Times change — or rather, times are changed. Prompted by the historic, inspiring, powerful nationwide Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd — and Trump’s appalling use of the military to occupy Washington D.C. in response — Democratic leaders in the House moved forward on the D.C. statehood bill. Last week, for the first time in history, the House passed a bill that would make Washington, D.C. the 51st state in the union. The new state would be admitted as the state of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth — named after famed abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass.
Why is D.C. statehood a response at all to nationwide Black Lives Matter protests? To answer that question, you’ve got to ask another: why does a geographic area in America with more residents than two states, and that pays more federal taxes than 22 states, lack any voting representation in Congress?
The answer to that question goes back long before that first D.C. state constitution draft. You could of course go all the way back to the founding of the country, but let’s jump to 1890. In that year, a southern conservative Senator gave a speech to explain why Congress chose to disenfranchise D.C. residents at the precise moment that the Black population was becoming a political force in the District. The full quote is worth a read:
“Now, the historical fact is simply this, that the negroes came into this District from Virginia and Maryland and from other places…they came in here and they took possession of a certain part of the political power of this District…and there was but one way to get out…and that was to deny the right of suffrage entirely to every human being in the District and have every office here controlled by appointment instead of by election…in order to get rid of this load of negro suffrage that was flooded in upon them. This is the true statement. History cannot be reversed. No man can misunderstand it.”
Those are the words written into the congressional record. No one can misunderstand it.
Fast forward 130 years.
After the House passed the D.C. statehood bill last week, another southern Senator took the floor of the U.S. Senate to discuss voting rights for D.C. residents. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas explained why Wyoming’s overwhelmingly white population of 578,000 should have two senators, while D.C.’s majority Black and brown population of 705,000 should have zero senators. Wyoming, he pointed out, “has three times as many workers in mining, logging, and construction.”
Huh? But it wasn’t just the lack of lumberjacks in D.C. that bothered Cotton. He went on to call into question the competence of two Black D.C. mayors: “Would you trust Mayor Bowser to keep Washington safe if she were given the powers of a governor? Would you trust Marion Barry?”
This isn’t subtle. Cotton’s message was loud and clear. No one should misunderstand it.
Now, Tom Cotton’s speech was mostly just bombast and bluster. He didn’t need to even give the speech, because he knows perfectly well that as long as Mitch McConnell serves as Senate Majority Leader, D.C. statehood will never even come to a vote in the Senate. Last year McConnell took to the Senate floor to describe D.C. statehood as “full-bore socialism.”
This isn’t complicated. Trump tweets videos of his supporters shouting “white power” and his supporters in the Senate block enfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of Black voters.
D.C.’s statehood may have felt like a far-away dream even a few months ago. But the Democratic House has now signaled its support. The Democratic senators have signaled their support. Joe Biden has signaled his support. If we build a Democratic trifecta this November, we could be welcoming D.C. to the Union as soon as next year. It’s the right thing to do. And it’s long — like a hundred years plus — overdue.
Ezra & Leah
Co-founders & Co-Executive Directors, Indivisible