D.C. Statehood is a racial justice issue by Ben Jealous
7/9/2020, 6 p.m.
The District of Columbia is the one spot where there is no government for the people, of the people and by the people, the great abolitionist and D.C. resident Frederick Douglass once wrote.
More than a century later, the 705,000 residents of Washington — nearly half of them African-American — are still denied the full citizenship that every American deserves. They have no vote in a Congress that can override decisions by voters and elected officials about local priorities and tax dollars. Rectifying this injustice should be a top priority for every American who is committed to advancing racial justice and voting rights.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said — wrongly and ridiculously that righting this wrong would be full-bore socialism. On June 26, the U.S. House of Representatives rebuked Sen. McConnell’s farcical reasoning by voting to make the District of Columbia the 51st state.
The House vote was a historic step toward resolving this glaring injustice. Achieving the final result will require removing Sen. McConnell and President Trump from their current posts. The need to do so could not be more urgent.
Denying D.C. statehood has devastating real-world consequences. The coronavirus pandemic is having an especially deadly impact on Black and Latino people in D.C. and elsewhere. Yet Senate Republicans refused to treat D.C. the same way it treated the states in relief legislation. That cost D.C. residents $750 million in relief funds even though D.C.’s coronavirus caseload was higher than that of 19 states.This denial of COVID-19 relief funds is just the latest harm imposed on D.C. by members of Congress who have been happy to treat D.C. as their fiefdom— from interfering with public health officials’ response to the AIDS crisis to blocking implementation of a voter-approved referendum to legalize the use of marijuana.
There is no doubt that both historically and today, opposition to extending democracy to our nation’s capital has been grounded in racism and the desire to maintain racist structures of power.
And there is no doubt that denying citizens of the nation’s capital representation in the national legislature — something no other free country does — undermines our self-image as leaders of the free world and our credibility as a beacon of democracy on the international stage.
Civil rights leaders and other advocates for statehood have been making the case for statehood for decades, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson; the late Julian Bond; Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s nonvoting delegate to Congress; and the activists at DC Vote.
The case is clear. D.C. has more residents than either Wyoming or Vermont and nearly as many as Alaska. D.C. residents contribute more federal taxes than those of 22 states and more per capita than any state. There is no principled justification for continuing to treat the people of Washington, D.C., as second class citizens.
Many of the systemic problems Americans are grappling with do not have simple solutions. But this one does. All it will take is for the U.S. Senate to pass and the president to sign the legislation that just passed in Congress.
What is standing in the way is the same ruthless Republican desire to maintain power that brings us racial and political gerrymandering and voter suppression. The illegitimate entrenchment of power in the hands of right-wing politicians undermines democracy. It harms Americans everywhere, not just in D.C., by making it harder to adopt policies that protect American lives and communities. That is why D.C. statehood must be part of the agenda of the broader movement to advance racial equity and a healthy democracy.
For now, D.C. statehood legislation is sure to join the growing pile of common good measures passed by the House that die in Sen. McConnell’s graveyard. That should intensify our resolve to mobilize voters and overcome every undemocratic tactic Republicans will deploy to suppress the vote between now and November.
The writer, a former president of the national NAACP, is president of People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation.