D.C. Statehood illustrated by the Capital Building by the

Why Washington D.C. Statehood Is a Racial Justice Issue

Our nation's capital becoming a state is about more than just achieving equal representation in Congress; it’s also about attaining racial equity.
July 14, 2020
10 mins read

Taxation without representation. As a D.C. native, I have heard this phrase nearly my entire life.  In fact, this phrase, or its derivative “end taxation without representation,” can be found on almost every license plate in D.C. The term was coined by American colonists in the 1700s, believing they should not be expected to abide by British laws and pay British taxes when they didn’t have any direct representation in Parliament. However, since then, this term has become Washingtonians’ unofficial motto in the fight for D.C. statehood.

While Washington D.C. is our nation’s capital, it is not an official state. We lack statehood and the many privileges that accompany it.

First, we pay state-like taxes. In fact, D.C. residents pay the highest per-capita federal income taxes in the U.S. We lack any voting representation in Congress. While over 700,000 people live in D.C., more than Wyoming (population 578,000 with 2 senators and one representative) or Vermont (population 624,000 also with 2 senators and one representative), we only have a non-voting “delegate” in the House of Representatives. We are also governed by “Home Rule.” This law grants D.C. some autonomy: We are allowed a mayor and a Council of the District of Columbia. However, Congress reviews all legislation passed by the council and decides the District’s budget. Additionally, District judges are appointed by the president.

The lack of D.C. statehood is constantly exploited, especially recently. In response to COVID-19, the government provided economic assistance to all states through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. D.C. was allotted about $500 million in aid: a fraction of what states with similar population sizes were given (about $1.25 billion).

And just last month, Trump was able to deploy heavily armed officers across the city in response to the Black Lives Matter protests because of D.C.’s unique situation. Instead of a governor controlling the National Guard, as is the case in other states, the president controls the D.C. National Guard.

D.C. residents have advocated for D.C. statehood since the 1980s, with no luck. However, on June 26, the House approved the Washington, D.C. Admission Act (H.R. 51). This bill, if approved by the Senate and the president, would establish D.C. as a state and provide us with adequate representation in proportion to the city’s size, as well as other features that accompany statehood. Unfortunately, this bill is likely to die in the Republican-controlled Senate and/or the White House.

There are a number of reasons D.C. statehood is opposed. The D.C. population is primarily composed of Democrats: As of May 31, about 76% of registered voters were registered as Democrat. Many Republicans are heavily against the idea of adding more seats for Democrats in Congress. Originalists may also point out that the Constitution states that the capital of the U.S. must not exceed 10 square miles, something that will surely happen if D.C. is to become a state. However, proponents of D.C. statehood have suggested a solution to this.

But there’s a third reason why D.C statehood is meeting resistance, and it’s rooted in white supremacy and racism.

History of D.C.

Established as the nation’s capital in 1791, D.C. quickly became a home for many Black people.

In 1800, enslaved Black people made up 25% of the district’s population. By 1830, most Black people in D.C. were free. In 1862, Congress passed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act, abolishing slavery in D.C. nine months before slavery was abolished nationally via Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. D.C. soon became a target destination for Black people seeking to escape the Confederacy. By Reconstruction, about a third of D.C.’s population was Black.

In 1867, Black men won the right to vote in local D.C. elections. Congress’ white majority quickly stopped this, by establishing new laws that allowed only the president­ –– who at this point D.C. residents weren’t able to vote for –– the ability to appoint D.C.’s government. For nearly 100 years after, D.C. residents were even more disenfranchised than they are currently, stripped of a say in local or federal politics.

Many congressmen were explicit in their racially guided intentions. The senator of Alabama at the time, a Republican and former Confederate soldier named John Tyler Morgan, stated that stripping D.C. citizens of a vote was necessary to “burn down the barn to get rid of the rats … the rats being the negro population and the barn being the government of the District of Columbia.”

