Representing D.C.

By Michelle Chen Feb 26, 2009

Of all the civil rights struggles that have drawn people to the streets of the nation’s capital, one of the most enduring conflicts is a homegrown one: the basic political enfranchisement of the District of Columbia’s residents. Today, the Senate approved legislation granting D.C.—a heavily democratic, majority Black, and relatively poor urban center—a full vote in the House of Representatives. D.C.’s lack of national representation and local governing power has deep roots in racial inequities that have roiled in the capital since the 19th century. A research paper by Eli Zigas explains the role of structural racism, beginning with the growth of the Black community during the Civil War and Reconstruction periods. The struggle for educational funding and other resources polarized on racial lines:

The federal government’s abolition of slavery and its subsequent unfunded mandate for public education of the District’s greatly enlarged free black population caused an intense conflict between a large portion of District residents and Congress. Congress’ racially motivated policy continued into Reconstruction and further angered the District’s white majority. Soon after the end of the war and a year and a half before ratification of the 14th amendment, Republican Congressmen proposed allowing all black men to vote in local District elections. The city of Washington’s municipal council stated its opposition to the proposal by declaring “the white man, being the superior race, must . . . rule the black.”

In the first half of the 20th century, the idea of empowering the city’s Black community sealed lawmakers’ resistance to equal political rights for the district. But by the 1960s, activists managed to push forward the 23rd amendment, giving D.C. residents the right to vote in presidential elections. The racial conflict and protests of the civil rights movement intensified the pressure for home rule and full democratic representation. In the 1970s and 1980s, the movement for the D.C. voting rights amendment again stirred debate in Congress and around the country, and ultimately failed. This time, writes Zigas, the racial dimension of the opposition’s arguments became more subtle, while a conservative era dawned:

… conservative activists wasted no time preparing their opposition to the D.C. Voting Rights Amendment. In late September 1978, representatives of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Heritage Foundation, Lincoln Center for Legal Studies, and Liberty Foundation all testified against the amendment in front of the Pennsylvania legislature. They framed their opposition in constitutional terms and in terms of their fear that District residents would gain greater power in the federal government than the citizens of the states. [Former Georgetown law professor] William Stanmeyer… said they would represent ‘a constituency with an extremely high percentage of individuals dependent upon government either for welfare payments or employment.’” In short, D.C. residents would elect representatives who would only inflate an already bloated welfare state.

Today’s Senate vote was still fraught with controversy—particularly on the issue of local gun control laws—but it also reveals that the city’s political dynamics, the centuries-long struggle for equal rights, and the tone of the national discussion on race, are all catalyzing in a small but powerful critical mass. Image: Political Junkie, National Public Radio