowed to vote for the Presidents who might send them to war.

The territories also experience significant economic disadvantages, receiving fewer benefits from federal programs such as Medicaid and the Supplemental Security Income program. All five territories have a lower per-capita income than the average per-capita income of the fifty states and the District of Columbia. 

The “lack of equal representation and equal voting power has a direct correlation to persistent poverty across all of the U.S. territories,” Stacey E. Plaskett, the representative of the U.S. Virgin Islands, testified at the hearing. “Americans living in the territories are accustomed to being last in line: for hurricane relief, for COVID-19 equipment, for basic health care, education, and more.” 


The five island territories were relegated to their subordinate status by the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 1900s by what became known as the Insular Cases. By creating a new status for the territories called “unincorporated territories,” the court made it possible for the United States to control the islands without granting their inhabitants equal rights under the Constitution. 

Several Supreme Court justices made racist arguments, claiming that the people of the territories are members of “alien races” who were not ready for democracy. 

“Those decisions were explicitly informed by racial assumptions,” Plaskett says. They “have created a near permanent colonial status for those living in the territory.”

Notably, many of the justices who ruled on the Insular Cases also ruled in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case, which created the “separate but equal” doctrine that provided the legal basis for segregation in the South. Although the Supreme Court later overruled the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, it has let the basic logic of the Insular Cases stand, continuing the legal basis for the territories’ colonial status.

Critics argue that the racist thinking that informed the Supreme Court’s original arguments continues to shape the way officials in Washington view the territories today. 

“It is not a mere coincidence that more than 98 percent of territorial residents are racial or ethnic minorities,” says Neil Weare, the president and founder of Equally American, an organization that advocates for equal rights for the people of the territories. 

For the past several years, Weare has been working through Equally American with the goal of getting the Supreme Court to overturn the Insular Cases. In one of his major cases, Fitisemanu v. United States, Weare argues that people born in the territories have a constitutional right to citizenship.

“Until the Insular Cases are overruled, the federal government will continue relying on them to justify discrimination against residents of the territories,” he insists. 

In the meantime, representatives of the U.S. territories have been urging Congress to exercise its power by passing H.R.1, a bill that would create a Congressional Task Force to recommend ways of providing the residents of the territories with equal voting and representation rights.

The bill, which the House passed last year, acknowledges that “political participation and the right to vote are among the highest concerns of territorial residents in part because they were not always afforded these rights.”

While the bill languishes in the Senate, the people in the territories continue to endure second-class status. Though they constitute a larger population than the combined populations of the five smallest states, they lack voting rights or representation.

“The nearly four million people who live in U.S. territory are not the subjects of a king or a master,” Plaskett reminded Congress. “Their interests will not be fully represented within the government of the United States until they have full and equal voting rights, just like other Americans.”

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