In 1957, the D.C. Black population surpassed 50%, making D.C. the nation’s first predominantly-Black city. Throughout the civil rights movement, D.C. residents lobbied for equal rights. In 1961, the 23rd Amendment was ratified, which let D.C. residents vote for the president and vice president

But D.C. residents still lacked control over their local government. At that point, the Black population made up at least 71% of the city’s population, inspiring D.C.’s nickname “Chocolate City.” Because of this, many white congressmen opposed the idea of Black people gaining power in government. John Rarick, a representative from Louisiana, “warned that any measure giving the district power to govern itself could lead to a takeover by the Black Muslims,” the Associated Press reported in 1972. However in 1973, D.C. was awarded self-governance through the aforementioned Home Rule Act.

Morgan and Rarick’s comments reflect the racist belief that Black people are unfit to govern or play a role in our democracy by voting. These beliefs are still apparent in the current debate for D.C. statehood.

Present Day 

Over the past 50 years, Washington has become heavily gentrified, with many Black families leaving the city due to the rise in property prices. Consequently, only about 46% of the D.C. population is Black. While D.C. still has a larger Black population relative to other cities, this is a significant decrease from 1970 when D.C. was still considered the “Chocolate City.”

However, congressmen’s opposition to D.C. statehood still has racist undertones.

On Sept. 19, 2019, the House of Representatives held a hearing to discuss D.C. statehood for the first time this century. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) was one of the first to speak, heavily opposing D.C. statehood as he saw its present and past government as corrupt and thus unfit for statehood. Jordan brought up allegations against former ward member Jack Evans, who faces several ethics investigations. However, Jordan wasn’t done there.

“The allegations against Mr. Evans are just the latest in a series of local D.C. political scandals,” Jordan remarked. “Mr. Barry, Mr. Grey, Jim Graham, Kwame Brown, Michael Brown, Harry Thomas Jr. All recently elected D.C. officials with a cloud of scandal. Some actually served time in jail.”

Scandalous pasts should not be a deterrent for statehood. Not to mention, the true intentions of Jordan’s statement doesn’t have to do with the fact they all are clouded in scandal: There’s another commonality. All of the names mentioned, aside from Evans, are Black. In fact, many D.C. elected officials, including all seven of D.C.’s mayors, have been Black.

Additionally, Jordan’s mention of D.C.’s controversial “Mayor For Life,” Marion Barry, shows the attitude of many white conservatives. As Christina Cauterucci of Slate explained, “Jordan’s invocation of Barry was a nod to conservatives who’d like to freeze D.C. in the Barry era in public memory: too corrupt and crack-ridden for the responsibilities of statehood.”

Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark) emphasized similar sentiments a day before the H.R. 51 hearing in a speech he gave to the Senate floor.

“Would you trust Mayor Bowser to keep Washington safe if she were given the powers of a governor?” Cotton asked. “Would you trust Marion Barry?”

Like Rarick, Morgan and Jordan, Cotton questions whether Black people should be trusted in seats of power. Cotton also compared D.C. to Wyoming, a state of similar size to D.C. but viewed by Cotton as more “worthy” of statehood.

“Wyoming is smaller than Washington by population, but it has three times as many workers in mining, logging, and construction, and ten times as many workers in manufacturing,” Senator Tom Cotton said. “In other words, Wyoming is a well-rounded working-class state. A new state of Washington would not be.”

While Wyoming is of similar size to D.C., there is a clear difference: Wyoming is nearly 92% white. By implying that D.C. is not a “well-rounded” or a “working state,” Cotton is insulting D.C.’s large Black community. Not to mention, Cotton is completely ignoring the fact that D.C. is more than just the seat of the federal government.

Steve Daines (R-Mont) had similar sentiments, suggesting that his colleagues “go out to where the real people are at across the country and ask them what they think.”

This statement is not only offensive, but ignorant. As NARAL President Ilyse Hogue explained in response, “The erasure of Black Americans, the erasure of working-class and low-income people, the erasure of families is inexcusable. When you bash D.C. as a government city, you also cannot ignore that the federal government has been a pathway into middle class for African Americans shut out of other industries.”

D.C. is not just the place where the president, congressmen and monuments reside. There are real people and communities who live here. So call your representatives, visit https://statehood.dc.gov/, do whatever you can to ensure D.C. becomes a state. Because only with statehood will D.C.’s underrepresented voices be heard.

Hannah Docter-Loeb, Wesleyan University

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Hannah Docter-Loeb

Wesleyan University
Biology, Psychology, Education Studies Minor

Passionate about science, education, the environment, and journalism!

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