How Could Statehood Increase Equity for DC Residents?

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A man walks by new murals depicting different interpretations of DC statehood in the H Street Corridor in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, July 7, 2020. The murals are part of a new project conducted by MuralsDC that put up 51 new murals on the theme of DC statehood. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

On June 26, the US House of Representatives passed legislation to make the District of Columbia the 51st state by a 232–180 vote. It marked the first time either chamber of Congress approved a DC statehood bill. Although Senate Republican leadership and the White House have said they oppose the measure, it represented a historic milestone in DC’s quest for equal federal voting representation and home rule.

Since Congress established Washington as the US capital in 1790, the rights of DC residents have been hotly debated. During deliberations about the new federal city, Representative John Smilie, a Republican from Pennsylvania, said, “Not a man in the District would be represented in the government, whereas every man who contributed to the support of a government ought to be represented in it; otherwise his natural rights were subverted and he was left not a citizen but a subject.” (Of course, at that time, the concern was entirely about white men, since people of color and women were denied voting and other rights.)

Over the past two centuries, people have debated DC voting rights, but a 1970 article by journalist Sam Smith renewed attention on the statehood solution. In 2012, a coalition of local and national organizations joined forces to advocate for statehood, and, in 2016, 86 percent of DC voters approved a statehood ballot initiative. All of these efforts culminated in this June’s House vote.

To get a better understanding of the current prospects for DC statehood, and the implications for the District’s 706,000 residents, I spoke with Bo Shuff, executive director of DC Vote, a member of the DC Statehood Coalition and an organization that has been campaigning for Equality for DC since its founding in 1998, as part of our series highlighting the voices of community changemakers who are confronting equity issues facing the greater DC region.

How would you characterize the DC statehood campaign today?

Bo Shuff: For over 200 years, we have been grappling with the question of how we reenfranchise people in the District and get them back to full equality. The current push, which started with efforts by Mayor Bowser and the New Columbia Statehood Commission in 2014, represents a new approach with high-level engagement. More organizations inside and outside of the District now support statehood, including national groups like Clean Water Action. This has let us reach larger audiences for education and coalition building, and, as a result, we have progressed further than ever before.

What impact has the lack of home rule and full voting representation had on the people of DC?

Bo Shuff: The first impact is psychological and comes from being treated as different and lesser than other people. This impact is compounded because the District has a majority of people of color and also many people who identify as LGBTQ (PDF). People in these groups have been treated inequitably in other ways, but that is made psychologically worse when you don’t get a vote, you don’t get representation, and you aren’t seen as equal in the eyes of your own government.

Throughout the District’s history, we have not been allowed to stand on our own two feet. Whether it is major decisions, like the planning of the McMillan Reservoir and building highways that destroyed Black communities, or smaller ones, like how we label our wet wipes, District residents too often have had no say in policies that affect them directly. A particularly egregious example was during the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s, when a Congressional ban prevented the District from funding a needle exchange program. That decision cost the lives of Washingtonians.

The police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people at the hands of the police, as well as the subsequent protests here in DC and around the country, have focused the attention of more people on the historic and current lack of racial justice in the US. Do you see the racial justice movement as having relevance for DC statehood?

Bo Shuff: DC Vote has always approached statehood as a racial justice issue, as a voting rights issue with racial overtones back to slavery. Racism is the deeply rooted reason why the District is not a state. We see that in the history of the US, where territories like Alaska, Arizona, Hawai’i, and New Mexico were granted statehood much more slowly because they had larger populations of color. We also see it reflected in efforts to deny people of color representation and voting rights today, through policies like gerrymandering and voter ID laws.  

What would you like people outside of the District to understand about DC statehood?

Bo Shuff: That District residents are real people! Outsiders sometimes think that we all work for Congress and that we “go home” to vote. We do go home—but our homes are right here. In the District, we have teachers, janitors—all types of people and workers. We have a downtown that is urban, but parts of the District look suburban and even exurban. You will find the diversity of America represented in the District.

And what we are asking for are the rights that all Americans have. We are not looking for special treatment.

What’s next for the statehood movement?

Bo Shuff: Of course, what happens next depends a lot on the November election. Although we cannot vote for the people who will make these decisions, a record number of Americans now support DC statehood. Regardless of the outcome, we will continue to educate and engage as we have always done. But if supporters of DC statehood can control the political agenda, I think we will see rapid movement.