How Washington, DC’s Lack of Statehood Hurts Black and Poor Residents

July 20, 2020

A debate over democracy and racial justice is raging on the federal government’s doorstep. On June 26, the House of Representatives voted 232-180 to make Washington, DC the 51st state for the first time in history. The vote followed partisan political lines almost exactly: A single Democrat joined all Republicans and the lone Libertarian representative in opposition.

Senate Republicans and President Trump have already blasted the effort as a “Democratic power grab” to “empower the most radical agenda in modern American politics”.

The bill would create a new state, dubbed Washington, Douglass Commonwealth. It would include nearly all of the current area of DC, minus key federal buildings and properties like the White House and US Capitol. The 51st state would get one voting Representative in the House and two Senators.

Washington, DC has a land area of about 60 square miles. That’s a little bit smaller than the New York borough of Brooklyn. But it has over 705,000 residents—a larger population than either Vermont or Wyoming. Demographically, DC is about 51 percent Black and just 38 percent white.

Under the current setup, DC elects one non-voting Representative in the House and no Senators. Only since 1961 has DC been able to vote in the Electoral College to choose US presidents, and only since the 1973 Home Rule Act have residents been able to elect a mayor and city council to make their own laws.

Congress maintains supreme authority over the city’s laws and budget, and can choose to interfere in local governing and veto laws that are passed. Statehood advocates argue that the city’s current political status amounts to disenfranchisement of a largely minority population.

“Representation makes a huge difference in the dollars and voice we could have in decision-making,” Beverly Smith-Brown, founder of Momma’s Safe Haven, told Filter. Her organization works with people in DC who have suffered trauma including violence, homelessness, substance abuse disorder and sexual abuse.

“We would have more money and be able to do more with it,” she said. “We could provide better quality education in all areas of the city that don’t each receive equal resources or teachers. And we could improve food security, job opportunities and gun violence prevention in our communities.”

DC’s voters have frequently had to see their own laws overturned by Congressional interference. In 2014, the District legalized adult-use marijuana through a ballot initiative. But Republican Representative Andy Harris, from a suburban Maryland district over a hundred miles away, effectively stopped legal sales in the city by inserting an amendment in a federal spending bill.

It gets much worse—and Congress’s meddling in DC lives has literally killed people.

Nearly six years later, the so-called “Harris rider” continues to prevent fully legal marijuana in the city. And Harris just tried to do the same thing again to prevent a psychedelics decriminalization initiative from being implemented in DC—before residents even had a chance to vote on it. He’s since backed off, but he may still attempt to reinsert an amendment to this effect in future federal legislation.

To some, this might not sound so serious. After all, most US states still don’t have fully legal cannabis, and none have fully decriminalized psychedelics. But it gets much worse—and Congress’s meddling in DC lives has literally killed people.

Since 1988, Congress has blocked DC from spending local funds to provide abortion services for women on Medicaid. About 55,000 DC women are denied coverage for abortions, having to pay out-of-pocket for a service that might cost more than their monthly salary.

And in 1998, Congress banned a syringe services center that DC’s council approved two years prior. The ban was only lifted in 2007. Within four years after the center opened, the city’s HIV infection rate for injecting drug users dropped 80 percent. The hepatitis infection rate also dropped 33 percent. Untold preventable deaths occurred during the years of the ban.

DC’s political status has also hurt residents during the pandemic. The CARES Act relief package passed by President Trump in March classified DC as a “territory,” meaning it didn’t receive the minimum $1.25 billion that all 50 states got toward their response. DC only got $500 million. This was despite the city’s having more coronavirus cases than nine states.

On the criminal justice side, DC is heavily controlled by the federal government. Misdemeanor and felony crimes are prosecuted not by the city’s attorney general, but by the federal US Attorney’s Office. This makes DC residents much more likely to face federal charges, and to be sent to federal prisons outside the city if convicted.

The same applies to re-entry. “Our parole board was taken over by the feds,” Ron Moten, an organizer with local arts advocacy group Don’t Mute DC, told Filter. “So politicians who aren’t from here and don’t know our community are making decisions about when DC residents can re-enter society. We have a halfway house in Baltimore that houses DC residents coming home from prison. Our prisoners are being sent all over the country, so our families are being broken up and split.”

Although DC residents voted as recently as 2016 in favor of statehood, activists told Filter that engagement on the statehood question varies widely given the problems people face.

“We work with many older people who have been concerned and fighting for this for years, but we are trying to reach younger people and make them more aware,” said Smith-Brown. “But people are dealing with so many issues that statehood takes a back seat. Getting a meal and a home for your children is too important for them.”

James Watts, an organizer of National Expungement Week, supports statehood. “Other issues are larger than statehood and systemic changes are the only substantive way to create lasting change,” he told Filter. However, “Statehood could provide a framework for more locally focused initiatives and justice that could more accurately portray the liberal leanings of the area, instead of having to bow to federal oversight.”

“DC statehood would do nothing to address the many failings of our justice system as these are systemic failures are on a national level,” he continued. “The dismantling of white supremacy as a socio-political structure is Step One to a more equitable, inclusive and socially just society.”

To be clear, it is practically impossible that DC will become a state any time soon, at least with the current Republican-controlled Senate and White House. Congress would also have to figure out if it could admit DC without also having to pass a Constitutional amendment.

But in the event that it happened, DC’s residents and elected officials would be able to start again in deciding their own laws. Activists like Smith-Brown, Watts and Moten would then play a critical role in mobilizing voters to take advantage of the new mandate.

“The people have to stay focused on the issues,” Moten cautioned. He applauded the growing racial justice movement in his city, led by groups including Black Lives Matter. But with stronger movement comes stronger division, he noted.

“There’s no head of the movement, so people don’t know how to deal with conflict. There’s so much energy coming from different places trying to push people to do the right thing. At some point we need to be structured and organized to make our world a better place, for Black people and for everyone trying to work together for equality.”


Photo by Jane Dickson via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0.

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is an editorial fellow at Filter.

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