The devastation in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands following Hurricane Maria, and the lack of White House reaction (or even awareness), has prompted a lot of discussions of what exactly mainlanders think people in the inhabited US territories “deserve,” whether citizens, like residents of PR, the USVI, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands, or nationals, like residents of American Samoa.
US obligations would be clearer, they say, if these places were states, before launching into facile reasons why they shouldn’t be allowed statehood while trying not to speak aloud the real reasons: people in the territories are racial Others who speak different languages and who should not be given full political rights. As Charles Ames put it in 1898, when speaking against potential US colonial occupation of the Philippines:
…we must govern either with or without the consent of the people. If with their consent, it must be expressed through republican forms; that is, by suffrage. Is there a man in America who wishes those seven millions of Malays, Negritos and Chinamen for fellow-citizens and joint rulers of this Republic?
While opponents of statehood today might not speak in such blatant terms, we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that mainland opposition to statehood for these territories is about anything but power. Adding states dilutes the power of existing states, especially in the Senate, and given that many Republican politicians fear Puerto Rico (or Washington, D.C., another example of taxation without representation) would mean two more Democratic senators, preventing new states is one way of maintaining power.
Setting aside for a minute how gross these analyses are in the wake of a hurricane – we are talking about people who will die for lack of potable water and hospitals with electricity – and how much they ignore what people in these territories might want, I just want to pick up on one of the stupider arguments against the extension of statehood to places like Puerto Rico: it would mess up the flag design.
We dealt with this ugly design in the early 19th century:
We went with the hanging indent during Reconstruction:
Anyone 57 or older lived just fine with this 49-star flag for a year:
Now, I don’t buy for a second that most people are really that concerned about flag design. If they’re concerned with keeping new states out, flag design is a stand-in for deeper anxieties over the “design” of the nation itself. If nothing else, this week makes it pretty clear that when we talk about the flag, we’re never just talking about the flag
I don’t even buy that non-Puerto Ricans in the states who have voiced support for Puerto Rican statehood have thought about it much at all, given the number of jokes about simply swapping in Puerto Rico for Connecticut so we don’t have to redesign the flag.
This joke “works” because – as many have pointed out in the wake of the hurricane – Puerto Rico and Connecticut have the same population. It also “works” because Connecticut is, for better or worse, understood to be the most white, and most white-bread, state in the nation.
Except Connecticut is also the state with the highest Puerto Rican population relative to its total population: 7.1%. It’s also the state where the largest percentage of the Hispanic population is Puerto Rican: nearly 60%. The twentieth- and twenty-first century social and economic forces that led to this are not even on the radar of most non-Puerto Rican mainlanders, but if you wondered why the Connecticut National Guard has been in Puerto Rico since earlier hurricanes or why a Connecticut senator went to Puerto Rico this past week, now you now.
All this is to say that it’s not surprising to me that the hurricane has prompted so many poorly-informed discussions from so many in the states about what people in the territories deserve or want. Working to keep these territories from statehood isn’t the only behavior prompted by a colonial mindset. Believing you can divine what would be best for a place without any sense of its history and historical relationships, let alone current events, is just as colonial.