The Underbelly of American Democracy, By Osmund Agbo



”As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma this week and the subsequent passing of the voting right act, I want to once again call to the attention of my colleagues in congress that there are still American citizens today who do not have equal voting rights.”

Stacey Plaskett (D-U. S Virgin Islands)

Many would be shell-shocked to learn that a prayer such as this needed to be said in a nation that prides itself as the last bastion of democracy. In case you are wondering, we are talking about the country of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Yet, those were the words of the delegate representing one of the five U.S territories in Congress. It was a somber speech delivered in a measured crescendo-decrescendo tone. Stacy Plackett passionately laid out her case before fellow American citizen in the hallowed chambers, asking that her people be given equal right under the law.

 

The U.S Virgin Island has a population of 106,405 according to the 2010 census with blacks making up 76% of the citizens. It was purchased from the Kingdom of Denmark in March 31, 1917. Together with Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa and the northern Marianas, they make up the five US territories with a combined population of 4.1 million people. Whereas tourism and related categories are the primary economic activities in Virgin Islands, the other territories especially Guam (acquired in 1898 following the defeat of Spain in the Spanish-American war) is of strategic importance to US military interests. Andersen Air Force Base that played a crucial role in the Vietnam War is domiciled in this Island located in the Western Pacific Ocean.

 

People born in these territories are American citizens, yet they can neither vote in a presidential election nor produce a US senator. Each of them is allowed a delegate to the House of Representatives who have a voice but no vote. In 2020, Guam has an estimated population of only about 168, 485 residents, but one out of eight adults in the island has served in the armed forces. Its home to one of the highest number of military veterans among U.S. states and territories. Since 2001, over 20,000 military service members from these territories have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In every election, Guam holds a straw poll that records a high voter turnout that dwarfs many American States. It’s like periodically auditioning for a role in a movie you will never be part of, even if only to show the producer what he is missing. American Samoa is a special pathetic case where the people are American nationals but not American citizens. Go figure.

 

People had posed the question that since the US flag flies over these islands; doesn’t it mean that US Laws should apply in these places? Well, it makes absolute sense that such should be the case, except that a landmark judgment by the US Supreme Court (Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244) in 1901 ruled that the then new territories were inhabited by alien races unable to understand Anglo-Saxon principles and so protection of constitutional rights do not apply to them. Ludicrous!

 

Justice Henry Billings brown, the man who wrote the lead decision in that rulings was the same man that authored the majority opinion in Plessy v Ferguson in 1896. The later was the piece of legislation that upheld the legality of racial segregation in schools and public transportation that would serve as the backbone of the Jim Crow laws. But even a scorched earth bigot like Brown at the time, acknowledged that such provision should only stand for a time. Yet, one hundred and nineteen years later the grave Injustice persists.

 

One may be tempted to downplay the degree of injustice suffered by these unfortunate Americans, making the argument that these territories are outside of the continental United States. It may however, not be a total coincidence that approximately 98.4% of them are mostly ethnic minorities with only a sprinkle of white people. But what do you say about the pitiful status of the District of Columbia, the nation’s capital? Again, one can’t help but notice a common thread which is the similarity in the demographic between D.C and these territories. In D.C, African Americans constitute the racial majority of the population at 50.7%

 

Washington DC came under federal control in 1801 but it wasn’t until 1964 that residents were even allowed to vote in a presidential election. In later years, a constitutional amendment granted DC residents limited home rule allowing them to elect a mayor and city council but city budget remains subject to congressional approval. They pay taxes and fight wars but no member of congress to vote on their behalf. They have one representative who can vote on house committees but not on house floor, which is why the DC license plate since 2000 registers a protest that reads: Taxation without representation.

 

In the run up to the 2008 presidential election, the then Senator Barack Obama made a pivotal speech titled: “A more perfect Union”, at the National Constitution Center, Philadelphia. In that speech, the Democratic candidate for President acknowledged that lots of progress had been made in the area of racial integration, social justice and equal protection under the law. That a black man with a foreign sounding name could aspire and did become the 44th president of the United States is a testament to that progress. Though the journey continues to experience hiccups along the way that sometimes leads to taking few ugly steps backwards, overall, it hasn’t been all doom and gloom. America has over the years, actually made significant progress. ‪On January 20th, 2021‬, another African-American will be sworn in as the first woman in history to occupy the office of the Vice President of the United States.

 

These past four years however, American democracy was forced to undergo a serious stress test to a degree unprecedented in the nation’s history. A narcissist lunatic found his way into the oval office and piled up a huge heap of trash. Cheered by millions, some of who are utterly disgusted by his person but believed he protected their unique interests and identities; the resilience of century old institutions was stretched almost to its elastic limit.

Though the attacks were persistent and relentless, a labyrinth of systemic checks and balances did not let the entire scope of the threat materialize. Had it played out in its whole gamut, the damage would have been devastating to the health of the Republic and the ricochet felt far and wide. It sure would have empowered a slew of other despot wanna-bees around the world especially in Africa and Asia. That said, American democracy and it’s standing in the world will forever be fouled by the stench of this moment.

 

James Madison in the Federalist papers riled against pure democracy which he described as a spectacle of turbulence and contention. Instead, America settled for a Constitutional Republic as an alternative framework to circumvent what they feared could amount to “The tyranny of the majority”. Yet, after more than a century of piecing together of those sacred documents, one would be hard pressed to conclude that the United States has truly lived up to the noble ideals set forth by its founding fathers. President Obama was definitely right when he said: “If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done — the American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation.”

 

Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: ‪[email protected]