All Citizens Are Equal Under The Law… But Some Are More Equal Than Others

Puerto Rico USA Shutterstock/SLdesign

Pedro Rosselló Two-term former governor of Puerto Rico
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The title of this op-ed paraphrases a fictional Orwellian principle of societal organization: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” (It’s from Animal Farm by George Orwell). Equality has been a foundational pillar of U.S. society and government, dating to its roots in the Declaration of Independence which proclaimed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” This central tenet of equality establishes the basis for certain core “inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These concepts of equality were subsequently codified formally into our legal structure with the adoption of the 14th Amendment (1868), which proclaims that U.S. citizens cannot be denied “the equal protection of their (state) laws.”

All this notwithstanding, U.S. history is replete with situations wherein inequality has been tolerated and preserved under the guise of law. Race has been an element that dramatically defined some people to be less equal than others. The history of inequality under the law is infamously depicted in the judicial doctrine of “separate but equal” of Plessy v. Ferguson (1898). For nearly six decades this was the law of the land, allowing legal segregation. This legal inequality persisted until the Supreme Court’s reversal in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

Gender was similarly utilized to establish civil rights inequality for women. In the U.S., it was not until 1920 that women were legally allowed to vote.

Today many people think that essentially all obstacles to equality under the law have been overcome in our contemporary U.S. society. However, there exists a glaring, persistent deficit to certain populations of U.S. citizens: the U.S. citizens of the territories. Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Island, and Puerto Rico are home to 4 million American citizens. Puerto Rico, particularly, is the longest held territory in U.S. history — dating back to 1898 — and is the most populous, with nearly 3.5 million American citizens.

Like the deleterious social and economic effects that past legal inequality inflicted on African Americans and women, this condition has resulted in egregious political and economic discrimination for territorial residents. Although this inequality has not been generally recognized by a significant proportion of fellow U.S. citizens, the recent devastation by two of the most powerful hurricanes in U.S. history has highlighted the unfair and unequal treatment applied to those living in Puerto Rico.

Obvious differences dramatically stand out in the federal government’s response to the destruction and desperation in Puerto Rico, compared to similar (and less intense) post-hurricanes responses in the states. While the current territorial subordinate and unequal status persists, the unfair and delayed responses to natural catastrophes are bound to be repeated.

It is important to realize that these discriminatory actions are merely the symptoms of a deeper fundamental illness: the subordinate political status. We must not only treat the symptoms, but cure the underlying cause. It is time to recover the fundamental principles of both George Orwell’s Animal Farm, (All animals are created equal) and of our own American society (All men are created equal), without the qualifying phrase “some are more equal than others.”

The U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico have called for an end of this contemporary inequity by freely and democratically voting on two separate plebiscites (referenda) in 2012 and 2017, to be admitted to the Union as a full participant, on an equal footing with the fellow citizens of their respective states.

Congressional action on Puerto Rico is long overdue.

Dr. Pedro Rosselló is a two-term former governor of Puerto Rico (1993-2001). He serves as Chairman of the Puerto Rico Shadow Congressional Delegation. He holds a masters in public health, a doctorate in medicine, plus a doctorate in education.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.