Hurricanes Irma and Maria have absolutely devastated the island of Puerto Rico. The damage is heartbreaking, the administration’s response is lackluster, and the press is damnably quiet. Adding salt to the wound is the new finding that the majority of Americans do not even know that Puerto Ricans are American citizens. The statistic went viral with some articles insinuating that the reason was primarily due to ethnic biases.
Echoing Matt Glassman, I don’t think this lack of knowledge is primarily motivated by ethnicity. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that ethnoracial factors don’t matter– they do– but what I think matters more here is Puerto Rico’s unique political standing and the public’s general political ignorance.
Puerto Ricans are uniquely recognized as both citizens of the United States and of Puerto Rico. It is a confusing distinction that has been reinforced in both the courts and by Puerto Ricans themselves– many primarily identify as Puerto Rican as opposed to American. (In this respect, though, they aren’t different from many first-generation dual-citizens. Make no mistake, they truly cherish their American citizenship)
This messiness can only worsen the prevalent effects of low political knowledge. Surveys show that the less-educated tend to feel that being born in the US is important for being a citizen. I suspect this plays a part since, when asked to draw the US, people reliably forget about its territories— probably because most textbooks do the same. One could see how uneducated Americans might use “statehood” (a contentious issue for Puerto Ricans) as a proxy for “citizen” if they haven’t been taught otherwise.
In short, people simply may not know about Puerto Rico’s position and most of the information out there may be too nuanced for their appetite.
None of this, obviously, suggests that the tepid response is somehow Puerto Rico’s fault. Nothing I have mentioned absolves anyone from the muted efforts thusfar. However, it is important to look at the causes of the disconnect so that we can arrive at solutions that reinforce both Puerto Ricans’ unique heritage and their positions as citizens of the United States.
Actually giving them the help that they need would be a great start.