American Empire and the “Quest for Inclusion” in the Case of American Samoa

In Judith Shklar’s American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion, she outlines how important voting, standing, and earning are to full inclusion as a citizen of the United States. Perhaps due to space concerns, Shklar could not devote much attention to a detailed investigation of several forms of exclusion. She principally focused on the efforts of African-Americans and women as the support of her arguments. I wish to shine the spotlight as it were on a modern struggle for American inclusion. Specifically, I wish to focus on the efforts of American Samoans to gain the rights of American citizenship possessed by every other citizen born on the soil of an American possession.

Before I can discuss the efforts of American Samoans to gain the rights of American citizenship, I wish to discuss the role of American empire in creating this modern struggle. In A People’s History of the American Empire, Howard Zinn discusses how the American Empire began with the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase. The subsequent forced removal of the many Native American peoples of this territory and the relocation of undesired Native American peoples, such as the Cherokee and their sister “Civilized Tribes” as well as other nations such as the Seminole, began the process of American expansion across the continent. Texas would be acquired when American citizens settled in Mexico. Mexico’s prohibition of slavery combined with efforts by the Mexican government to centralize power in the federal government led to a successful secession of Texas from Mexican rule. Texas then petitioned to become part of the United States.

In the Mexican-American War, the United States would fight Mexico for control of what would become the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. The successful conclusion of the war in the United States’s favor offered tinder for the eventual firestorm that was the Civil War as slave states sought more slave states in the West to set the Senate in their favor. After the Civil War, the United States would set its sights on the Caribbean, where the United States would establish a friendly puppet state in Cuba and gain Puerto Rico as a protectorate after warring with Spain. The Philippines would also be gained in the Spanish-American War, although a second war, the Philippine-American War was fought to settle the issue as the Philippines had declared their independence from Spain and were an independent country in their eyes. Hawaii would come into the Union when sugar businessmen usurped rule from the native Hawaiian monarchy to their own republic and joined the Union much like Texas had. Other islands in the Pacific would likewise fall under American hegemony as American strategic interests sought bases for the projection of American military and economic might.

Knowing this, we can now turn to American Samoa. American Samoa came into U.S. possession in an imperialist conflict between Germany and the United States. This dispute would be resolved and the American portion of the Samoan islands recognized in an 1899 Tripartite Convention. While not recognized as self-governing by the United Nations, America Samoa possesses a constitution established by an presidential executive order. In effect, American Samoa’s head of state is the President of the United States, while all other functions are governed by the Samoans, albeit these functions rest on the approval of the President or the President’s delegate, the Secretary of the Interior.

Under the laws of the United States, the people of American Samoa are unique as they are the only people born on American held territory who do not possess American citizenship [1]. According to a NBC news article, American Samoans “…receive US passports, can serve in the military and work and live on the mainland United States. But they are legally excluded from basic rights enjoyed by all Americans like voting, working in many government jobs or owning concealed weapons. They have to go through a byzantine and expensive naturalization process that can take months or even years before gaining full citizenship.” [2] The article continues by outlining the debate between Samoans themselves. Some Samoans fear the application of U.S. law over the islands would remove indigenous laws and customs, particularly the communal nature of land property. Others say the islanders should petition the U.S. Congress, not the courts, to decide the matter.

Yet those bringing suit in court to change the citizenship laws argue citizenship is a right established by the Constitution to all U.S. possessions. A Mother Jones article supports this argument. As the article explains, “…the Supreme Court came up with a bizarre, racially minded solution. The court invented two categories of territory; the Constitution applied fully in “incorporated territories,” such as Arizona, which were settled mostly by white people and destined for statehood, while much of the Constitution did not apply in “unincorporated territories,” such as American Samoa, which were not considered candidates for statehood, largely because of their racial and ethnic makeup.” [3]

Consistency and justice support the claim that Samoans should have the same rights as citizens as any other person born on U.S. soil. Currently, only Samoans possess this second-class citizenship in our country. They possess this second-class citizenship because American imperialism, American racism, and citizenship exclusivity are at work keeping them from possessing what should be theirs by right. Because they do not have citizenship, they cannot vote, have standing, or earn as Shklar describes in her book. This is an injustice that needs to change.

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3 Responses to American Empire and the “Quest for Inclusion” in the Case of American Samoa

  1. kiracanderson says:

    This is fascinating. I’m in dr. Kirkpatrick’s other class, so I didn’t read this book. I really want to now!

    First of all, thank you for shedding light on the plight of Samoans and other residents of US territories and overseas possessions. It’s such an awkward status. They are quasi citizens with even fewer rights than other U.S. territories. Here is an interesting video on American Empire that talks about this status, for territories and the special case of Samoa:

  2. vincetrrs says:

    I like the above responder am in Dr. Kirkpatrick’s other class, so I didn’t read this book. I also do want to read it now.

    As a kid growing up in southern california I grew up with alot of kids from different backgrounds. As I grew older alongside these kids I started to learn things about them. I got to know more than a couple Samoans. Of course I didn’t understand what their people were going through at a young age. I never really gave it all that much thought. I thank you for shedding light on the topic. I feel it’s quite unfair that their land is considered American territory but they do not have American citizenship.

  3. zinbad says:

    Thank you for the comments!

    Just yesterday, John Oliver covered this very topic. Here is his video:

    In Puerto Rico’s case, there is internal disagreement over whether to become a state, remain a protectorate, or become an independent country. Becoming a state would remove any option of future separation as that would be secession. Becoming independent removes the benefits of American citizenship. Maintaining the current status quo as a protectorate has been the preferred course so far. Perhaps some day in the near future they will decide to join as a state or become independent.

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