“Congress has both the moral obligation and the constitutional authority to pass the D.C. statehood bill. This country was founded on the principles of no taxation without representation and consent of the governed, but D.C. residents are taxed without representation and cannot consent to the laws under which they, as American citizens, must live.” — Eleanor Holmes Norton, Delegate to United States House of Representatives representing the District of Columbia
Earlier this month, I had the honor of testifying to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in support of statehood for the District of Columbia.
While in law school in Washington, D.C., I grew to love the community and made the city my second home. As a member of the D.C. Statehood Commission from 2006 to 2010, I advocated for D.C. statehood.
As the former mayor of New Orleans, I have deep experience in running a busy and thriving city with a diverse population. Residents of these cities, like Americans across the country, must have representation in Congress to meet their needs and protect their rights. Yet the citizens of the District of Columbia continue to be denied this representation and are relegated to second-class citizenship.
The international community agrees. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, Organization of American States, and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe all have recognized the injustice of D.C.’s status.
Nearly 700,000 Americans live in the District of Columbia and suffer under the daily injustice of “Taxation without Representation.” They pay the highest per capita federal income taxes in the country, serve on juries, and fight and die in wars, yet they are denied full democratic rights. They are unable to bring grievances to influential federal officials, reap the benefits available to other congressional constituents, or have a say in the important issues of war and peace that confront this nation.
As a civil rights and human services organization, the National Urban League is in a unique position to see how this lack of representation directly impacts the populations we serve — most extremely over the past year. Black and brown communities suffered higher rates of infections, deaths, and unemployment due to Covid-19. Racial inequities in education, housing, employment, health care and household wealth are worse than they were before the pandemic struck.
Nowhere is this tragedy more evident than in the District of Columbia. D.C. residents, including essential workers and small business owners, were in dire need of the relief afforded under the CARES Act. Unlike other citizens, they did not have congressional input into the CARES Act, and they initially were denied $755 million in critical direct relief.
Last summer, D.C. residents took to the streets in peaceful protest of racially motivated police violence. In response to this peaceful uprising, the previous administration ordered both the National Guard and federal law enforcement to carry out a wildly disproportionate and inappropriate response, all in the interest of a photo-op.
On Jan. 6 — despite the urgent requests of D.C. Mayor Bowser — that same administration refused to call in the National Guard in response to a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol until much of the damage had already been done.
In both of these cases, D.C. officials were unable to respond effectively to urgent emergencies in their city because the District lacks statehood and the critical safety mechanisms it provides.
Despite all these events that directly impacted and harmed them, D.C. residents are not able to hold elected representatives accountable for these harms. They are not represented by a Congress member who can vote to establish a Commission to investigate the Capitol insurrection, or to reimagine public safety through the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
I am grateful to Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware for calling national attention to the second-class status of the citizens of the District of Columbia by introducing the Washington, D.C. Admission Act in the Senate.
I also applaud the longstanding and strong leadership on this issue by D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, who authored the first statehood bill in 1991 upon first arriving in Congress and who has remained a steady soldier in the fight for equality for the District’s citizens.
Black Americans have bled and died for the right to vote in this country for centuries. The Supreme Court’s decision in the landmark case Wesberry v. Sanders says it best: “No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.”
We cannot allow this denial of constitutional rights to continue right outside of Congress’ front door. The goals of our civil rights movement will not be realized until D.C. statehood is achieved.
Morial is president/CEO of the National Urban League.