Over the past few months, D.C. statehood has come closer than ever to becoming a reality. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill last month that would make the District the 51st state, and pressure is building on the evenly split U.S. Senate to take up the legislation.
Arguments for D.C. statehood have always been ironclad and persuasive. It is, for example, a clear racial justice issue, and taxation without representation is just plain unfair. But between not being able to defend itself from the Capitol riot and being shortchanged with COVID-19 assistance, D.C.’s traumatic year has made even clearer what was already true: D.C. needs to be a state, and GW students should join those advocacy efforts.
When the U.S. Capitol was sacked by extremists, it took hours for the National Guard to respond. As rioters smashed windows and disrupted the peaceful transfer of power, Mayor Muriel Bowser urgently requested support from the D.C. National Guard – which is controlled by the White House and Defense Department, not the District. At first, the White House flat-out denied the request, before eventually ordering deployment. Then-acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller admitted to Congress last week that it took two hours and a frantic call from then-Vice President Mike Pence – who had been whisked out of the building as rioters threatened to hang him – for him to finally give the green light for deployment.
Had D.C. been a state, it would have been Bowser’s decision, not that of the man who sparked the riot, whether or not to deploy emergency personnel. That could have saved lives and stopped the most galling attack on the seat of U.S. government since the War of 1812.
But the Capitol riot is not the only instance in the past few months alone where the tug-of-war between the District and the federal government may have cost lives. As coronavirus vaccines began to roll out to states, D.C. found itself shafted by the allocation plans. Because the federal government doled out doses based on the number of residents and not the city’s commuter-adjusted population, the District was stuck splitting its doses between the 700,000 residents of the city and the hundreds of thousands of Virginia and Maryland residents who come here to work during the day. This partially contributed to the garish disparities in vaccination rates early on between affluent, mainly White wards and lower-income, predominantly Black wards.
Now that the vaccine supply is outpacing demand, this problem is mostly moot. But it was a huge challenge in the early months of the pandemic, and it impacted lifelong D.C. residents the most – especially lower-income people, people of color and essential workers. If D.C. had actual voting federal representation, its delegation could have advocated for a more robust supply of shots, and fewer people would have gotten sick waiting for vaccines to become available. And while GW students were affected by this shaky start to the vaccine rollout, plenty could simply hop on an Amtrak and head to their home state to get the shot when D.C.’s registration platform crashed on them. Most lifelong residents of D.C. did not have that luxury.
This underscores the fact that students at GW and residents of D.C. tend to live very different lives. Students are, by and large, quite affluent. In fact, the average family income of GW students was more than twice that of D.C. residents as of 2017. Students’ permanent residences are almost universally elsewhere – in places where they can cast a ballot for Congress. Economically, socially and politically, the average GW student wields far more power than the average D.C. resident.
Students at GW tend to have privilege and influence, and as guests in this city, we have an obligation to join forces with D.C. residents who have been fighting an uphill battle for statehood.
D.C.’s citizens – a plurality of whom are Black – have been subjected to years of purely political and unnecessarily partisan rationales for denying them a say in their own government. For statehood to pass, 60 out of the 100 U.S. senators need to support the bill. Currently, four Democratic senators remain undecided on the bill, while all Republican senators are opposed to statehood. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and the entire Senate GOP have declared their opposition to statehood. Among the Republican caucus, opposition stems from a handful of spurious claims that are merely an excuse to not give representation to a city that happens to skew Democratic.
The unconstitutionality claim is the one that is thrown around the most, arguing that a constitutional amendment needs to be passed in order to make D.C. a state. But American history shows clear precedent for admitting federal territories as states – including, ironically, Manchin’s state of West Virginia, which was carved out of Virginia amid the Civil War. Opponents to statehood throw around the constitutionality issue as a veneer to mask their partisan intent.
There are plenty of ways for students and the entire GW community to advocate for D.C. statehood. For one, we can call the senators from our home states who don’t support statehood and encourage them to do so. If you are from Maine, West Virginia or Arizona, at least one of your Democratic senators has yet to throw their weight behind the bill. If you are from a state with one or more Republican senators, then it’s time to make some calls to their offices as well. Understandably, this can be a daunting task, but using a template that tells you exactly what to say can make the call much less nerve wracking and much more efficient.
We can also highlight the work of local activists that are advocating for statehood through social media, and support the fight for statehood through the organizations that they work for. 51 for 51, Concerned Citizens of DC, and Students for DC Statehood are just a few of the many organizations that advocate for statehood. Students for DC Statehood was even founded by an American University alum who did not grow up in the District, like many of us at GW.
Students and faculty have a unique role to play in the fight for statehood. As students, we are guests here in the capitol, and it’s important that we give back to the D.C. community we’re so lucky to be a part of. Statehood is not a frivolous pursuit by any means. D.C. is mostly comprised of Black and brown people who deserve representation in Congress. Statehood would give D.C. the resources it needs to defend itself if need be and to care for its residents in case of a health emergency like the coronavirus. Students must treat statehood as the moral imperative it is and continue fighting for adequate representation for the place we call home during our time at GW.
The editorial board consists of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s staff editorial was written by opinions editor Andrew Sugrue and contributing opinions editor Shreeya Aranake, based on discussions with culture editor Anna Boone, contributing sports editor Nuria Diaz, design editor Grace Miller, copy editor Jaden DiMauro and assistant copy editor Karina Ochoa Berkley.
This article appeared in the May 17, 2021 issue of the Hatchet.