Professor Sam Erman, author of Almost Citizens: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Constitution, and Empire (forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in October 2018), discusses the inspiration for his book, as well as its contemporary relevance. A lightly edited transcription follows the video. You can read more about the book here.
I’m interested in the question of citizenship. I think it is an interesting thing to study, because citizenship is something that matters to people in general, and that also is a formal legal category, so it’s a nice place to look at how the government and structures of power and individuals just living in the world interact with each other. The place to look for citizenship is where it is being fought about. Puerto Rico was a promising place because after it was annexed, nobody knew if Puerto Ricans were citizens and Puerto Ricans brought lots of claims trying to establish that they were citizens. So, by looking there, I’m able to see people fighting over the meaning of citizenship; when they do that, they reveal their underlying thoughts about the category.
I think the book resonates in two ways with the present. One is in a very technical way, which is that courts are still deciding constitutional questions that were raised in the period I study. Such as, if you’re born in a U.S. territory that’s not a state, are you a citizen? That question was left open in the early twentieth century and the Supreme Court has never decided it. So, I write amicus briefs and I submit them to courts and tell them “here’s what the history is on this question, and that might help you decide this case.” The other way the book seems relevant in this moment is that, in the period I study, it was not a period of dog whistle politics. People’s racism and sexism was right out in the open—people thought it made sense to just talk about these things, and they were incapable of seeing the world without putting on these racist and sexist lenses. And so, in a moment when our politics have become coarser, when questions of race and sex seem more on the surface, I think remembering a prior time when that happened (and how it affected the way judges decided cases and politicians decided issues) can be very helpful.