For Ty Hobson-Powell, his hometown of D.C. means go-go music, basketball culture, and mumbo sauce. The city is not the monuments or what you see on CNN for natives like him; it’s the Black-owned businesses on U Street, from Ben’s Chili Bowl to Lee’s Flower Shop, it’s Moechella, the go-go festival, recently held in front of the historic Howard Theatre, it’s the distinct way some natives talk. But ever since Hobson-Powell was old enough to be aware of it, D.C. has also been a place where he and his family and friends are disenfranchised because of a centuries-long practice, rooted in white supremacy, through which 700,000 residents — who, until recent waves of gentrification, were predominantly Black — pay their taxes every year but don’t have representation in Congress.
“At first, it was seeing the reminders that we don’t have statehood, one just being the tags on the cars here that say ‘Taxation Without Representation,’” Hobson-Powell tells Refinery29. “You get online, you go shopping for something, you’re placing an order, and you notice that D.C. doesn’t come up in the state section. It was that kind of elementary exploration that I experienced in my younger days around D.C. statehood.”
Hobson-Powell became involved in the statehood movement shortly after graduating college at 15 years old, hoping to advance the rights of the residents of the place where he grew up. He is now an outreach strategist and issue advocate at 51 for 51, an organization that advocates for making D.C. the 51st state, and the founder of Concerned Citizens D.C.
Statehood has more momentum now than at any other point in recent history. Today, the Democratic-led House is expected to pass H.R. 51, the Washington, D.C. Admission Act, which has 216 House and 44 Senate cosponsors. President Joe Biden’s administration this week officially supported statehood by issuing a policy position, which is the strongest backing the issue has ever gotten from the White House. And 54% of voters nationwide agree with making D.C. a state, according to a new national poll. This is the highest level of documented support to date.
In contrast with the ‘90s during the Clinton presidency, when more than 100 Democrats joined Republicans in opposing a D.C. statehood bill, almost every Democratic member of the House has co-sponsored D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s H.R. 51, which passed the chamber for the first time last year on a party-line vote. The legislation, however, does not have enough votes to clear the narrowly Democratic-led Senate, where the archaic filibuster rule means it needs 60 votes to pass. But many prominent senators are behind statehood, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has promised to bring the issue to the floor.
“Congress can no longer exclude D.C. residents from the democratic process, forcing residents to watch from the sidelines as Congress votes on laws that affect the nation or votes even on the laws of the duly elected D.C. government,” Norton, who is allowed to propose legislation but not vote on it, said last week, when the House Oversight and Reform Committee voted to advance the bill. “Democracy requires much more.”
While some lawmakers — particularly Republicans — in the Capitol treat statehood as a removed, theoretical issue, the city’s disenfranchisement has affected residents in very real and tangible ways. After violent white supremacists stormed the Capitol on January 6, Mayor Muriel Bowser didn’t have full power to protect residents. And during protests for racial justice last summer, Trump commanded national forces to tear gas protestors on D.C.’s streets. “We saw the deployment of the National Guard against peaceful protestors back in June, just for a photo op by President Trump at the time, against the will of local leadership,” says Hobson-Powell. “We saw January 6 and how D.C.’s lack of statehood left Washingtonians held hostage to white supremacy as requests were being made from the Mayor’s office to activate the National Guard because she needed permission to do the things she was already empowered to do when elected.” Hobson-Powell himself was on the forefront of the Black Lives Matter protests in D.C., and was arrested in August with over 60 other protestors who were seeking justice for Breonna Taylor.
Demi Stratmon, also an organizer for 51 for 51, says, “This system in place has always made D.C. residents and our communities not secure. We were always in a position where if something like [January 6] happened, we were at risk. Trump is an example of [how politicians] can make D.C. a photo op and place the residents here at risk for political gain.”
Stratmon says she first became involved in this issue while attending Dartmouth College, where she started traveling around the country with political campaigns and seeing how voters in states like Iowa and New Hampshire were treated versus people in her home city of D.C. when it came to the value of their vote. While at college, she also noticed that when students were encouraged to contact their representatives on issues, she was left out.
Aside from security, there are countless other ways in which residents have been affected by the lack of statehood. “Coronavirus recovery and how D.C.’s lack of statehood led to us being shorted hundreds of millions of dollars in relief funds from the CARES Act” is a major issue, says Hobson-Powell. “And as a result, we were left in a position that was less than adequate to provide services for a pandemic that we've seen has claimed a lot lives here that have been majority Black and brown.”
