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March 23, 2021

Rep. Pressley in Oversight Hearing: DC Statehood is a Racial Justice Issue

Video (YouTube)


WASHINGTON – In a House Oversight Committee hearing this afternoon, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (MA-07) discussed the racial justice implications of denying statehood to Washington, DC.  Rep. Pressley is an original co-sponsor of HR 51, the Washington, D.C. Admission Act, led by Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC), which would admit the State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth into the Union.

A full transcript of her exchange with witnesses is available below and a full video is available here.

Transcript: Rep. Pressley on Why DC Statehood is a Racial Justice Issue
House Committee on Oversight and Reform
March 22, 2021

REP. PRESSLEY: Thank you, Madam Chair. Thank you for holding this hearing and continuing to prioritize this fight to establish the state of Washington DC. In this fight, there certainly has been no greater champion or stalwart than my sister-in-service Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton. You’ve organized, you’ve advocated, you’ve legislated, and might I add, you’ve tolerated some condescending, and I would add microaggressions. Thank you for the grace and thought leadership as a Yale alumni, law school alumni, that you brought to this space today and this work. I’m very honored to serve alongside you. 

For many years, DC was affectionately known as Chocolate City. The vibrant Black community defined this town and provided a professional and cultural scene rich in Black joy, love and excellence. But Congress continuously denied DC a locally elected government for much of its history.

Now today, the state of Washington DC would be 46% Black, which would make it the state with the highest percentage of Black people in the entire country, and its congressional district would be a majority minority jurisdiction. I represent the Massachusetts 7th, a majority minority district in my home state. These districts are critical for meeting the needs of people of color, for ensuring our voices are heard in the policymaking process, and for diversifying the halls of Congress. 

Now in the Senate today, there are only three Black senators and not a single Black woman in the entire body. The structure of the Senate gives disproportionate power to small, predominantly white states. It has been estimated that the Senate gives the average Black person in America, only 75% of the representation of the average white person in America.

In the midst of our national reckoning on racism–and those who are quick to quote Dr. King and John Lewis, but obstruct things like DC statehood–uplifting Black political power must be a part of the conversation. We cannot allow electoral justice for the people of Washington DC to be denied any longer. 

Now, last year, the day before the House of Representatives passed HR 51, Senator Cotton said the following about the bill, “Would you trust Mayor Bowser to keep Washington safe if she were given the powers of a governor? Would you trust Marion Barry?” Now both Bowser and Barry, who died in 2014, are Black. And even on the floor of the United States Senate, Senator Cotton apparently felt compelled to communicate to a certain audience. That wasn’t a dog whistle, that was a bullhorn. His objection to statehood was related to the possibility of an African American governor.

Now he said this with full knowledge of the role white supremacy has played in our democracy. There have been only two Black elected governors in the history of this country. Massachusetts had one of them, Deval Patrick. Now in more than 230 years, only two Black governors. I’m going to make it plain: DC statehood is a racial justice issue. And racism kills. And I don’t just mean police brutality and hate crimes and food apartheid systems and transportation deserts and unequal access to health care. I mean, all of that too. But racism kills our democracy. 

Mr. Henderson, as someone who was both born and raised in DC and has been a national civil rights leader for many years. What role did race play in that denial? And what role does place race play in the opposition to HR 51?

MR. HENDERSON: Thank you, Representative Pressley for the question. You know, American history is replete with examples of race interfering with our democracy in the worst possible way. I’ve devoted my career and the organizations that I’ve worked for, including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, to build an America as good as its ideals, to helping to develop a more perfect union. It means coming to terms with issues of race, and juxtaposing those issues with American democracy in the fullest sense of that. We are striving now to achieve the ideals that the founding fathers set out for the country, but have never been a fully accomplished. That’s where we are today. That’s what we’re struggling to accomplish. The racial reckoning that you mentioned in your introductory comments is a very important part of that. Hopefully, the DC statehood issue will be seen both as a democratic issue, but also as a racial justice issue for those who have so long been denied the opportunity of having full representation in the district. Thank you.

REP. PRESSLEY: Thank you, Mr. Henderson…  Your Leadership Conference has more than 200 civil and human rights organizations as members. Could you tell me why DC statehood is a priority for this broad and diverse coalition?

MR. HENDERSON: Of course. It is because we are committed as a coalition to the fullness of American democracy in all aspects of what we do, and struggling to accomplish the voting rights and democracy for the 712,000 representatives or citizens of the district is an important part of that effort to build the more perfect union we’ve talked about.

REP. PRESSLEY: And Mayor Bowser, can you elaborate on how naming the future state of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth is an act of racial justice?

CHAIRWOMAN MALONEY: The gentlelady his time has expired, but the honorable mayor may answer. 

MAYOR BOWSER: I’ll answer quickly, Congresswoman. You laid it out and made it plain. I had forgotten those comments of Senator Cotton. But it is very clear that we are proud of our diversity. We believe that our diversity makes us stronger. And we’re proud of our history of Black political power. And in no way do we think that that should prevent us from what should be our rights as Americans and as taxpayers in this nation. We believe very strongly that it is a civil rights and a voting rights issue that suppresses the voices of thousands of African Americans in the nation’s capital.

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