A Real Place Deserves Real Rights

An illustration of a statue holding a DC flag.
Getty / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

A couple of years ago, in the halcyon days before the pandemic, I went with a small group of friends to visit Cedar Hill, Frederick Douglass’s house in the southeastern corner of Washington, D.C. On the way there, we drove past the rowhouses of what used to be called Uniontown, the city’s first suburb, constructed in the 1850s in what was then farmland. Uniontown was originally “whites only”; Douglass, being Douglass, bought the house anyway, and lived in it from 1878 until his death in 1895. Eventually, the house became a landmark, even a kind of cultural center. The growing community of free Black people in the area sought his advice there; the city sought his services too. Douglass was named U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia, then its recorder of deeds. He also upgraded Cedar Hill, a classic Victorian home, expanding it to 21 rooms, so that it could accommodate his children and grandchildren, as well as a stream of visitors. Now you can see the table where he had dinner, the desk where he wrote his speeches, his book collection, the iron cooking pots in his kitchen.

Uniontown is today called Anacostia—so many other places in America were named Uniontown that the local postmaster had become confused—and has evolved quite a bit since Douglass moved there, but so has all of Washington. What was a muddy village in a swamp, so unpleasant that it was considered a hardship posting for foreign diplomats, grew quickly after the Civil War, eventually becoming a magnet for Black migrants from the South as well as for ambitious people from around the country. In the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, Americans moved to Detroit to work in factories, to New York to work on Wall Street, and to Washington to work for the government, for law firms, for research institutes. Slowly, Washington acquired a notably educated population—on the list of zip codes boasting the highest percentage of graduate degrees, No. 1, No. 2, and No. 4 are all in Washington—as well as a full complement of sports teams and an indigenous musical genre, go-go.

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The city has changed dramatically even in my lifetime. When I was growing up in D.C. in the 1970s and ’80s, it still felt like a small town. It didn’t have much traffic. It had no outer suburbs. It had few restaurants outside of Duke Zeibert’s or the Palm, owned by New Yorkers, where congressmen went to eat shrimp cocktail. The fashionable went to New York to buy dresses, if they wanted something special; everyone else went to Woodward & Lothrop (“Woodies”), Garfinckel’s, or the Hecht Company, all now vanished, along with Hot Shoppes and Peoples Drug. I mention these long-lost stores, now replaced by national brands, and these dusty restaurants, now replaced by chic bistros, not because they are important but because, like the rowhouses of Uniontown, Douglass’s iron cooking pots, go-go clubs, and the Washington Nationals, they belong to the alternative history of Washington. They are part of not “Washington,” the city of Congress and the Oval Office, but Washington, a real place where real people live.

That Washington has an alternative history may surprise those of you who live elsewhere, especially those who already have strong feelings about Washington, or maybe even hate “Washington,” by which you mean that you hate the federal government, Congress, or perhaps politicians in general. But many of the doctors, shopkeepers, restaurant servers, taxi drivers, and schoolteachers who live in Washington feel just as distant from the federal government, Congress, and politicians as you do. Even for many of the administrators, scientists, and civil servants who work in federal buildings—as well as the clerks, janitors, and secretaries—all of this talk of “Washington” can be pretty unreal and abstract. Most people who have offices in the vicinity of the Federal Center Southwest Metro stop spend their days reviewing grant applications, typing memos, sweeping floors. The amoral “Washington” of Frank Underwood, the glamorous “Washington” of Hollywood movies, the evil “Washington” of the libertarian imagination—that’s just as fictional to most D.C. residents as it is to the rest of America.

But that shouldn’t be surprising, because in this sense, as in most other senses, the people of D.C. resemble the rest of America. There are rich and poor Washingtonians; Black, white, Asian, and Hispanic Washingtonians; old and young Washingtonians; nice and nasty Washingtonians; left-wing and even right-wing Washingtonians. Yet there really is one crucial, unbridgeable difference between Washingtonians and other Americans: You have more power than we do—a lot more power.

You have two senators to represent your state’s interests. You have members of Congress who can vote on your behalf. When elections come, they solicit your views. They care what you think. On CNN or Fox News, on the pages of newspapers and websites read across the country, pundits and journalists talk and write about your state, mulling the historical or economic reasons it has become red, blue, or purple. They do that because your state politics matters to national politics, so everyone has a reason to care about it.  

By contrast, we are represented by a congressional committee that sometimes has our interests at heart, and sometimes does not. We also have a nonvoting delegate in Congress. But although good people have held that job, their powerlessness has come at a large cost. Because we don’t matter, no one outside D.C. solicits our views or tries to convince us of anything. No one ever talks about how our history or our economic situation might affect our House or Senate votes, because we don’t have those votes.