Jamal Holtz, another organizer at 51 for 51 and a commissioner on the D.C. Mayor’s Commission on Juvenile Justice Reform, says for him, it was about healthcare.
“It was 2014 when there was a huge discussion around the Affordable Care Act,” Holtz tells Refinery29. “That was something that was groundbreaking for me and my family, for my mom who didn't have access to health insurance or preventative care. [It] shaped my family’s medical stability. So I started to advocate for it, and there was a lot of conversation about ‘call your senator and tell them to vote for the Affordable Care Act’ because it was a close vote. At that point I realized my advocacy ended at the mayor's office, that I wasn't able to go to the Hill and talk to my shadow senators, who didn't have a vote on these issues.”
The issue is tragically reflected in gun violence, too. “D.C. is, as far as laws on the books are concerned, one of the most progressive locales in America, but because of a lack of representation and inability to vote on issues like red-flag laws and background checks, there are still guns from other states with laxer regulations that are coming into our streets, wreaking havoc on our young men and young women, causing violent deaths, oftentimes in young people under the age of 25 and Black and brown youth,” Hobson-Powell says. Too often, the guns discovered at homicide scenes in D.C. are found to have been illegally brought in from neighboring states like Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas. D.C. police recovered 1,000 illegal guns in the city in 2019, the year 11-year-old Karon Brown was gunned down.
Washington, D.C., was created at the beginning of the 19th century as a concession to Southern, slave-holding states, whose representatives wanted to move the capital, which was then in Philadelphia, further south. At first, its residents were able to vote for their own local government, and during Reconstruction it became the first place in the U.S. to grant suffrage to Black residents.
Soon after, however, formerly enslaved people coming from the South began to populate the city, and pushback from conservatives took away residents’ rights to choose their own local government by the end of the 1800s. It wasn’t until 1973 that Home Rule, or the right to elect the mayor and City Council members, was restored. In 1980, 60% of D.C. voters supported a referendum to establish a state constitution, which was a big step for statehood. But the statehood movement stalled in the next decades, and presidents including Clinton and Obama voiced support for the issue, but never did much outright to make statehood viable. In 2016, Mayor Bowser called for a new referendum on statehood, and this time it was backed by 86% of voters, in part thanks to the advocacy of organizations like 51 for 51.
But statehood still faces fierce opposition from Republicans, who argue it is unconstitutional because the Constitution called for the creation of a federal district. Sen. Mitch McConnell, not a D.C. native, called the prospect of D.C. statehood “full-bore socialism.” Democrats, however, say that Norton’s bill would not eliminate this district but only change its borders. Additionally, advocates believe Republicans oppose D.C. statehood so vehemently because it is such a heavily Democratic area, with 92% of voters backing Biden over Trump last year; if D.C. becomes a state, it would certainly give Democrats two more Senate seats. The fact that D.C. would be the first plurality Black state if it became the 51st state is no coincidence here, either.
“I remember hearing commentary from Republicans throughout the course of this that said D.C. doesn’t have ‘real people,’” says Hobson-Powell. “It feels a lot like dog-whistling to me, because I feel pretty real myself, and the over 700,000 majority Black and brown residents here feel pretty real as well.”
With Republicans unlikely to come around, Stasha Rhodes, the campaign manager at 51 for 51, says the only way to make statehood a reality is to eliminate the filibuster (that said, there are plenty of other good reasons to get rid of the filibuster).
“The filibuster is an arcane Jim Crow relic that makes the Senate more undemocratic,” Rhodes tells Refinery29. “It has a long history of blocking civil rights bills, including over 200 anti-lynching laws. We must abolish the filibuster if we plan to enact structural change and uplift the voices of Black and brown folks. The Senate is unequal and undemocratic in that it over-represents smaller, white states.” She adds, “And, there's only been 11 Black senators — [Raphael] Warnock’s the 11th.”
Despite the renewed energy around D.C. statehood, it seems unlikely that it can become a reality absent major filibuster reform. However, advocates are optimistic that the tide has turned, and the time has finally come to recognize D.C. as a state.
“Yes, I absolutely think it will happen,” says Stratmon. “Right now, Democrats are in control of Congress, the Senate, and we have, in the White House, two leaders who supported 51 for 51, who supported D.C. becoming the 51st state with 51 votes or less in the Senate. So I think the time is now — it's inevitable. And we have to make sure we don’t waste any more time.”