HARRIET TUBMAN ON THE $20 BILL: A SIGN OF PROGRESS OR DISRESPECT?

Current Affairs

Written by Antonia Trevini

“I ask no favour for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks” –  Sarah Grimké on Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman (1837).  

After an era of Trumpism that has left a nation ideologically divided and deeply devastated, in an  attempt to address the issue of racial disparities and representation, the Biden administration has  decided to take over and accelerate the initiative of former President Obama to replace Andrew  Jackson, supporter of slavery extension, on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman, heroine of the  Underground Rail Road who rescued dozens of people from a lifetime of enslavement. 

This proposal was announced in 2016 during the Obama administration by then treasurer Jacob  Lew, based on a growing demand from a great part of the American population to create a  currency that could represent the history and diversity of a nation. Consolidated by the results  of a survey, H. Tubman was not only regarded as a historical figure but, above all, as a model of  leadership and democratic participation since she was also a spy for the Union Army during the  Civil War and an activist for women’s right to vote. 

The launch of the new dollar bill was set for the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which  granted women the right to vote. Tubman would have been the first woman to appear on an  American currency since the First Lady Martha Washington, who appeared on the $1 silver  certificate in the late 1800s. Unfortunately, the Trump administration stopped this initiative,  deeming it unnecessary and postponing its implementation.

Nonetheless, as New Hampshire’s United States Senator, Jeanne Shaheen, told NBC News in an  interview: “Our paper currency is how we measure value in our society, and the fact that we  haven’t had any women on our paper currency is a suggestion that we don’t value the  contributions of women in the way that we should…Having Harriet Tubman on the $20 shows  that we value what she did, that we value women, that we value people of color”.

But, what story does the American dollar tell now? 

First of all, Andrew Jackson is not the only President represented on the American currency that  tells a false narrative of American freedom and equity for all. George Washington and Thomas  Jefferson were slave owners and persecutors, while Alexander Hamilton and Ulysses S. Grant  made a fortune off their plantations, even though they abhor the institution of slavery. Although his  contribution in the battle for the 13th amendments that abolished slavery, Abram Lincoln didn’t  support equal rights for black and white people and used emancipation as a military policy to win  the Civil War. 

In a January 2021 article for Time, Brittney Cooper, professor at Rutgers University, reminds how Black  people’s images were already portrayed on Confederacy notes in 1861 in the act of picking cotton  and considers disrespectful the idea of using Harriet Tubman’s face on a currency. It recalls the  immoral indentured servitude perpetuated against black people, deprived of their freedom and  used as legal tender by white owners. Those same notes also represent an economic system that  takes roots in the importation and exploitation of human slavery, institutionalised for decades by  the American government, which drove the Souther agricultural economy on one side and the  Northern trade and banking industries on the other, creating wealth at the expense of black  people. Besides, Jim Crow segregation policies and subsequent racial persecutions and  discriminations deprived African American families of equal opportunities, relegating black people  to the margin of the economy and of the society, enduring into today’s wealth gap which  penalises particularly black women. 

As research from 2017 concerning Women, race and wealth explained, “For every dollar of wealth owned by  the typical white family, the median black family owns only five cents”. Wealth differs dramatically  between men and women. Despite the growing number of Black women in education, working in  management and professional jobs, they still encounter greater obstacles to building wealth due  to pay inequality but also wealth inequality. The research also added how a college degree and  marriage, generally regarded as means of wealth for women, often fails black women and the  Covid-19 recession has widened the gender wealth gap, as Black families have faced larger job  losses and economic distress during this pandemic.

Would H. Tubman $20 bill really value women, Black women and Black History? 

As Robert Reich explains in his book How to save capitalism, the American economic system  was never designed to include nor to be accessible for everyone. Capitalism, based on a free  market, operates on rules imposed by the government whose regulation mainly reflects the  interests of those in power and those who finance them. Consequently, it can change overtime as  we have seen with the abolition of slavery and slaves as property. 

However, we still live in a polarised society composed of few wealthy people and a vast majority  of poorer Americans who have been left behind due to lack of investment by policymakers,  particularly into wealth equality and racial justice, denying equal opportunities to entire  communities. People’s frustration often turns into resentment and anger and we have seen how  these feelings have been subjected to manipulation and used to drive people against each other,  especially against immigrants and black minorities becoming the target of hatred and violence.

Therefore, putting Harriet Tubman on the 20$ bill will never repay the historical damages that  America has inflicted on Black people for generations and neither will give value nor become a  form of representation of women’s contribution to the foundation of American democracy. What  American women and Black people deserve is a more diversified representation within their own  institutions. Kamala Harris being  the first African American and Asian American vice president is  just one step towards such a mindset. As Ruth B. Ginsburg said: “In our society enduring change happens one step at the time”. If having Harriet Tubman on a currency is a symbolic act that  anticipates this administration’s real commitment to addressing systematic inequalities and  barriers into the decision-making process towards fair and equitable policies for all races and genders, then  America may be on the right path towards a rightful acknowledgment of women, and Black people’s  democratic contribution to the nation.

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