Washington, D.C., has a larger population than Wyoming or Vermont, each of which have two senators and a voting representative. And we have to talk about the composition of that population: It’s a plurality Black, majority Black and brown city, and there’s a long history of the District’s political rights being limited for that reason. The right to home rule—for the city’s residents to even elect a mayor and council—was rejected by Congress and by many white Washingtonians through most of the 20th century, historian Kyla Sommers writes in The Washington Post.
“In response to a Washington Post survey on Home Rule in 1966, White D.C. residents clearly articulated the racism behind their opposition,” she writes, “saying such things as it ‘isn’t right that the Nation’s Capital be all colored’ and “they don’t have the right education to do the right job” and rejecting the idea ‘because a colored fellow would be mayor—no other reason.’”
That—not just Republican opposition to making a heavily Democratic area a state with senators—is important context for the opposition to statehood. The District’s government expands on that reality in making the case for statehood, noting, “The average Black American voting power is only 75 percent as much representation as the average white American in the Senate and a 55 percent to the Hispanic voter” and statehood would help change that.
The same case from the District’s government notes that statehood would have made a major difference in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, because the order for the Washington, D.C. National Guard to activate would have been under local control, not left waiting for hours while the Defense Department and Trump White House allowed the attack to continue.
That’s not the only major recent event in which Washington, D.C., has been denied equal treatment: “While our population is larger than that of both Vermont and Wyoming, under the CARES Act, the District was denied $755 million in emergency funds, which is the amount provided to the least populous state through the Coronavirus Relief Fund.”
This is part of the United States, with 700,000 residents, getting routinely shafted because of the nation’s sordid racial history and continuing Republican opposition both to full political rights for Black people and to a Senate that is less slanted toward lightly populated Republican states. The current structure of the Senate allows Republicans minority rule, both through the filibuster and through its slant toward the states with the smallest populations, and they want to keep it that way.
Democrats have moved toward an understanding of the importance of this issue, not just for political power but for democracy and justice. Without significantly reforming the filibuster, it won’t happen. Without a united Democratic Party it won’t happen. But it is within reach, and it is the right thing to do.
Norton’s bill would reduce the size of the federal district—the part not given the full rights of statehood—to the immediate surroundings of the White House, Capitol Hill, the Supreme Court, and the National Mall, and turn the rest of the current Washington, D.C., into the State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth, honoring Frederick Douglass.