Our nation’s capital is the hub of our federal government and home to some of our country’s most meaningful landmarks. It’s also a place that 700,000 people call home — paying federal taxes, serving on juries and in the military, and providing for their families.
But Washington D.C. is a district, meaning its residents — the plurality of whom are Black — don’t have the same rights as people living in states. As we’ve seen in recent weeks, Trump controls D.C.’s national guard and has the authority to federalize D.C.’s police, instead of the local government elected by the people. Residents are denied voting representation in Congress, and they can’t fully control their own laws or budgets through the local representatives that they elect. They are essentially disenfranchised in all but presidential elections.
On June 26, 2020, the House of Representatives voted to make D.C. the 51st state, which is the next step towards granting D.C. long overdue control of its own laws and finally give them voting representation in the House and Senate.
A History of Exclusion
All of our citizens should be fully represented in Congress. Washington, D.C. has a population similar to states like Alaska and North Dakota, states that both have two senators and a voting House member representing their interests in Congress. Yet D.C. does not, robbing their residents of representation in the Senate, and preventing its representative in the House from voting.
D.C.’s lack of congressional representation is not a coincidence. It’s part of a centuries-long concerted effort to exclude Black people from participating in our democracy.
During post-Civil War Reconstruction, Black men in D.C. — who made up a third of the population at the time — were given the right to vote. In a few short years, several pieces of legislation were passed thanks to their organizing, including: outlawing or restricting racial discrimination in public accommodations and public works hiring, establishing public schools for Black children, and running for local government positions.
In part because of this growing political power, a predominantly white Congress voted to institute three presidentially appointed commissioners for the district in 1874. This rolled back the progress made by Black male suffrage and stripped self-governance for the district until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
D.C. residents couldn’t participate in presidential elections at all until the 23rd Amendment was ratified in 1961. It took until 1970 for Congress to give D.C. one non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives and another three years until Washingtonians got their first elected mayor and city council.
But these piecemeal measures aren’t enough to fully enfranchise the over 700,000 people who call D.C. home. We need to end their disenfranchisement and make D.C. a state.
D.C. Statehood and Progressive Change
D.C.’s lack of congressional representation is one factor that has skewed control of the Senate towards continued conservative control, even while a majority of Americans are voting for more progressive senators. It’s had enormous recent consequences: the Republican-controlled Senate has tried to gut healthcare, given massive tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy, and acquitted a guilty president.
Race still underpins the GOP’s continuous blockade against D.C. statehood, since Black voters and other voters of color tend to be more likely to support progressive candidates and policies, threatening the Republican stranglehold on the Senate.
If we fail to make D.C. statehood a priority, we will continue to see these kinds of policies for decades to come. Until all of our citizens are allowed equal representation, progressives will remain at a disadvantage, particularly in the Senate, and it will be difficult to make progress on everything from combating climate change to raising the minimum wage.
A Chance to Govern Autonomously
D.C.’s status as a district also means that its laws and budgets need to be approved by Congress before going into effect. That means that D.C. residents are at the mercy of conservative representatives and senators from faraway red states who are desperate to impose their right-wing agenda on the district’s hundreds of thousands of residents, the majority of whom are people of color.
This has had devastating impacts for district residents, including: restricted access to abortion for D.C. residents, especially for those with lower incomes; eroding common sense gun safety laws; prohibiting the district from using its own money to fund needle exchange programs to prevent the spread of HIV; and blocking legalized marijuana.
As a state, Washington, D.C. would have the autonomy necessary to enact the will of the people and enact policies that reflect the wants and needs of D.C. residents.
With a conservative majority in the Senate and Trump in the White House, there’s little chance of the measure being passed beyond the House this year. But passing it in the House is an historic step forward and will make it more likely for a new president and Senate to swiftly act on the issue, as soon as next year.