Why Women of Color in Washington D.C. Demand Statehood

Black women in D.C. will only have half a seat at the table until statehood is granted.

Why the Women of Color in Washington D.C. Demand Statehood
The issue of D.C. statehood is an urgent racial justice issue, and it affects women of color the most. Pictured: A 2013 Pride parade near Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. (Adam Fagen / Flickr)

For the second time in history, the House of Representatives in April passed a bill to grant Washington D.C. the statehood it so rightly deserves. This is both historic and a long time coming. For generations, D.C.’s residents have fought to have their voices heard on the issues that impact their day-to-day lives. But here’s what most voters don’t realize about D.C. statehood: It’s not just an issue of representation in our government. It’s an urgent racial justice issue, and it affects women of color the most.

Statehood and Reproductive Health

The pervasive daily implications of D.C.’s lack of statehood for women of color in the district cannot be ignored. Let’s take reproductive health. While funding for abortion access is sorely inadequate nationwide, states can use their own funds to cover abortions for low-income women. Unlike the rest of the country, Washington D.C. does not have that same autonomy. A harmful law puts Congress in charge of women’s reproductive autonomy in Washington—all because D.C. is not a state. D.C.’s 238,000+ residents who rely on Medicaid are especially impacted—85 percent of whom are Black. It is particularly alarming for the Black women who live in the capital and are forced to navigate a medical system with a long history of systemic racism.

This damage extends to maternal health, too, and it’s part of the reason why 250+ women leaders of color issued an open letter to Congress declaring D.C. statehood an urgent racial justice and public health issue. In the letter, these leaders made D.C.’s maternal health crisis clear: While white residents of D.C. have an almost nonexistent maternal mortality rate, Black residents suffer a maternal mortality rate so high that D.C. has the fifth worst overall rate in the country—more than 50 percent higher than the national average.

Statehood and COVID-19

When it comes to COVID-19 response, a straight line can be drawn between the district’s botched vaccine rollout and its lack of statehood. D.C. was allocated vaccines based on its population, like every other state. Unlike every other state, its initial doses went first to people living in Maryland and Virginia but working in D.C. while residents of the city—nearly half of whom are Black—had to wait for theirs. This blow comes after the pandemic has disproportionately harmed Black people in D.C. throughout its entirety. At the beginning of the pandemic, Black people made up 80 percent of the deaths from COVID.

Creating a Future With Justice and Democracy

D.C. is run and represented by two Black women—Mayor Muriel Bowser and Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton. While their leadership is extraordinary, neither has the power of a governor or a full voting member in Congress. Our leaders have no say as the majority white Congress continues to make decisions to the detriment of our communities, such as using local gun violence prevention measures as bargaining chips and putting the city at risk. It’s yet again a reminder that Black women in D.C. will only have half a seat at the table until statehood is granted.

Across the country in 2020, voters cast their ballots for progress. We voted for a quick and just COVID-19 recovery, quality public schools, a $15 minimum wage, and clean air and water. In Washington, D.C., this progress is uniquely at risk until the district becomes a state with real autonomy and decision-making power.

At the end of the day, D.C. statehood is a fight for representation. It’s a fight for democracy. Every American deserves a say in how our country is run—including and especially the women of color living in Washington D.C. who have been shut out of the national conversation for decades.

As our leaders advance several important issues to protect our democracy and our voices, including passing the For the People Act to fight the 404 anti-voting bills that have been introduced nationwide, D.C. statehood must be a top priority. It’s time to uproot the racism and white supremacy that are so deeply rooted in the core of our democracy—and that starts with granting statehood to D.C.’s 700,000 residents.

We need our senators to build on progress in the House and make statehood a reality—now. It’s what the majority of Americans support, and what women of color living in the district demand.

What roles can we expect the Biden administration to play in the fight for D.C. statehood and the larger fight for racial and economic justice? Hear more in the recent episode of the Ms. podcast “On the Issues With Michele Goodwin”: The Whiteness of Taxation: Wealth, Race and D.C. Statehood (with Dorothy Brown, Maura Quint and Demi Stratmon).

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Stasha Rhodes is campaign director of Democracy for All 2021.