The Battle Against D.C. Statehood is Rooted in Anti-Black RacismRoundup
tags: racism, DC Statehood
Kyla Sommers holds a Ph.D. in American history from the George Washington University. Her dissertation, entitled I Believe in the City, examines the Black Freedom Struggle and the 1968 civil disturbances in Washington, D.C.
It’s a big week for advocates of D.C. statehood. On Monday, the House Oversight Committee will hold a hearing on admitting the District of Columbia as the 51st state. In the past week, President Biden announced his support for it, D.C. Muriel E. Bower (D) installed 51-star flags along Pennsylvania Avenue in a display of encouragement, and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) counted down the days until the hearing on Twitter.
D.C. statehood would accomplish two long-term goals of activists in the capital: full representation in Congress and a D.C. government that is completely independent from congressional rule. But why are the District’s more than 700,000 residents denied these basic elements of democracy in the first place? The reason is rooted in the United States’ long history of anti-Black racism and fear of Black political power. As Congress debates the District’s fate, it’s valuable to revisit the history of the capital’s “taxation without representation,” which exposes this odious reality. Making this history clear provides new impetus for D.C. statehood and invites deep scrutiny of arguments made against this basic freedom.
When the federal government moved to D.C. in 1800, Congress controlled the capital, but D.C. residents still had some local autonomy and elections. Then, after the Civil War, Congress passed legislation granting African American men the vote, even before the 15th Amendment. In the 1868 D.C. mayoral election, nearly 50 percent of registered voters were Black men. They were instrumental in electing local leaders who pushed school integration and passed anti-discrimination civil rights laws.
This period of Black suffrage and political power was short-lived, however. In 1874, Congress installed a Board of Commissioners, composed of three appointed leaders, to run the D.C. municipal government. Most White Washingtonians supported the plan, in part because Congress would pay 50 percent of D.C.’s budget. They were also willing to give up their access to the vote so Black people would no longer have political power in D.C. The Organic Act of 1878, part of the compromise that officially ended Reconstruction, made the commissioner structure permanent, and all D.C. residents lost the vote for nearly 100 years.
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