Statehood for American territories—colonies of a so-called “democratic nation”—is a civil rights issue. And while the U.S. has 50 states, this number is not written in stone. All people are entitled to self-determination and equal rights under the Constitution, including those people of color who live in the nation’s capital and the country’s five occupied Pacific and Caribbean island territories—American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Products of America’s legacy of colonialism with BIPOC populations, these territories do not enjoy the rights that the states enjoy, cannot elect the president, and have no voting representation in Congress, even as their residents—with the exception of American Samoa—are U.S. citizens.
Two recent events indicate the issue of statehood is ripe, relevant, and in the public conscience. On Nov. 3, Puerto Ricans supported a nonbinding referendum for statehood, reflecting similar votes in 2012 and 2017, to which Congress has not acted. The U.S. House of Representatives had voted previously in June to approve statehood for the District of Columbia, a measure requiring passage by the Senate and president.
The Admissions Clause of the U.S. Constitution allows new states to enter the union with “the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.” Statehood is intertwined with racial politics, which should not be the case if we agree that all Americans deserve equal rights, representation, and the right to vote. However, statehood has emerged as a partisan issue, with Democrats generally in favor and Republicans generally opposed, under the assumption that new senatorial and congressional seats from newly formed states with predominantly BIPOC populations would benefit Democrats.
“After they change the filibuster, they’re going to admit the district as a state. They’re going to admit Puerto Rico as a state. That’s four new Democratic senators in perpetuity,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, calling statehood “full-bore socialism” and part of the Democrats’ “radical” agenda.” Republicans’ concern over statehood comes amid demographic changes, in which America is becoming a browner and blacker country, and traditionally red states such as Georgia and Arizona have turned blue, while the GOP has become a white supremacist party. Republicans solidify white minority rule through voter suppression, racial gerrymandering, and the undemocratic, malapportioned structures of the Senate and the Electoral College—both of which, by design, have amplified white power, the former slave states and Jim Crow segregation. New states threaten to offset the unfair advantage the Republicans require to maintain power.
With a BIPOC majority and Black plurality, Washington, D.C., has a population of over 700,000—more than Wyoming and Vermont. In 1961, the 23rd Amendment allowed D.C. to vote in presidential elections and participate in the Electoral College. “I will not yield, sir!” yelled non-voting Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton on the House floor in 2007, as she advocated for Washington, D.C., statehood as a colleague interrupted her. “The District of Columbia has spent 206 years yielding to the people who would deny them the vote! I yield you no ground!”
Puerto Rico, with a population of over 3 million people, is larger than 21 states, and would have five representatives in Congress in addition to two senators. The people of Puerto Rico gained citizenship in 1917, three years after their house of delegates voted for independence, which Congress ignored. Federal government negligence and its failed response to Hurricane Maria in 2017—which claimed as many as 4,645 lives—reflected the long legacy of poor treatment and second-class citizenship of the island. The image of Trump throwing out paper towels at a relief event at a Guaynabo church became a symbol of official callousness, indifference, and racism toward the island.
The origin of American territories is steeped in racism and conquest. The U.S. acquired Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines—with Cuba as a U.S. protectorate—from the Spanish-American War. American expansionists were driven by manifest destiny—the belief in inevitable territorial expansion, steeped in American white racial superiority. Supreme Court rulings in the 1901 Insular Cases solidified the second-class status of the Caribbean territory, and are the reason why no territory has become a state since Alaska and Hawaii were admitted in 1959. The same court that upheld racial segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson only five years earlier ruled that America’s new possessions were not entitled to full constitutional protections because they were “foreign in a domestic sense.” In Downes v. Bidwell, the court focused on the governing of “savages” and “uncivilized” people America has conquered, saying, “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.”
Guam, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are on the United Nations’ list of 17 Non-Self-Governing Territories, which are “territories whose people have not yet attained a full measure of self-government,” and should be decolonized.
Settled by the Chamorro people 4,000 years ago, Guam, which has a population of 167,000, is located in the northwest Pacific Ocean. Guam is located in the Mariana Archipelago, along with a separate U.S. territory, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which the U.S. once administered as part of the post-World War II-era UN Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.
American Samoa, located in the South Pacific, is the only territory whose inhabitants are denied U.S. citizenship at birth. Those who are born in American Samoa are noncitizen U.S. nationals who must undergo the standard naturalization process to gain citizenship, unless they have a parent who is a citizen. Some in the territory of 55,000 are concerned that statehood could result in, like Hawaii, a loss of native land rights.
America bought the U.S. Virgin Islands, once known as the Danish West Indies, from Denmark in 1917 for $25 million in gold coin, marking the only time America purchased a territory from another imperialist nation. U.S.V.I. has a predominantly Black population of 106,000, descendants of enslaved African people who forcibly produced the sugarcane that built the economy of the islands.
A nation built on stolen land through genocide and enslavement requires justice for millions of victims of colonialism. The racist legacy of U.S. territories, their poor treatment and precarious standing without democratic representation, demonstrate the need to make them states if they choose, or allow an independence vote.