Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Opinion

The case for five new states

Granting statehood to the US’s territories would transform the lives of 4+ million citizens, and probably US politics as well

Karl Widerquist
5 May 2021, 11.08am
Mike Maguire/Flickr. Creative Commons (by)

One of the most transformative things Democrats could do with their narrow majority in Congress would be to grant statehood to all the remaining inhabited US territories. That would make five new states: Washington DC, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Mariana Islands (a reunion of the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam, which is the southern Mariana Island).

There are no constitutional barriers to admitting all five of these states. The US Constitution gives Congress the power to admit new states as long as it assures they are republics and that the majority of people of the territory want to be admitted. The Senate will have to eliminate or reduce the power of the filibuster to do so without Republican support, but the filibuster is a Senate rule that the majority has the power to change.

All five of these territories have larger populations than Nevada did when it was admitted with around 40,000 people in 1864. Washington, DC is larger than two existing states and Puerto Rico is larger than 21 states. The populations of all five are:

  • American Samoa: 55,000
  • The U.S. Virgin Islands: 105,000
  • Gaum and the Northern Mariana Islands: 230,000
  • Washington, DC: 705,000
  • Puerto Rico: 3,193,000

Territorial status was not meant to be permanent for any significant population. It was used for lightly settled areas in the expectation that statehood would be granted once population density increased. Not allowing this change to occur is an exercise in oppression. The people of these territories are subject to US law, yet are denied equal say (in most cases any say at all) in making US law. They are literally second-class citizens. The federal government for the most part treats them as such – the Trump administration’s reaction to the damage Hurricane Maria inflicted on Puerto Rico is only one in a long line of blatant examples.

Ending the Whiteness of Congress

These territories have so far been prevented from becoming states as part of a larger, long-standing project to keep the Senate and Electoral College White. A long history of White identity politics, underhanded political maneuvers, and outright violence intentionally created the situation in which non-Hispanic, White Americans – who make up 61.5% of the US population – are the majority in every state but Hawaii (which has an Asian American plurality of 37.3%). Americans of Native, Black, or Latin heritage together make up 31.1% of the US population, but they do not make up a majority in any state – neither alone nor in combination.

That didn’t just happen.

By refusing to grant the territories statehood, the White majority is effectively choosing to maintain its outsized influence in the federal government.

Several Native American groups with sizable populations applied for statehood at various times and were turned down by Congress simply because they were Native Americans. Arizona and New Mexico, which were majority Mexican American when they applied for statehood, weren’t accepted until enough eastern settlers had arrived to give them White majorities – more than half a century later.

At the end of the Civil War, two states (South Carolina and Mississippi) were majority Black, but White gangs violently took over the state governments and refused to let them vote. Four other states were more than 40% Black at the time, but similar tactics were used to completely shut this population out of power. Nearly 100 years later these states were forced to let Black people vote, but by then enough had fled north to create comfortable White majorities in all of these states.

These decisions were made long ago, but they continue to have the intended effect of giving Whites outside influence over Congress and the electoral college. Had the White majority been fair and evenhanded, the US would have several Black, Native, Latin-heritage majority states today.

Let’s see how these potential states would change the equation. Despite being different in many respects, one trait they share is that none has a White majority. Look at the largest ethnic group in each of them:

  • American Samoa: 89% Samoan
  • The U.S. Virgin Islands: 76% Afro-Caribbean
  • The Northern Mariana Islands: 35% Filipino (24% Chamorro)
  • Gaum: 37% Chamorro (26% Filipino)
  • Washington, DC: 49% Black (43.6% White)
  • Puerto Rico: 98% Latin heritage

Given American history, it’s reasonable to believe that their ethnic makeup is a primary reason why they are not states already. And by refusing to grant them statehood, the White majority is effectively choosing to guard and maintain its outsized influence in the federal government. It’s not something that happened a lot time ago. It’s something being actively preserved every day.

Admitting these states would create one near-majority Black state (Washington, DC), one majority Afro-Caribbean state (the U.S. Virgin Islands) and one majority Latin-heritage state (Puerto Rico). Samoans and Chamorros are indigenous peoples in territories that have been colonized by the United States. The people in these new states can’t hope to ‘represent’ people with similar ethnic backgrounds on the mainland, but perhaps the people they would send to Washington would have greater understanding of marginalized groups than most members of Congress do now. All would certainly bring new perspectives into the mix and roil the status quo.

These new states would have a minor impact on the House of Representatives, but they’d have a major impact on the Electoral College and the Senate. The number of Senators would increase from 100 to 110, and they would not necessarily be closely connected to either party. Maybe they would help de-polarize American and help end the politicization of the big-state/small-state divide.

Equal rights for equal citizens

Three of these territories are very small; would statehood give them too much influence over US politics? Whites would be still be in the majority in 89% of the states (49 of 55), and therefore would still have disproportionate power in the Senate, the House, and the Electoral College – just not as disproportionate as it is now. All of these territories (except the Northern part of the Mariana Islands) have been subject to US law for over 100 years and have had little or no influence over the shaping of US law in all that time. It would be rather disingenuous of mainlanders to say that 2% of power in the Senate is ‘too much’ for people from these territories to wield, while 100% of power is somehow an appropriate amount for them.

Should we combine these territories into larger units or incorporate them into existing states? For Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, that makes sense. They share history, ethnicity, and language, and are separate now because of US federal government decisions. But otherwise, these five potential states share little or nothing.

Why should Democrats wait to enfranchise US citizens living on US territory?

Forcing them to combine is not how America works. There are both large and small states because the union recognizes that people have distinct regional interests, and the system was designed to help small states hold their own against large ones. Wyoming wasn’t forced to combine with Vermont, the next smallest state, although they are geographically closer together and more culturally similar than American Samoa and the Mariana Islands are. Nor were the people of Wyoming forcibly incorporated into Colorado, where they would constitute only 10% of the population and would have little impact on the state’s decisions. If the United States won’t do this to the people of Wyoming, it should not do it to the people of the US Virgin Islands or American Samoa.

There is no need to wait for a wider political consensus. The constitution doesn’t require any more consensus than a majority vote of both houses. Republicans don’t wait for consensus to disenfranchise voters, Gerrymander districts, or give tax cuts to the wealthy. Why should Democrats wait to enfranchise US citizens living on US territory? The cure for disenfranchisement is enfranchisement, and right now there is an opportunity to do that in a big way.

The Democrats have the power to admit all five of these territories as states in time for the 2022 midterm elections. It would bring equal citizenship to every citizen living on US territory. It would transform American politics forever and for the better.

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