While there is much to be said about the history of American “imperialism” (even under a narrow definition), the American Empire exists in the 21C. We still have over 4 million subjects. I will not rehearse the moral and political reasons for ending this state of affairs; most are pretty straightforward. The results cannot stand against any measure of justice or democracy. Perhaps we can address this one before it resurfaces at the George Floyd level. Beyond the need to take action for those whom we have wronged, it behooves us to do it for ourselves and a slightly cleaner conscience. Besides, compared to changing cultural attitudes around race or unraveling poverty, making this kind of change is not so difficult.
By imperialism, I mean the extension of power by one group of people over another. This can be formal (the British in India in the 17C-20C) or informal (Russia in Central Europe after WWII, the US in Central America for much of the 19-20C). Most formal imperialism ended in the last century, but not all. Yes, the British still hold a bunch of scattered islands (~250,000 people), but the French took all their overseas territories and let them vote in French national elections, so they’re out of the (formal) empire business. Even the Spanish are down to a seven-square mile chunk of Morocco; just as Morocco asserts control over the Western Sahara. The UN used to run an entire division devoted to “trusteeship” of colonies, but they closed that down in 1994.
Over three million people, mostly on islands, are still under American control (“acquired” principally in connection with the Spanish-American War) in the Caribbean and the Central Pacific. These include: the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Marianas (you can find the details here). Their formal relationship with the US varies, most are US citizens, but some are not; but no resident has the right to vote for President or a voting member of Congress.
Of course, the most notable American “colony” is the District of Columbia, whose citizens can vote for President and for a non-voting member of the House. The movement for DC statehood has been active for 65 years and finally received approval of the US House this past summer. Final approval depends on the election this November.
That would be a big step. But full citizenship for the 700,000+ subjects of DC would solve less than 20% of the problem. Puerto Rico is more than 4 times larger and the other territories don’t seem to fit anywhere, either logically or politically. Statehood for Puerto Rico has its own complex history, but imagine if Congress were to say: “We’re done with this empire business; you’re either in or out. Make a decision on statehood vs. independence and get back to us.” While many assume that Puerto Rico would be a Democratic stronghold, there is some argument that the GOP (or what’s left of it) would be competitive there.
Treating the three others (Samoa, Guam, and the Virgin Islands) is less clear-cut. The mental hurdle to overcome is that we are the United “States”: a federation (at least nominally) of independent political entities (13 former colonies and all that). We don’t have any way for someone to be fully a part of the United States other than statehood. All of the land and people we added along the way (i.e., imperialism in action) was organized as territories, intending to become states in due course of development and increasing population. Is it any wonder that this traditional model—which worked well enough for Ohio, Nevada, and Alaska—was not extended to territories occupied by Hispanic and Pacific Islanders?
The main problem with statehood for these small groups (50,000-170,000 people) is that giving them each two senators would exacerbate the already highly skewed and anti-democratic composition of the Senate (about which I will write separately).
So, let’s get Hawaii to incorporate Guam and Samoa, and Puerto Rico to incorporate the Virgin Islands. All the state representation and devolution of local authority issues can be adapted from existing laws and arrangements, the changes need not be dramatic. The gains are a set of new full American citizens and the elimination of a legal structure that embeds a quasi-/second-class status which should be abhorrent to a modern democracy.
This would clean up one legacy of the past; but our history is still our history. The issues around descendants of slaves and other Blacks are complex and confusing. The treatment of Native American groups has been as ugly, if different. Neither is susceptible of a straightforward solution.
But at least with regard to the remnants of the US’s formal empire, doing justice unto others is not only for the nominal beneficiaries. Relinquishing an abusive power is its own reward.