Our absence from national politics helps explain why Americans go on making mistakes about Washington, imagining that there is nothing distinctive here—no “real” people, no local history, no local culture. It helps explain why tourists visit Graceland when they go to Tennessee, or Monticello when in Virginia, but when they come to Washington, they skip our local landmarks. They don’t typically visit Douglass’s house. They don’t typically walk along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, whose construction was launched at a ceremony featuring John Quincy Adams, using navigation rights that belonged to a company founded by George Washington. They hit the National Mall, buy souvenirs at Smithsonian museums, and head home. They barely meet any Washingtonians at all.

Yet we are just as American as you are, just as patriotic as you are, just as likely to send our children to fight in wars, just as likely to build businesses or write books, just as likely to play a role in public life, for better or for worse. The Marriott family started their hotel chain in Washington. The writer Gore Vidal grew up in Washington and set some of his novels in Washington. Duke Ellington, Al Gore, Maury Povich, John Foster Dulles, and even Pat Buchanan, the spiritual father of Trumpism, are all native Washingtonians. On January 6, Washington saved “Washington”: D.C. police arrived to help when federal forces could not. And one of the heroes of the day was Eugene Goodman, a Capitol Police officer who was raised in Southeast Washington.

Not only are we both more ordinary and more talented than you think we are; we are also far more numerous. Our state, while small, would have a population larger than that of Wyoming or Vermont. If trends continue, we could soon catch up to Alaska, and we are not too far behind North and South Dakota. Even Delaware, the state that produced the current president—a state whose legitimacy no one questions—has only 270,000 more voters than Washington, D.C.

Everyone who lives here knows this is unfair, so much so that in a 2016 referendum, 85 percent of D.C. residents voted for statehood. And now, finally, it is time to do something about it.

In the coming months, as President Joe Biden considers different ways to make American democracy more fair and American society more just, he should put D.C. statehood at the very top of his list. It’s among the best of many available options. Packing the courts not only lacks legitimacy, but would also give culture warriors incentive to start new arguments about abortion and gay marriage. Ranked-choice voting will take a long time to wend its way through the states. But giving American citizens the right to vote in House and Senate elections is much harder to argue against, and well worth whatever effort is necessary—up to and including ending the filibuster, another relic of the past.

Indeed, like many of the arguments against removing the filibuster, the historical and legal arguments against D.C. statehood are mostly motivated by politics or habit rather than logic. The original reasons for the creation of a federal district in Washington—the belief that the American government required a neutral space, as a compromise between North and South—no longer have any meaning. Although they put it in the Constitution, the Founding Fathers never said that the “federal district” had to be anything more than the territory around the Capitol and a few government buildings. There are international precedents: The special legal status of Vatican City doesn’t require all of Rome to be excluded from Italian politics. Indeed, Italian politics is unimaginable without Rome, just as British politics is unthinkable without London, and French politics impossible without Paris. The very idea that you could exclude millions of citizens would be laughed away as unacceptable in any other democracy.

D.C. statehood would have other benefits. By definition, D.C. voters are urban voters, and urban voters are grotesquely underrepresented in American politics, especially in the Senate. States such as Montana and North Dakota are allowed to send two senators to Washington even though they all speak for small-town and rural populations; two senators from Washington, D.C., would at least speak for city dwellers, a group whose voices have been shouted down and outvoted by rural America for decades. Right now, those two senators would surely be Democrats, but why should that always be the case? If D.C. were a state, Republicans would finally have more incentive to craft their policy and messages around the needs of urbanites, and they would be better for it. (A similar argument could be made for Puerto Rican statehood, which would force both Democrats and Republicans to chase Hispanic votes—but I’m going to let an island resident say so.)

Still, while all of those arguments are important, they are not nearly as central, or as deep, or as significant as the moral argument. We Washingtonians are Americans. We are part of American history, but we also have our own history. We provide the stage upon which American politics often plays out, but we also have our own politics, our own history, our own local myths and heroes. Our flag has just as much right to hang alongside the flags of the current 50 states. We have just as much claim to be represented in senatorial debates; our congressional delegation should have the same significance as every other congressional delegation. Americans fought a revolution against “taxation without representation” and yet that’s what Washingtonians live with every day.

The usual prejudices against us are just that: biases that come from misunderstanding, suspicions that come from a lack of knowledge. Alaska and Hawaii, both territories with shorter American histories than ours, joined the Union in 1959, which is well within living memory. If expansion of the Union wasn’t unthinkable in the lifetime of someone born 62 years ago, why should it be unthinkable now? Frank Underwood doesn’t really live here, so don’t hold him against us. Let us be Americans too.