The D.C. statehood fight is part of an ugly effort to disenfranchise Black and brown people

Battles for statehood have always been political, but they've also quite often been about race. Washington, D.C.'s fight for recognition is no different.
Image: Democratic House Leaders Hold News Conference Ahead Of Historic D.C. Statehood Bill Vote
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., speaks as Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., listen during a news conference on D.C. statehood on Capitol Hill on Thursday.Alex Wong / Getty Images
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By David Litt, former senior speechwriter, President Barack Obama

The House will conduct its second vote ever Friday to decide whether to welcome Washington, D.C., as the 51st state in the union. The first time around, in 1993, all but one Republican and 40 percent of Democrats joined to defeat statehood for the then-majority-Black city, even though it was home to 579,000 people and its residents are required to pay federal taxes. This time, with strong support from Democratic leadership and in the wake of President Donald Trump's deployment of the National Guard and other federal forces to quell protests against police brutality outside the White House, it's expected to pass.

Of course, D.C. residents already know what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell thinks about the idea that the district — which, despite decades of gentrification, is still majority non-white — might become a state. "This is full-bore socialism on the march," McConnell, R-Ky., declared in a Fox News interview last year, adding that "none of that stuff is going anywhere as long as I'm in charge."

It's not surprising that McConnell is against D.C. statehood: The deep blue District would all but certainly add two Democrats to the Senate. What is surprising, however, is the language he chose to explain his opposition: His talking points against statehood echo the last gasps of the Jim Crow era, revealing what's truly at stake. (The arguments against it by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., on Thursday did much the same.)

Fights over statehood, of course, have always been political: Maine was separated from Massachusetts to preserve the balance between free-state and slave-state senators in the early 1800s, part of the Missouri Compromise. A few decades later, Republicans in Congress rushed Nevada into the union to give Abraham Lincoln three more electoral votes for his re-election bid.

But McConnell's claim that D.C. statehood would be "full-bore socialism" is rooted in the 20th century and, specifically, in the fight over statehood for Hawaii.

Hawaii was, in many ways, a logical candidate for statehood: It was home to a sizable population, it had strong economic ties to the mainland, and the population had been asking the federal government for admission since the U.S. annexed the territory in 1898, following a coup by white planters that stripped Queen Lili'uokalani of her throne. In 1937, a congressional committee found that Hawaii met all the qualifications for statehood and voted in its favor.

But a majority of Hawaii's residents were nonwhite, and the attack on Pearl Harbor put a pause on the territory's ambitions. Even in the wake of World War II, when the loyalty of Japanese Americans was no longer actively called into question, segregationists adamantly opposed admitting Hawaii — and two Hawaiian Republican senators — into the United States.

At times, Jim Crow's supporters were quite clear about their motivations. "Perhaps we should become the United States of the Pacific and finally should become the United States of the Orient," sneered Sen. George Smathers, D-Fla. But other segregationists buried their true objections behind a different argument: They argued that Hawaii was a hotbed of communism. In "Last Among Equals," his history of Hawaiian statehood, Roger Bell writes that the Red Scare "provided a convenient overt rationale for opposition to statehood based on racial and sectional factors."

Hawaii was eventually admitted alongside Alaska in 1959 — but only after passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, which signaled the beginning of the end of Jim Crow's long hold on the Senate.

Now Washington, too, finally appears primed for statehood: Its population has been larger than Wyoming's for that state's entire existence and bigger than Vermont's from at least 1910 until 1994 and has been bigger again since 2012; its residents pay more in total federal taxes than the residents of 22 other states, despite's the district's small size. Yet these 700,000 people remain essentially disenfranchised, with no voting representation in either chamber of Congress.

Of course, if admitted, Washington would also join Hawaii as only the second majority-nonwhite state. (Before gentrification began in earnest, including in 1993 when the first statehood vote was taken, D.C. would have been the first majority-Black state as well.) Just as they did more than 60 years ago, opponents of statehood are using the specter of communism as an excuse to vote against it.

It is possible — perhaps even likely — that McConnell's concerns are primarily partisan. But regardless of the motivation, the purpose of the pretend panic over socialism regarding Washington is the same as it was more than six decades ago: providing cover for institutional racism at best and overt white nationalism at worst. Along those lines, it's worth noting that McConnell applied his "pure socialism" charge not just to Washington, but also to majority-nonwhite Puerto Rico, where the possibility of statehood has seen renewed enthusiasm in recent years.

McConnell's talking points, then, make it clear just how high the stakes are in the fight over D.C. statehood. This isn't merely an issue for the district's residents — myself included — who live within walking distance of our founding documents but for whom taxation without representation is a daily fact of life. Withholding statehood from the District of Columbia is part of a far more sinister nationwide effort to disenfranchise nonwhite Americans at disproportionate rates.

Today, nonwhite Americans are more likely to be purged from voter rolls; more likely to live in gerrymandered "vote sinks" where elections are effectively decided by maps and not voters; more likely to endure horrifically long lines to vote, when they can at all. These efforts to minimize the impact of nonwhite votes, whether motivated by cynical partisanship or explicit white supremacy, are a legacy of the most shameful part of American history.

This is the context in which D.C. statehood has been denied for more than a century, and it is the context in which lawmakers and the president will soon decide whether to fully enfranchise more than 700,000 Americans. We know what Mitch McConnell will choose. Let's hope his fellow lawmakers choose — and force him to choose — something better.