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The Senate is institutionalized white supremacy


The most important reason statehood for D.C. and a statehood referendum for Puerto Rico are an urgent necessity is that they would be a (modest) step towards addressing its massive overrepresentation of white voters:

Measured against the backdrop of modern Washington tradition, Obama’s proposal would indeed constitute a radical break with long-standing norms. But measured against the standard of simple political equality, his notion is quite modest. It would leave standing, albeit in altered and less distorted form, an institution that stands as a rebuke to democracy. The Senate is a bulwark of white power.

The Senate was not designed to benefit white voters — almost all voters were white when the Constitution went into effect — but it has had that effect. The reason is simple: Residents of small states have proportionally more representation, and small states tend to have fewer minority voters. Therefore, the Senate gives more voting power to white America, and less to everybody else. The roughly 2.7 million people living in Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, and North Dakota, who are overwhelmingly white, have the same number of Senators representing them as the 110 million or so people living in California, Texas, Florida, and New York, who are quite diverse. The overall disparity is fairly big. As David Leonhardt calculated, whites have 0.35 Senators per million people, while Blacks have 0.26, Asian-Americans 0.25, and Latinos just 0.19.

The Senate is affirmative action for white people. If we had to design political institutions from scratch, nobody — not even Republicans — would be able to defend a system that massively overrepresented whites. And yet, while we are yanking old 30 Rock episodes and holding White Fragility struggle sessions in boardrooms, a massive source of institutionalized racial bias is sitting in plain sight.

This is fairly well known, but I also want to build on this point about the partisan origins of the creation of many small western states during the Gilded Age:

Podhoretz complains that admitting Puerto and D.C. would “violate democratic norms,” because “the last grants of statehood,” Alaska and Hawaii, did not alter the Senate’s partisan balance. He is implying, without saying outright, that states have always been admitted in Democrat-Republican pairs.

But this is not remotely true. In the 19th century, statehood was a partisan weapon, used mostly by Republicans, who admitted states not on the basis of population but in an open attempt to “stack the Senate.” After they added Montana, Washington, and split Dakota territory into two states (adding another pair of senators) in 1889, “President Harrison’s son crowed that the Republicans would win all the new states and gain eight more senators,” according to historian Heather Cox Boushey.

It’s worth noting that this expansion of the Senate was done not just for partisan reasons but for white supremacist reasons. Most of the framers of the 14th Amendment thought Section 2 (which orders Congress to strip representation from states that disenfranchise adult male voters) was more important than Section 1, because Dred Scott taught them that if the language granting broad rights in the latter was interpreted by judges hostile to its ends it would be ignored. (They weren’t wrong!) More radical Republicans were’t naive; they knew that they couldn’t count on even moderate Republicans having a principled commitment to political equality for Black voters. Rather, they assumed Section 2 would be enforced out of partisan self-interest; if Black voters in the South were disenfranchised, the abolition of the 3/5th rule would give Democrats a huge advantage in congressional elections. Adding a whole bunch of small, white western states, however, allowed Republicans to be competitive in national elections while ceding the South to the Democrats. Not coincidentally, Republican support for civil rights sharply attenuated after 1874 and vanished entirely after 1891, and Section 2 of the 14th Amendment has never been enforced.

The Senate, in other words, is not only white supremacist in practice, it was forged in white supremacy. Expanding the Senate for racially egalitarian reasons would be eminently justified.

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