04/16/2014 10:06 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Congressional Support for D.C. Statehood Divided on Race, Gender Lines

Bill Clark via Getty Images

Wednesday is Emancipation Day in Washington, D.C. -- the anniversary of when slaves were freed in our nation's capital, some 152 years ago. D.C. statehood activists are commemorating Emancipation Day by going to the Hill and asking Congress to support D.C. statehood legislation. If enacted, the D.C. statehood bill would finally grant full citizenship rights to a majority-black city that is expected to pay taxes and fulfill all federal civic obligations, but that is denied the fundamental right to vote.

The story of D.C. voting rights is tied to the civil rights movement in the United States. My city only received the authority to choose our own mayor in 1973, after civil rights activists finally convinced Southern Democrats they needed to back so-called Home Rule legislation to win the black vote and keep their seats in Congress.

Curious to what extent race still plays a role in Congressional decisions about D.C. voting rights, I took a look at the racial breakdown of D.C. statehood supporters in both the House and Senate. The data strongly suggest that, a century and a half after the federal government formally ended slavery in its capital district, stark racial divisions remain in Congress about who deserves the right to vote in the United States.

Below are a summary of my findings:

  • Black Caucus members account for 9.5 percent of representatives in the House, but 54.7 percent of House cosponsors (among voting members) for the D.C. statehood bill (H.R.292).
  • House members of the Hispanic and API Caucuses were overrepresented among statehood backers as well. The Hispanic Caucus makes up 5.3 percent of all House members, but 10.9 percent of its H.R. 292 cosponsors. For the API Caucus, those figures are 3.5 percent and 7.8 percent, respectively.
  • Among House members with voting privileges, more than 70 percent of D.C. statehood cosponsors are ethnic minorities, though minority representation in the House is less than 12 percent. Conversely, white House members account for 29 percent of House co-sponsors for D.C. statehood, despite representing more than 80 percent of House members overall.

These statistics are presented in table below:

Minority Representation in the U.S. House of Representatives, House Cosponsors for D.C. Statehood


The Senate is a little trickier to analyze, because there are only six members who identify as ethnic minorities, and three of those are Republicans. As a rule, Republicans do not support D.C. statehood. Of the more than 70 D.C. statehood cosponsors in both the House and Senate, none of them are members of the Republican party. Also, Corey Booker is the lone minority cosponsor of D.C. statehood legislation in the U.S. Senate.

Even so, minority support for D.C. statehood in the Senate is relatively high. Black Senators account for 2 percent of the U.S. Senate, but (thanks to Corey Booker) 6.3 percent of its 16 cosponsors for S. 132 - the Senate version of the statehood bill. And when all Senate minorities are considered, their 6.3 percent share of D.C. statehood cosponsorships is still greater than their 6 percent share of Senate representation overall.

Incidentally, women members of Congress disproportionately support statehood as well. Women make up 20 percent of U.S. Senators, but more than 30 percent of its D.C. statehood cosponsors. On the House side, women are generally represented at a rate of 18.1 percent, but make up nearly a third of its D.C. statehood supporters.

It seems intuitive that women and racial minorities, who obtained voting rights relatively recently in American history and who continue to be underrepresented in government, would be more sympathetic to D.C. statehood efforts than white men, who have less direct experience with electoral disenfranchisement. It is, however, unfortunate that, even as we celebrate the end of black slavery in the capital of what purports to be a world-class democracy, the descendants of those slaves, along with their families, neighbors and friends, arr still denied a democratic voice in government. And a majority white, majority male Congress intends to keep it that way.

Ted Kennedy once famously described D.C. as "too liberal, too urban, too black or too Democratic" for Congress to grant it voting rights. That zero Republicans and a disproportionately low number of white Congressmembers remain silent on D.C. statehood suggests that Kennedy's observation remains as current as ever.