For two years in a row, and for only the second time in history, the US House of Representatives passed a bill to make Washington, D.C., the 51st state. And though the bill is effectively dead on arrival — the Senate filibuster would require at least 10 Republican senators to join Democrats in sending the bill to a floor vote — the fight for D.C. statehood has never been stronger.
Momentum is clearly building to eventually grant the nearly 700,000 residents of the nation’s capital equal representation in Congress, and Democrats appear to be insistent on making that a reality. Right now, D.C. has one non-voting representative in the House, as is the case with US territories like Puerto Rico. The only thing that stands in the way of changing that is a racist Senate rule that can easily be abolished and the need for a few extra seats to pad the Democrats’ majority in the chamber in the next election.
But with that momentum comes renewed and tired arguments against D.C. statehood, most of which are either racist or anti-democratic (or both). Take, for example, the recent statements made by Representative Steve Scalise. The Louisiana Republican argued that D.C. is too corrupt and violent to become a state, writing in a memo, “Why should the District of Columbia be granted statehood when it can’t even perform basic governmental duties like protecting its residents from criminals?”
Yet despite the fact that many state governments are corrupt, including that of Scalise’s home state, and that crime is not some phenomenon unique to Washington, D.C., no one is arguing in favor of disenfranchising Americans based on their state government’s performance. There’s only one difference when it comes to D.C.: If admitted, it would be the Blackest state in the union and would probably be governed by mostly Black politicians. D.C. was long a majority Black city, is still predominantly Black, and has only ever had Black mayors.
There have been many iterations of Scalise’s argument, and they have always implied the same thing: that Black people cannot be trusted to govern themselves. In fact, these racist arguments span back to when President Lyndon Johnson appointed Walter Washington as D.C.’s first mayor, several years before Congress passed the Home Rule Act and established a democratic governing body for the city. After Washington submitted his first budget to Congress, Representative John McMillan of South Carolina and the chair of the House Committee on the District of Columbia, sent him a truckload of watermelons in return.
Recent opponents to D.C.’s autonomy have been more subtle. But with D.C. having a larger population than the states of Wyoming and Vermont, it’s really difficult to look at Republican arguments against D.C. statehood and not see them for what they are: anti-Black. Last year, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas argued that while D.C. would not be the smallest state, it would not be a “well-rounded working-class state” like Wyoming. Except that it would: Based on 2016 data, D.C.’s labor force had roughly 140,000 workers in the working class compared to Wyoming’s 220,000. The difference, however, is that 67 percent of D.C.’s working class is Black and 16 percent is Hispanic, while 84 percent of Wyoming’s is white.
Republicans might not be so racist in their arguments against D.C. if they believed in democracy. The truth is that their vehement opposition to granting D.C. residents representation in Congress is that D.C. would be unlikely to elect any Republicans to those seats. In 2020, Joe Biden won 92 percent of the city’s votes. But in a democracy, representatives don’t get to choose who gets to vote for them. And if Republicans believed in democracy, they would not only support fully enfranchising Washingtonians but work on earning their votes and bringing D.C. residents into their coalition. That’s the whole point of democracy, but Republicans have so far only shown interest in maintaining their minority-rule approach to governance.
D.C.’s lack of statehood has many implications for its residents that go well beyond not having a vote in Congress. Throughout the years, Congress has used its authority over the district to overturn its laws and subvert democracy at the local level. In the 1990s, for example, Congress banned the city from using its funds for needle-exchange programs, which were critical in reducing the spread of HIV. That ban, implemented against the city’s will, resulted in D.C. having the highest rate of HIV per capita in the country, a reality that disproportionately hurt Black residents.
Today, the federal government is still meddling in D.C. residents’ affairs, from gun control to reproductive rights to marijuana regulation. And that kind of oversight — often rooted in paternalistic and colonial ideas about Black people not knowing what’s best for themselves — is why cries against “taxation without representation” have echoed throughout the District of Columbia for over 200 years.