“School Begins” in Puerto Rico. A Hundred years later, nothing changes

As mass protests swirled in Puerto Rico over vulgar tweets and governmental corruption, I could not stop thinking about a famous cartoon published over a century ago in Puck Magazine. The cartoon, entitled “School Begins,” depicts an angry- looking Uncle Sam as schoolmarm, admonishing students sitting in the front row as others go about their daily activities, quietly and contentedly. This is clearly a case when a picture is worth a thousand words.

“School Begins”
“Uncle Sam (to his new class in Civilization). — Now, children, you’ve got to learn those lessons whether you want to to not! But just take a look at the class ahead of you, and remember that, in a little while, you will feel as glad to be here as they are!”

There is a lot going on here. Note, first, the seemingly happy African American boy up on the ladder and away from all others in the room. Though looking over his shoulder as if paying attention, he is clearly not part of the classroom dynamic. He is not a student, not a member of the community, but a laborer. He is separate and unequal. It bears noting that Plessy v. Ferguson had been decided 3 years earlier and that the Mississippi Plan, which rendered the 15th Amendment null and void, came 6 years before the case. Jim Crow was taking root.

Note also the Native American student sitting in the back of the room. Though trying to learn his ABC’s, he is clearly unassimilated after years of assimilationist policies sought to “kill the Indian . . . and save the man.” The symbolism is inescapable; after all, it had been US policy at the time to take Native American children from their families and placed them in boarding schools far away from home.

Then there is the Chinese student, book in hand, standing outside the room, peering in. Notably, the Chinese Exclusion Act had been passed in 1882, placing a 10-year moratorium on Chinese laborers entering the country. Congress extended the Act in 1892 and made it permanent in 1902. Congress finally repealed the Act in 1943.

The pupils are divided into two groups: those in the back, civilized and socialized in the ways demanded by Uncle Sam; and ” the new class,” sitting in the front bench. The contrast between these two groups of students is arresting. Note first that Hawaii is part of the new class, yet Alaska — though clearly racialized — is already in the back of the room and entitled to full membership. Both states were incorporated around the turn of the century and joined the union formally as states in 1959.

Then look specifically at the students sitting on the bench, the “new class.” The Philippines is angry; Cuba is defiant; Hawaii, arms crossed, seems upset, perhaps resigned. And there is Puerto Rico, clearly afraid. These four students represented “distant ocean communities of a different origin and language from those of our continental people.” Lets not mince words: they were “savages” unfit to the demands of Anglo Saxon institutions. In turn, the book on the desk provides the solution to this condition: “U.S. First Lessons In Self Government.” These uncivilized peoples are in school to learn their way into the American community. Only then may they sit with the others.

The two messages in the back of the room underscore the difficulties inherent to Republican government, especially at a time of imperial aspirations. How to reconcile democratic norms with the right to rule over others? Easy. As Uncle Sam writes on the blackboard, “[t]he 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.” This was no mere abstraction, as posited on the message to the left of the door: “The Confederate States refused their consent to be governed; but the Union was preserved without their consent.”

The cartoonist, Louis Dalrymple, thus points the way to freedom as self-rule. It took assimilation; acculturation; time and effort on the part of the imperial subjects to learn the ways of American culture and its institutions. Here’s an example: the 6th Amendment right to a jury could not formally and automatically apply to these new possessions. This was because

“[t]he jury system needs citizens trained to the exercise of the responsibilities of jurors. In common law countries, centuries of tradition have prepared a conception of the impartial attitude jurors must assume. The jury system postulates a conscious duty of participation in the machinery of justice which it is hard for people not brought up in fundamentally popular government at once to acquire. “

Balzac v. Porto Rico, 258 U.S. 298, 310 (1922).

It was only a matter of time. Membership would take time and great effort.

So here’s what happens in the next 100 years. Cuba gains formal independence in 1902 (though the US retained the right to intervene into the future). The Philippines achieve independence in 1946. The United States formally annexes Hawaii in 1898 and extends US citizenship to its residents in 1900.

And then there is Puerto Rico, still in constitutional limbo. Congress extends citizenship to the people of Puerto Rico in 1917, and in 1950 offers to the island the right to draft its own constitution, subject to congressional approval. However, it is true to this day that those who live on the island, even if US citizens, are not represented in national democratic bodies, though subject to the plenary powers of Congress. Putting it as kindly as I can: the status of Puerto Rico pushes very hard against constitutional norms. It is not hard to argue that the status of Puerto Rico is, in fact, unconstitutional.

In saying this, and to be as clear as I can: I am not saying that Puerto Rico must become the 51st state. Nor am I saying that the island must continue to be a US commonwealth. Rather, I am simply asking the question as posed in 1898, and which Dalrymple makes clear in the cartoon: when will the people of Puerto Rico (and Guam and American Samoa, for that matter) achieve the requisite acculturation and knowledge of democratic institutions in order to move, with all other citizens, to the back of the room? When will the people of Puerto Rico emerge from their savage-like state and gain the civility requisite of full US citizenship? To be blunt: when will the people of Puerto Rico cease to be second-class citizens?

It’s been well over a century. Is that not enough?

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