The Trump administration’s militarized crackdown on protests in D.C. drew national attention to the federal government’s authority over the District’s affairs. The idea of making D.C. the 51st state has become a prominent part of that national conversation, with the public increasingly seeing D.C.’s current status as deeply unjust.
Reflecting what many residents of the District have felt for decades, the D.C. Council and Mayor Muriel Bowser are renewing their calls for D.C. to finally be granted statehood, and legislation is being introduced in Congress to attain that goal. Ending the disenfranchisement of D.C.’s residents is a clear matter of self-determination and racial justice. Congress has an obligation to enact statehood into law.
The federal government’s ability to fill the District’s streets with armed troops is frightening, and according to Bowser, would not have happened if D.C. were a state. But the injustice of D.C.’s second-class status extends beyond Trump’s use of military force. D.C. residents have no vote in Congress, yet they pay federal taxes. While the Council and mayor enact and enforce legislation, the federal government may override the city government at any time. And even though D.C. sends a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, that person holds no voting power. This lack of self-governance is best summarized by the phrase spangled across license plates in the District: “Taxation without representation.”
Statehood is also a clear matter of racial justice. A plurality of D.C.’s population is Black, and politicians’ opposition to statehood has often been a projection of racism. Bowser, nonvoting Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton and activists nationwide have identified D.C. statehood’s importance to dismantling the structures that have upheld systemic racism. Elevating the District to the 51st state would grant greater representation to Black Americans who have always been vastly underrepresented in government because of structural racism. The extent to which statehood would help advance the cause of racial justice makes it all the more important to be enacted.
Fortunately, there are some signs that the statehood movement may be gaining momentum. House Democrats have added statehood legislation to a package of bills aimed at reforming policing. The bill, authored by Norton and Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, would essentially make the current city government into a state government. The Council would become a legislature, and the mayoralty would become a gubernatorial office. D.C. as a state would be called “Washington, Douglass Commonwealth” in honor of politician and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. A clear structure would be established to enfranchise the citizens of D.C. and give them long-overdue representation in the House and Senate.
Political reality makes this bill’s odds of passage quite long. Republican opposition has already begun to coalesce, meaning the GOP-held Senate will be a minefield for the statehood bill if it passes the House. But politics do not change the injustice of keeping nearly a million American citizens disenfranchised. Congress has the power and the obligation to finally make D.C. a state, and by doing so grant the full rights of being an American citizen to nearly a million people who have been unjustly denied them.
Andrew Sugrue, a rising junior majoring in political communication, is the contributing opinions editor.