The devastation in Puerto Rico is heartbreaking. As much as 95 percent of the US island remains without power after the destruction brought on by Hurricane Maria last month. Swaths of people still can’t get supplies, including food and fuel, and it’s hard for them to reach out to the rest of the world, with communication lines cut off. Based on the latest government estimates, 16 people have died — but that’s an outdated number (from Wednesday), and many observers say it could rise to the dozens or even above 100 when all is said and done.
This isn’t because the disaster was unpredictable. Once Hurricane Maria took form, all of the National Hurricane Center’s 17 full advisories in the four days preceding landfall projected Maria would hit Puerto Rico.
Yet the response was horribly slow. President Donald Trump took days to waive the Jones Act, a law that makes shipping supplies to Puerto Rico much more expensive. It wasn’t until days after Maria made landfall that the federal government sent the USNS Comfort, a naval hospital ship, to the island — and the trip still took four days after that. The president has yet to request more funding for relief efforts, which is a process only he can start in Congress.
And Trump is just visiting the island on Tuesday, nearly two weeks after Maria made landfall.
Perhaps the media can be blamed for this. According to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight, both online and broadcast media gave Puerto Rico much less coverage, at least initially, than the hurricanes that recently hit Texas and Florida. With less coverage, there was very likely less political pressure.
So why was the response to Puerto Rico so slow? The answer has to do not just with Puerto Rico’s status as a non-state territory but also with the ways the island and its people have been othered through racial and ethnic bias.
There are many legal and social ways in which Puerto Rico, despite being a US territory, has been effectively othered and separated from most other Americans. It is predominantly Latino, with Spanish deemed the official language alongside English. Although it is more populous than 21 states, it does not have voting representation in Congress and can’t vote in presidential elections. And there is even a Supreme Court decision — one that is still cited — that describes Puerto Rico as inhabited by “alien races” who aren’t entitled to all constitutional protections.
More specifically to Puerto Rico’s demographics, research has shown that people are simply much less likely to sympathize and empathize with those who belong to other racial groups, and as a result, they’re less willing to send help.
Put these two issues together — the research on race and the othering of Puerto Rico — and suddenly the slow response starts to seem tragically predictable.
The research shows people care less about people of different races
Consider a 2007 study that examined the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In that study, researchers found that people tended to believe that victims in racial groups they don’t belong to suffered fewer “uniquely human” emotions like anguish, mourning, and remorse than victims in racial groups they did belong to. And in the aftermath of a natural disaster, that perception of fewer “uniquely human” emotions led participants to be less willing to help victims of a different race.
A 2009 study similarly found that when participants looked at images of people in pain, the parts of their brains that respond to pain tended to show more activity if the person in the image was of the same race as the participant. Those researchers concluded that their findings “support the view that shared common membership enhances a perceiver’s empathic concerns for others.” Other studies reached similar conclusions.
There’s a basic concept behind this: Once someone can relate to the person who’s suffering, it becomes much easier to empathize. And when it comes to policymakers and the public — the majority of whom are white — empathy can then translate to more sympathetic policy preferences and outcomes.
There are other factors, beyond race, that might make everyday Americans care less about Puerto Rico than, say, Wyoming. For one, it’s not a state — and polls show that nearly half of Americans don’t even know that Puerto Ricans are US citizens.
But this, too, is a form of othering — a way that Puerto Ricans are put into a separate category than other Americans. And that could lead to a less sympathetic response by Americans. (Consider, for example, that most Americans support cutting foreign aid to other countries — so if most Americans see Puerto Ricans as foreigners, many of them could believe that Puerto Ricans aren’t deserving of “foreign” aid.)
Besides, you can’t separate Puerto Rico’s status in the US from racism.
American policy toward Puerto Rico is mired in racism
It is impossible to say what’s truly in Trump’s, the media’s, or most Americans’ hearts when it comes to Puerto Rico. We can’t definitively say, at least without solid research focused on the island and Maria, if racism explains the slow response.
But this wouldn’t be the first time the US treated Puerto Rico poorly because of its racial makeup.
In 1901, the US Supreme Court ruled that Puerto Rico’s “alien races, differing from us in religion, customs, laws, methods of taxation, and modes of thought, the administration of government and justice,” can’t understand, at least for a time, “Anglo-Saxon principles,” so parts of the Constitution shouldn’t apply to the island. (Notably, the justice who wrote the decision, Henry Billings Brown, also wrote the infamous “separate but equal” ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which allowed state-sponsored segregation to stand until Brown v. Board of Education decades later.)
The decision, the Court said, should not be permanent. Yet governments as recent as the Obama administration have continued citing the ruling to deny Puerto Rico equal rights as other states.
This is only one of the several “Insular Cases” that concluded that while territories like Puerto Rico are part of the US, they may remain unincorporated, and therefore aren’t afforded all constitutional protections. So unless Puerto Rico becomes a state, it’s not given the same rights as the states — again, in part because of a ruling that specifically called out Puerto Ricans as “alien races.”
Given this basic reality of how the US views Puerto Rico, perhaps the federal government’s slow response to a disaster on the island is of little surprise.