A side note: Why the issue of colonial status in the United States Virgin Islands is a non-issue …

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For years the Virgin Islands of the United States has struggled with the issue of whether it should remain an unincorporated territory, become a state, or go the route of an independent sovereign nation.  The territory is nowhere near self-governance, not even a recipient of all the constitutional rights guaranteed to citizens living on the mainland. 

Going its own way by shedding its colonial status requires a process that goes deeper than a constitutional convention or ballot referendum.  Besides the issue of creating a national identity that not only includes ancestral Virgin Islanders (those who can directly trace their ancestry to a grandparent born and living in the old Danish West Indies on 31 March 1917) and native Virgin Islanders like myself who were born in the territory but have no lineage to March 1917, there is the political economic issue that undergirds the definition of colony. 

Getting clarity on the definition is important because clarity will guide you to the primary stakeholders whose buttons have to be pushed.  In my opinion, the button-pushing has focused heavily on 80% of the USVI population of African descent who are being treated as second- or third-class citizens by the world’s best-known democracy, and for this painful reason the status of the USVI has to be resolved.  Status has become another civil rights issue on steroids.

Let’s look at “colony.”  According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, a colony is a group of settlers in a distant land that is under the jurisdiction of their native land.  It is territory ruled over by a distant state with a community of the same nationality or pursuits.  As a territory, a colony is part of a country or empire that does not have full status.

What is missing from this definition is the economic aspect of colonization.  If you take the classic case of the original thirteen British colonies in North America in the 17th and 18th centuries, we had transplanted Brits that extracted natural resources and sent those resources to Great Britain for further processing and packaging where part of the finished product was sold back to the colonists.  This was the basic crux of the relationship.  We had landowners in North America trading with investors and manufacturers in Great Britain, trading on a platform of cheap land and free labor in the form of African slaves.

But when it was time to press for independence, the philosophy and narrative came from the landowners in the colonies.  The philosophy and narrative were created by a wealth class that stood to benefit from reallocating Great Britain’s monopoly on taxes from the monarch to American government.

Fast forward to the 21st century Caribbean.  I believe that if the USVI is going to move from its unincorporated status, that move will have to be initiated by the group that has the most to lose or gain economically from a change in status.  That group is not the 80% of the population that descended from African slaves.  The groups calling the shots on removing colonial status will be the owners of USVI tourism assets and financial institutions and the investors on the US mainland and in Europe. 

Should these groups see economic benefits and political influence stemming from a change in status being greater than the current political economy status, that is when the non-black wealth class will agitate for that change in status.

In the meantime, change in status is a non-issue for the majority of Virgin Islanders.  They have no control over the political economy and will settle for now with the current level of American citizenship.

Alton Drew

20 May 2022

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