You can’t imagine Obama getting away with any of what this President gets away with on a weekly basis. Picture Obama shutting down the government for over a month, declaring a national emergency when no one but a few talking-heads at MSNBC say there’s one, refusing to badmouth a black nationalist who drove his car into a group of peaceful conservative protesters, denying the American people a peek at his tax returns, or handpicking an attorney general who’s personally loyal to him just so he’s shielded from a Special Counsel investigation into whether the Obama campaign coordinated with a foreign enemy to steer a presidential election. You can hardly imagine such scenarios, not because Obama is a Democrat or a liberal, but because he’s black.
They say Hurricane Maria killed 2,975 Puerto Ricans, which, as Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez pointed out to Chris Hayes last week, is only two less than the number of people murdered on 9/11. We went to war with two countries and created a huge new Department of Homeland Security in response to those deaths in 2001, but now that practically the same number of Puerto Ricans have died in a national disaster, the Congresswoman wondered, “where is our response?” We already know the President’s response, which is to stop sending recovery funds to the island. He says the Puerto Ricans don’t really need the money for rebuilding and are instead using it to pay off their crushing debt. Everybody knows the real reason Trump has barely lifted a roll of paper towels since Maria ripped across Puerto Rico, taking a few thousand lives with her, and smashing an already depressed nation even deeper into the mud; it is the same reason Puerto Rico is still a colony of the United States and not part of the Union or free. And that reason is: Whenever most Americans picture 2,975 dead Puerto Ricans, the bodies they see are black and brown.
Sure, there are plenty of white Puerto Ricans, but your typical American doesn’t know that, just as he or she doesn’t know there are plenty of white Mexicans and white Hondurans, too. (It is hard to believe asylum-seeking families would be separated at the border and thrown into ice boxes if the typical American thought there might be a lot of white people caught in that net.) That he or she doesn’t know any of that isn’t really their fault. Like most Americans, they probably live with other typical Americans, who aren’t known to live in the same neighborhoods where Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Hondurans live. Their ignorance of brown people and other minorities is by design. And even I, a Puerto Rican who has actually been to the big island, think of at least a caramel complexion when I think of Puerto Ricans — though not when I think of a Puerto Rican politician or businessman, who are typically white.
It is also safe to assume, then, that when most Americans think of the over three million Puerto Ricans struggling under second-class U.S. citizenship on the islands, they picture those second-class citizens being brown and black. And in the United States, no one has to imagine brown and black people being treated as second-class citizens. Nobody has to imagine brown and black people huddled into crumbling ghettoes with crumbling schools, crumbling opportunities, and crumbling hopes. You don’t have to picture a cop shooting an unarmed black or brown kid in the back. Just scan the headlines, and if there’s nothing today, check back tomorrow, and then the next day.
The U.S. government’s mistreatment of Puerto Ricans (to put it politely) has little to do with politics or ideology. It comes down to the color of their skin. If Puerto Ricans were white, or mostly white — if most Americans viewed Puerto Ricans as white, I mean — it is hard to imagine how different things would be in Puerto Rico today, how different things would have been all along. I can’t imagine the United States would’ve ever kept Puerto Rico as a colony, especially after the Second World War, when colonialism went out of style. Can you imagine the national embarrassment if an island of blue-eyed blondes were taking their case for self-government to the United Nations, providing evidence on how the U.S. government has been treating them as a colonized people by refusing them the right to vote for president and have a vote in Congress? Not to mention all the human rights violations committed on the island — the massacres, the sterilizations — with at least a nod from Washington (again, I’m being nice).
If a white person were writing this and not a black-brown one, it would raise more of an alarm. As it is, I am just another black-brown person moaning about the treatment of fellow black and brown people. Black and brown people are expected to moan; their moaning, too, is by design.
Plus few Americans believe the Puerto Ricans would be better off without the United States — and if we trust the polls, few Puerto Ricans believe it, too. If Puerto Ricans were white, or at least viewed as white, then maybe more people would believe Puerto Ricans were capable of not only governing themselves but thriving at it, just as the white people of Iceland or Malta seem to be. But Puerto Ricans aren’t white, not in the American imagination, so when Americans picture an independent Puerto Rico, an island of brown and black people governing themselves, they immediately think of Cuba, or Haiti, of nothing economies and mafia governments.
That Cuba and Haiti have been struggling since forever, that most Americans don’t think brown and black people are capable of running themselves, and that most Americans can then point to Cuba and Haiti as two cases in point — all of that is also by design. Push them down, keep them down, and then, when they ask to be left alone, turn around and say, “Independence? Your people can’t even stand on their own two feet, let alone walk straight!” It is genius, and evil, and exactly what colonialism does.
Having just sat with Thucydides, I can’t help hearing a bit of the old Melian Dialogue in America’s rationale for holding onto an island it seems to have no use for besides keeping a man sick for American bankers to play doctor with. For the readers with lives, Thucydides describes the Athenian Empire’s brutal siege on the small island of Melos, and the negotiations which are said to have occurred between the mighty Athenians and the cringing Melians. To sum it up, the Athenians give the usual surrender or else, while the Melians argue that there is no reason for the Athenians to conquer Melos as the Melians are no threat to Athens or its allies. The Athenians say they already know Melos is no threat to them or anyone, but that they have to conquer the island because other nations might think:
that if any [peoples] maintain their independence it is because they are strong, and that if we do not molest them it is because we are afraid; so that besides extending our empire we should gain in security by your subjection; the fact that you are islanders and weaker than others rendering it all the more important that you should not succeed in baffling the masters of the sea.
Before any of that is said, the Athenians justify their conquest of Melos by quoting the cold law of human nature: “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Which seems to me a better explanation for why the U.S. government and now Trump think they can keep pushing the Puerto Ricans around forever.
If only Puerto Rico weren’t an island…
Featured image: “School Begins,” Puck, January 25, 1899. The blackboard reads: “The consent of the governed is a good thing in theory, but very rare in fact. — England has governed her colonies whether they consented or not. By not waiting for their consent she has greatly advanced the world’s civilization. — The U.S. must govern its new territories with or without their consent until they can govern themselves.”