With Black Lives Matter sparking increased interest in racial justice, the GOP attempting to disenfranchise millions of African Americans in the 2020 election (by trying to exclude vote counts from cities with large minority populations), and now state Republicans seeking to push through a torrent of Jim Crow-style legislation, national attention is once more focused on D.C. statehood. The Democrats’ narrow Senate advantage opens up the possibility, however slight, of a mechanism that could work around the filibuster to defend voting rights.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) minced no words on Monday while testifying before the House Oversight and Reform Committee to identify what is behind opposition to D.C. statehood. “The disenfranchisement of Washingtonians is one of the remaining glaring civil rights issues of our time,” she said. The District has historically always been a city with a large African American population, so opposition to its representation in Congress has taken on a distinctly racial cast. “Historic records are replete with statements of successive members of Congress referencing the ‘negro problem’ and the ‘color problem’ within D.C. as a justification to withhold Congressional representation,” Bowser explained. “This was their way of saying that African Americans are unable to govern themselves, or vote for their best interests, and should therefore be denied political power and suffrage.”
Even today, Republicans speak of D.C. as though its inhabitants are not quite American enough to vote for Congress (although they vote for president). Last year, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) came up a brand new excuse to deny statehood — its economy is not diverse enough! — but it’s clear that partisan advantage and race are the true barriers to D.C. statehood. “Wyoming is a well-rounded working-class state,” Cotton declared last year. “A new state of Washington would not be.” White rural Americans are “well-rounded,” but African Americans and Whites in an urban setting are not? (And in any event, being “well-rounded” is obviously not a qualification for enfranchisement.)
Republicans do not bother to address the manifest injustice of denying 700,000 people — more than the population of Vermont and Wyoming — representation in Congress even though they pay more federal income tax than 22 states. (Their constitutional argument is hogwash since the “federal district” as specified in the Constitution can be preserved for federal buildings while the rest of D.C., where people actually live, can be recognized as a state.) They simply do not want to “give” Democrats a voting seat in the House and two senators. The notion that one party “gets” voters or that voters should be denied a voice in government because of a preference for one party is an anathema to our democracy.
Statehood for the District rides with the fate of other civil rights legislation. If Democrats cannot get 10 Republicans to support either a comprehensive or slimmed down voting rights bill, they may be compelled to carve out an exception (just as Mitch McConnell did for Supreme Court confirmations when he was Senate majority leader) that allows a simple majority to pass legislation that extends or protects voting rights. Until then, the filibuster remains a barrier to the voting rights of millions of non-White voters — just as it was in the 1950s and ’60s.