Ongoing US Territorial Possessions Perpetuate Colonialism and RacismRoundup
tags: colonialism, imperialism, Puerto Rico
Anders Bo Rasmussen is author of Civil War Settlers: Scandinavians, Citizenship, and American Empire, 1848-1870 (Cambridge University Press, May 2022), a former Fulbright Scholar at New York University and associate professor of American history at the University of Southern Denmark.
On April 21, the Supreme Court rejected Caribbean-residing American citizens’ right to Supplemental Security Income (i.e. disability benefits), arguing that the Constitution and legal precedent, combined with “long-standing historical practice,” precluded residents of U.S. territories from accessing certain federal benefits programs.
The decision highlighted the complex economic, political and cultural relationship between the U.S. government and American territories. U.S. policy, as Justice Neil M. Gorsuch noted in his concurring opinion, has too often rested “on ugly racial stereotypes” predicated on exploitation of island residents in the mold of European colonial powers, instead of American constitutional ideals.
Yet, while we take for granted that Caribbean islands such as Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John are U.S. territory, their role within an American empire has since the start sparked fierce debates. One of the earliest examples of this came when the Lincoln administration attempted to annex what decades later became the U.S. Virgin Islands.
As the Civil War was coming to an end in 1865, new expansionist possibilities in the Caribbean emerged. The strengthened and growing American empire saw opportunities to establish a naval base on St. Thomas after Denmark’s hold over its West Indian “possessions” had been weakened by an 1864 military defeat at the hands of Otto von Bismarck and allies.
In addition to providing military advantages to the United States, Secretary of State William Seward believed that the benefits of a St. Thomas coaling station would trickle down to the islands’ inhabitants. In Seward’s view, bringing St. Thomas into the “domain of the United States” would increase the residents’ access to American markets, protect their property and give them the same advantages “enjoyed by other citizens.” And so, on Jan. 7, 1865, Seward attended a Washington dinner at which he met with the Danish envoy, Waldemar Raasloff, to discuss a confidential proposition for the purchase of St. Thomas.
However, the shock of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865, and the attempt at Seward’s life that same evening considerably delayed negotiations. When he returned to politics, Seward became politically tied to Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, and by extension, involved in a battle with the Republican-controlled Congress that centered on federal Reconstruction policies.