About Equally American



Last November, American citizens living in U.S. territories were denied the opportunity to vote for President simply because of where they live. Not many outside the territories took notice.

At the same time, over the last decade, decisions made by the federal government have had a life and death impact on U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands. The White House held back billions in aid from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands following Hurricanes Maria and Irma and recent earthquakes. The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken already fragile healthcare systems and social safety nets left vulnerable by funding disparities in Medicaid and other federal benefits programs. And Puerto Rico is currently governed by an unelected financial oversight board. 

Citizens in the territories have not been silent, but without meaningful political representation or autonomy their voices have not been heard in Washington. 

The long list of injustices suffered by black and brown communities living at the margins of our nation’s map are just a few expressions of a deeply rooted and widely overlooked civil rights problem. In the U.S. Virgin Islands thousands of black Americans serve in uniform on America’s front lines even as their communities continue to be denied the most basic of their constitutional rights. In the Pacific, citizens in the territories have enlisted in our military at the highest rate of any U.S. jurisdiction, with casualty rates 4-7 times the national average, yet they cannot vote for their Commander-in-Chief. Puerto Ricans have been awarded the congressional medal of honor, yet veterans and others in Puerto Rico are denied federal SSI benefits. 

Meanwhile, debt crises facing Puerto Rico and other territories have been fueled by discriminatory federal benefits programs that shortchange their residents by billions of dollars a year. Structural political marginalization born of racist sentiment towards the residents of the territories has created structural economic inequality. This same inequality has also left these citizens particularly vulnerable to the catastrophic impacts of climate change. 

The fundamental promise of American political equality cannot be reconciled with a federal government that is permitted to make these kinds of life and death decisions in the absence of democratic accountability. This “separate and unequal” structure is permitted because the constitutional status of citizens in the territories is still governed by a racist set of Supreme Court decisions known as the Insular Cases, decided just two years after that same Supreme Court created the “separate but equal” doctrine of racial segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson.  

There is a growing clamor for change in the territories, but exclusion from the national political process has stymied these voices. Denied the opportunity to cast a ballot, disenfranchised citizens in the territories are turning to federal courts to fight for equal rights. These efforts are gaining traction through a series of high-profile court challenges that present opportunities to overrule the Insular Cases, achieve equality, and spark a political moment in Washington where change is not only possible, but inevitable. 

Equally American is leading efforts for change inside and outside the courtroom to bring an end to second-class citizenship in U.S. territories and finally address America’s colonies problem. We are the only nonprofit organization whose mission focuses exclusively on advancing equality and civil rights for the 3.5 million citizens living in U.S. territories—98% of whom are racial or ethnic minorities. We approach our work in Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands through a civil rights lens and do not take a position on political status other than to reject the colonial status quo. In other words, we seek to obtain full constitutional rights and political/economic equality for communities in U.S. territories while also supporting those communities’ right to determine their own future relationship to the United States through a process of self-determination. 

Our groundbreaking advocacy inside the courtroom is designed to leverage public attention and dialogue outside the courtroom. This approach has helped spark engagement, foster common ground, and build the kind of broad awareness and consensus at both a national and local level that is needed to end the second-class treatment of U.S. citizens in the territories.

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Equally American is a non-partisan civil rights organization. It supports self-determination and does not take a position on the political status of U.S. territories.

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