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How The Battle Against D.C. Statehood Is Rooted In Racism


On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would eventually, if approved by the Senate and signed by the president, make Washington, D.C., the 51st state. That vote was along party lines, with Republicans insisting that the move is merely a power grab by Democrats to enlarge their numbers in the Congress, particularly the Senate.

But advocates for D.C. statehood have argued for decades that the real power grab took place long ago by wealthy white elites and their racist enablers in Congress, who actually disenfranchised the entire city rather than allow Black people access to political power. And they say this is no mere conjecture. It is all in the historical record.

Historians Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove are among those who have been unearthing that disturbing record in previous scholarship and in a new report titled "Democracy Deferred: Race, Politics, and D.C.'s Two-Century Struggle for Full Voting Rights." And Chris Myers Asch is here with us now to walk us through it.

Thank you. Thank you so much for joining us.

CHRIS MYERS ASCH: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, your report makes a pretty stunning argument that anti-Black racism, the refusal to allow Black people to have any say in political affairs, even local affairs, was the primary reason that D.C. was disenfranchised. And I'm guessing that many people have never heard that particular history - or they scoff at it, as you've heard from some Republicans during the hearing in March, when the statehood bill was discussed.

So walk us through it. I mean, I take it it starts after the Civil War, during this reconstruction period when there was a period of interracial government. So what happened?

MYERS ASCH: Yes. Reconstruction was a remarkable period, particularly in D.C. By 1869, you have this interracial board of aldermen that passes the most progressive anti-discrimination legislation the country's ever seen. And if you think about the 1964 Civil Rights Act, much of those - many of those provisions were actually in an 1869 anti-discrimination bill passed in Washington, D.C. And so this was a remarkable flowering of interracial democracy that happens in the district.

Of course, not everyone is on board with it. And white conservatives in the city were appalled by this flourishing of Black political power, and they felt that Black voters held the balance of power. In a city where the white population would be split between Democrats and Republicans, the Black minority - at that time, about 30% of the population, 30% of the voting population - those voters would hold the balance of power. Whoever they supported would wind up wielding power.

And so white conservatives worked with allies in Congress to basically strip voters in Washington, white and Black, of all their voting rights in order to prevent Black people from exercising political power. That happens in a two-step process. It starts in 1871 with the creation of a territorial government. Normally, the territorial government is the precursor to statehood, and so most territories eventually become states. But in the district's case, it was a precursor to complete disenfranchisement, which happens in 1874.

MARTIN: That's just remarkable because, you know - well, first of all, let me just say this. Many of these racist sentiments that you described were talked about openly. For example, in your report, you mention The Washington Post wrote an editorial in 1878. Quoting the editorial here, "the present form of alien government is about as bad as to be devised. But a system which gives the control of the district to ignorant and depraved Negroes is still worse."

So the question I think some people might have is if - why would the white elites of the time - if worried about losing some of political power to a Black minority, a tiny - a minority of the population, why would they lose all their rights to representation rather than let some Black people have some political power?

MYERS ASCH: There was this idea that during reconstruction, there had been this radical experiment in Black suffrage, and that experiment had failed. In the 1890s, there was a famous report done by a Johns Hopkins researcher on voting in the district and reconstruction in the district. And the author had concluded precisely that - an experiment in Negro suffrage had been tried, and it failed. We did this before, and look what happened. There was corruption and rampant spending, and it was a disaster.

And because of that disaster, Congress, in its wisdom, had to strip the right to vote away from all of Washingtonians in order to preserve the integrity of the government and to allow the, quote-unquote, "best citizens" to rule. And this was part of this - a larger effort in the late 19th century to protect elite white interests from what they considered the excesses of democracy.

And so the commissioner form of government was a wonderful way to do that because you didn't have to worry about elections. You didn't have to worry about democratic accountability. You could get your plans through. If you had an idea about what you wanted to do in the city or business you wanted to promote in the city, you just had to work with those three commissioners, and that was it. You know, deals were done.

MARTIN: So I understand that this - your reporting, your historical research focuses on this era. But I do want to ask you if you think race continues to play a role in today's fight for D.C. statehood. People may or may not know that the district no longer has a Black majority. It's a plurality. It's a significant part of the population, but it's not a majority. Do you think race still plays a role?

MYERS ASCH: Race still does play a role, in large part because race and partisanship are so closely intertwined nationally, but especially in the district. And so modern politicians are not nearly as blunt and direct as those of the late 19th century. They don't talk about the racial reasons in as quite clear language as they did back then.

But they use words like urban Democrats or even just Democrats - you know, district Democrats. And when they say that, they know what people will hear, and what people will hear is Black Democrats because particularly in Washington, race and party politics are so closely intertwined.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, you were born and raised in the district, no longer live in the district. Why do you think people in other parts of the country should take note of this or care about this or even think about this?

MYERS ASCH: Really, what the issue of D.C. statehood comes down to is the same issue that Americans fought a revolution about, and that is no taxation without representation. People should have a say in the government that rules over them.

And that has not been true for the district. It's not true for my mom and my brother, who still live there, and Dr. Musgrove and 700,000-plus American citizens who live in the city, who have all the responsibilities of American citizens but do not have that fundamental right of representation in their national government. It is fundamentally wrong. It's an issue of racial justice as well as just a rock bottom issue of morality. It is the right thing to do.

MARTIN: That was Chris Myers Asch. He's an historian and along with George Derek Musgrove a co-author of "Chocolate City: A History Of Race And Democracy In The Nation's Capital" and a number of other works of history about the District of Columbia.

Chris Myers Asch, thank you so much for joining us.

MYERS ASCH: Thank you so much for having me and bringing light to this really important issue.

(SOUNDBITE OF KREAMBEAT'S "MOVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.