School bus drivers live in the District of Columbia. House cleaners and dishwashers and child-care providers, too. There are construction workers, plumbers, electricians and gardeners, bartenders and parking-lot attendants, cops and firefighters. I know this. I am a native of D.C., and I have seen them with my own eyes. You can, too, by simply boarding a Metrobus on any given day and simply paying attention. In all, there are 689,545 residents, according to U.S. Census figures released last Monday, and it’s hardly a stretch to point out that they are just like everyone else — living, working, raising families and putting on their pants one leg at a time.
But there is one thing that sets them apart. If you live in this 68-square-mile block on the banks of the Potomac River, you are not permitted to have representation in the U.S. Congress beyond a nonvoting member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Back in the 18th century, there was a logic behind this, a worry that a state that included the nation’s capital would have too much clout. That possibility is long past. D.C. was given home rule; it was provided three presidential electors back when John F. Kennedy was in the White House. But statehood? That hasn’t happened for the most parochial, partisan, selfish and obvious of reasons: Republicans don’t want to see the Senate populated by two more Democrats, as city voters are almost certain to elect if given the opportunity.
Denying certain Americans basic rights — endorsing taxation without representation — isn’t cool. So in recent years Republicans have been working overtime to come up with reasons to deny D.C. statehood that don’t sound so nakedly anti-Democratic. Some of it veers into the hazy business of what the Founding Fathers might have intended when the area was mostly swampland, there were just 13 states and a decent high-speed broadband connection was especially hard to find. But surely the most awful and, frankly, racist is when people like Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton rise to proclaim that the District of Columbia is not, tut, tut, a “well-rounded working-class state” like Wyoming, which, incidentally, has almost exactly 100,000 fewer inhabitants and a population that’s 90% white.
Sen. Cotton made this observation the same day the House approved legislation to make D.C. the 51st state on a party-line vote. Yet far more attention was given the comment of a freshman House member who, in response to Sen. Cotton’s suggestion about D.C. not being working class or well rounded observed, “I had no idea there were so many syllables in the word white.” Rep. Mondaire Jones went further, noting that at least one GOP member from Georgia thought D.C. should be denied statehood because it lacks a landfill. That made sense, the 33-year-old Harvard- and Stanford-educated New Yorker responded, when you consider the “racist trash they’ve been espousing in this debate.”
That set off some serious pearl-clutching among Republicans, including Maryland’s own Rep. Andy Harris, who asked the remarks be stricken from the record. Had Harris only spent the last four years policing the Donald Trump Twitter feed for insults as closely.
People like Sen. Cotton and Rep. Harris would like their fellow Americans to believe that D.C. residents are “other,” either because they are big shots associated with the federal government (although your average high-end lobbyist, political fundraiser or top appointee is more likely to be living in a McMansion in the Maryland or Virginia suburbs) or because a plurality of D.C. residents are Black. And when they are called on this embarrassing circumstance, they cry victim, berating the terrible Democrat for “playing the race card” when it is they who keep dealing out the racism, whether it’s by reducing voter access in states where they control the legislature or approving new restrictions on public protests, so that driving over a Black Lives Matter supporter won’t get them in so much darn trouble.
D.C. statehood isn’t an especially popular cause outside the Mid-Atlantic. Most Americans who seldom, if ever, venture to D.C., have far more pressing concerns. And, unless a couple of recalcitrant Democratic senators change their minds and overturn the filibuster rule, the matter is surely going nowhere in the Senate. But Jones was correct to identify the stink of racism that hangs over the opposition, like the lingering smell of white supremacist tiki torches in Charlottesville, Virginia. You can bet if D.C. was populated exclusively by Heritage Foundation acolytes from New Hampshire, Iowa, Idaho and Wyoming, the effort to provide equal representation in Congress for all Americans would all be playing out quite differently.