In the fight for Puerto Rican statehood, is San Juan the new Selma?

Puerto Ricans rally before a 2012 political status referendum.
Puerto Ricans rally before a 2012 political status referendum.
Image: Reuters/Ana Martinez
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Leave it to a British comic to school us all on the least talked-about race problem in America—well, except the millions of Americans living in Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa.

John Oliver’s recent viral video about the Insular Cases, and their role in this country’s ugly racial past entertained and shocked a lot of Americans, just hours after President Obama told a crowd gathered in Selma that “our work is never done.”

Oliver’s wit, framed around Obama’s words, created a perfect storm of discovery. Though, you would think, in 2015, this wouldn’t seem so surprising—yes, the American government was blatantly racist toward peoples conquered as spoils of war.

But anyone from non-state territories like the US Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, or Puerto Rico—especially, Puerto Rico—could have told you that. The problem was no one was really listening until Oliver gave the Insular Cases comedic street cred.

For years, Puerto Ricans such as myself have been writing and speaking about the island’s perpetual limbo relationship with the United States; a relationship—formed in 1898 when the US invaded and annexed Puerto Rico at the tail end of the Spanish-American War—that was glaringly lopsided from the start. As US citizens, Puerto Ricans can fight on behalf of America in foreign wars, but they can’t vote for the president who sends them there. They pay taxes, but don’t have a representative in Congress who can vote on how to spend them. It’s definitively anti-American: modern-day taxation without representation.

All these years, we Puerto Ricans both on the island and the mainland (about eight million of us) have tried to convince our fellow Americans to pay attention to the injustices playing out in their own back yard. We are mired in obvious inequities, but are distracted by political status options (statehood, commonwealth, independence) with non-binding status plebiscites leading nowhere (in 2012, Puerto Ricans rejected the status quo and favored statehood). And if that weren’t enough, the island’s neo-colonial economy is about to go bankrupt, too.

These distractions exacerbate an extant apathy. Mainland Americans simply don’t care about Puerto Rico. To them, the island is little more than a West Side Story sideshow, or a weird economic experiment they don’t quite understand. And we Puerto Ricans have remained insular ourselves, pitting our own political status preferences over the bigger issue of uniting as a country and as a people to demand equal treatment under law. Years of these passive, colonialist attitudes—a tragic consequence of American power imposed over a nation’s psyche—have lead to only more inaction, more skepticism, more malaise.

Then, John Oliver’s 12-minute segment aired. The timing was rather opportune—racial awareness in America being at a recent high following the unfortunate events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, and beyond. And suddenly, places like Selma and San Juan didn’t seem all that different.

This is not about the intricacies of sovereignty, or the unique fashion of politics in Puerto Rico and other US territories. This is about equality, pure and simple—a value any American would understand.

“How can we claim to stand for equality when we simultaneously rely on the egregiously racist Insular Cases, written, incredibly, by the same person who brought us ‘separate but equal,’ to deprive millions of Americans of the same equal voting rights we claim to cherish?” says Andrés W. López, a lawyer, a friend and one of the co-chairs of the Futuro Fund.

“While we rightfully celebrate how far we have come since the days of Selma, the shameful legacy of discrimination wrought by the Insular Cases still stands today,” López continues. “That is an uncomfortable truth for many, but it’s the truth. Until we confront it, there will be a gaping hole in the equality movement.”

Early signs of how to “confront it” have been been progressing at Harvard University, an institution that produced many of the engineers behind the Insular Cases over a century ago. In a postmodern soul-searching move, Harvard Law School held a 2014 conference to address how the university perpetuated imperial racism back in those days, resulting in a new book being published by Harvard University Press, Reconsidering the Insular Cases.

López, a Harvard Law School graduate, is the author of “Our Journey Is Not Complete,” a chapter from the book. Therein, López, who advocates for Puerto Rican statehood, makes a passionate, distinctive argument for island’s equality in the context of the Insular Cases. He strays away from the typical status politicking that has dominated San Juan for decades; instead, focusing on changing perceptions of the Puerto Rican statehood movement into a civil rights issue. How should Americans feel knowing millions of their fellow citizens are being denied the vote?

In this light, López, one of Obama’s top Latino fundraisers, believes the president has a legacy to leave, just like he did when he told the nation last year about a change in US-Cuba policy. If the United States is pushing for change in Havana, why not in San Juan? Both entities were born out of US involvement in the Spanish-American War, after all.

López writes:

“More importantly, since the start of Obama’s second term, the Obama administration has officially become the first administration in American history to confront a clear rejection of the territorial status quo from the people of Puerto Rico. The people have spoken,  the promise is pending, and our crisis is urgent. The president can resolve it and make history.”

But this is Puerto Rico—a place run by mediocre, status-quo-favoring politicians with vested interests in maintaining a rotting current colonial system. The small crop of pro-statehood party leaders who try to push “51st State” bills aren’t effective enough to get anyone in Congress to care. And to many, the question still remains whether the current Puerto Rican population is willing to unify with a nation that has, for decades, denied them key human rights.

That all could change now if indeed López’s equality argument gains traction in Washington.

Is Puerto Rico the next Selma? A British comedian will tell you it is. And more people are starting to listen. But 117 years of colonial rule, and accompanying colonial thought, will be hard to shake.

Which is why Americans who value equality should call their elected officials right now and tell them that Puerto Rico needs one more binding vote: statehood or independence. No more. No less. It is time to shed another part of this country’s appalling racial history, and move towards real equality for every American—white, black, or boricua.

You can follow Julio on Twitter at @julito77. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.