DC Statehood Is a Civil Rights Issue

For more than 200 years, hundreds of thousands of D.C. residents have been mere spectators to our democracy. Legislation currently before Congress — the Washington, D.C. Admission Act (H.R. 51) — is trying to change that.

Introduced by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D. D.C., in January, H.R. 51 already has 215 cosponsors and previously passed the House in June 2020 — the first time that D.C. statehood legislation has ever been approved by a chamber of Congress. At this week’s House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on H.R. 51, members of Congress, D.C.’s mayor, and advocates — including Wade Henderson, our interim president and CEO — made the case for its passage once again.

As the hearing made clear: D.C. statehood is a civil rights and racial justice issue.

Even though D.C. residents pay federal taxes, fight courageously in wars, and fulfill their obligations of citizenship, they still have no voice when Congress makes decisions on matters as important as taxes and spending, health care, justice reform, education, immigration, and the environment.

From a broader civil and human rights perspective, the disenfranchisement of D.C. residents continues to stand out as the most blatant violation of the most important civil right that Americans have: the right to vote. And it only perpetuates the underlying racial animus that has been present since the District’s founding.  

For example, when Congress was deliberating the question of voting rights for D.C. residents toward the end of the 19th century, Alabama Senator John Tyler Morgan argued that rather than grant political power to the District’s Black population, Congress should “deny the right of suffrage entirely to every human being in the District.” He said it was necessary to “burn down the barn to get rid of the rats.” More than 100 years later, this stain of racial voter suppression persists.

In the past year, D.C. residents have been subjected to several humiliating reminders of our second-class status.

Last March, Congress shorted the District by $755 million in COVID-19 assistance because it treated the District as a territory rather than as a state — even though its residents pay federal taxes just like residents of every other state. Last summer, the former administration called in federal law enforcement and National Guard troops from other states over the objection of our mayor to disrupt peaceful protests against police brutality and racism, including violently clearing a street to allow for a presidential photo op in front of St. John’s Church. And on January 6, the same administration dragged its heels for hours, again over the objections of our mayor, before finally deploying the D.C. National Guard to quell the deadly attack by right-wing militia on the U.S. Capitol.

We simply cannot be the democracy we say we are when the lives of more than 700,000 people are at the mercy of political whims. Yet opponents to D.C. statehood freely admit that their opposition is based on political whims: Instead of competing for votes, in a battle of ideas, they say Washingtonians shouldn’t be represented because they’ll vote for the “wrong” candidates.

Our nation has made great progress throughout its history in expanding the right to vote. In the process, it has become a model for the world. Yet it remains painfully clear that the right to vote is meaningless if D.C. residents cannot put anyone into office. Washingtonians have been deprived of this right for more than two centuries — often on grounds that had nothing to do with constitutional design, and everything to do with race. Until statehood is achieved, the efforts of the civil rights movement will remain incomplete.

That is why extending representation and self-governance to D.C. residents is one of the highest legislative priorities for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Our coalition will continue working on this issue until Congress makes D.C. the 51st state.

To read Wade Henderson’s full written testimony submitted to the House Oversight and Reform Committee, click here.