Politics & Policy

New Jim Crow in Guam: Where’s Holder?

The DOJ tacitly supports racially motivated discrimination.

Eric Holder is scheduled to land in Guam today, the first U.S. attorney general ever to visit the U.S. territory, which serves as a center of U.S. military power in the Western Pacific. But the Associated Press reports that after meeting with local officials, Holder will not take any questions from journalists “because his tight schedule doesn’t give him time for a press conference.”

That may be, but the curious omission also spares Holder from any questions about why his department has refused to intervene in or comment on an important court case involving U.S. citizens who are being barred from voting on the island — a far more serious matter than the mainland voter-ID laws decried by Holder as the equivalent of “poll taxes.”

The Chamorro-native-controlled government of Guam is actively excluding the non-Chamorro U.S. citizens on the island from voting in an upcoming referendum on the island’s future. Non-native citizens — Filipinos, other Asians, whites, and blacks — are even prohibited from registering to vote for the election, although they make up 63 percent of the island’s 155,000 residents. The intent is to guarantee that only natives will decide whether they wish to sever ties with the U.S. and seek independence for Guam, keep its status as a territory, or move toward statehood. The territory’s Chamorro governor and the Guam Election Commission can call the vote on this matter anytime they wish.

The restriction is defended by Guam as being non-racial because it restricts the vote to “native inhabitants” who lived in Guam in 1950 and their direct descendants. But the Supreme Court has frequently struck down such sly attempts to restrict voting rights. In Guinn v. United States (1915), the Court rejected Oklahoma’s attempt to close voter-registration rolls by saying that the Fifteenth Amendment nullifies “sophisticated as well as simple-minded modes of discrimination.” In 2000, in Rice v. Cayetano, the Supreme Court struck down a law that allowed only native Hawaiians to vote on who should run the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. The court opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy stated: “Distinctions between citizens solely because of their ancestry are, by their very nature, odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality.” The Voting Rights Act of 1965, barring discrimination in voting, is also in full effect in Guam. 

The challenge to Guam’s law was brought by Dave Davis, a retired Air Force major who has lived in Guam for 35 years. When he tried to register to participate in the referendum, his application was rejected and stamped “void” by the Election Commission. Davis said he was particularly offended because the form required him to certify his racial background under penalty of perjury. Lawyers from the stateside Election Law Center and the Center for Individual Rights helped Davis file a class-action suit alleging racial discrimination. He acted only after Holder’s Justice Department refused to do anything about the matter. Davis told the local Rotary Club that he filed his lawsuit “to dispel the notion that some American citizens are more qualified to vote on public issues than others.”

Justice’s indifference to his complaint is striking given that Guam’s law is even worse than many of the odious Jim Crow statutes that limited voting in the South. “Even under Jim Crow, some blacks successfully registered to vote after they navigated the nasty maze of character exams and shifting office hours,” says former DOJ civil-rights attorney Christian Adams, who is representing Major Davis.

But under Eric Holder, the Justice Department has engaged in a pattern of selective enforcement of discrimination laws. In 2009, it infamously dismissed a voter-intimidation lawsuit the departing Bush administration brought against the New Black Panther Party, even though the case had been effectively won in court. Justice’s former Voting Section chief Christopher Coates testified before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 2010 that he was informed by Julie Fernandes, an Obama-appointed deputy assistant attorney general, that the Voting Rights Act was not to be enforced in cases where racial minorities were accused of discrimination. 

In Guam, the desire to bar non-Chamorro voters from participating in the referendum has a clear racial motive. A request by Anne Perez Hattori, an associate professor at the University of Guam, to file an amicus brief baldly states that the goal of the voting restriction is to prevent “the flood of recent migrants to Guam” from voting and diluting the strength of the “natives.” That kind of language reminds one of the increasingly bizarre defenses made in favor of the old Jim Crow laws.

Guam has been American territory since it was ceded by Spain in 1898. More than 1,700 Americans along with many brave Guam residents lost their lives in liberating the island from Japanese occupation in 1944. Guam has long contributed many courageous men and women to the U.S. armed forces. 

But there is on the island an undercurrent of hostility against the U.S. The local government is dominated by Chamorros, because of high voter turnout on their part and a correspondingly low voter turnout by other ethnic groups. A vocal minority of Chamorros goes so far as to envision the referendum as a first step toward ridding the island of U.S. “colonizers.” Protesters often call for removal of a key nuclear-submarine base on the island as well as the closure of Anderson Air Force Base, the operating home of B-2 and B-52 bombers assigned to the region. At a time when China is flexing its military might and making incursions into the territory of nations in the South China Sea, Guam is more important than ever to U.S. security interests.

Despite the importance of Guam, ideologues in the Obama administration seem to be actively helping efforts that will only increase ethnic and racial tension on the island. The Obama Interior Department is set to transfer $250,000 to the island’s territorial government to promote and advertise the racially discriminatory referendum, which local observers predict will be called in 2014. 

It’s understandable why Eric Holder doesn’t want to answer questions while he is in Guam. The Voting Rights Act he claims to strongly support is being ignored on U.S. soil, and his Justice Department is completely indifferent — or even hostile — to enforcing it. No one would want to address all the contradictions inherent in that position. 

—John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.


The Latest