by John Lynch
Most people have by now heard the U.S. treasury’s announcement that Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the face of the twenty dollar bill. The arguments currently circulating about this subject are thought provoking and speak greatly of the current racial and political climate in the United States. Arguments in favor of the change are positive in their sentiment; Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew said in an open letter, “Her incredible story of courage and commitment to equality embodies the ideals of democracy that our nation celebrates, and we will continue to value her legacy by honoring her on our currency” (Lew). The arguments for and against the change both make very interesting and valid points, with no opinion overwhelmingly coming to the forefront of the discussion as “correct”
When talking about the arguments opposed to the change, I'm not discussing the flat out anti-Tubman pro-Jackson arguments (which are mostly steeped in racist and historically inaccurate thinking), but the arguments by social progressives who view the move as a form of symbolic appeasement toward the Black community, counterintuitive to legitimate social change. Kirsten West Savali, a writer for The Root, covered this viewpoint in a piece from earlier this month before the announcement, saying the move is "not progress. It’s hush money” (Why We Should). Savali points out that Black inclusion on currency does not enact any real change regarding the current issues affecting the Black community, such as the wealth gap, increasing incarceration rates, the wage gap, corrupt juvenile criminal systems, etc. She sums up her point by saying, "I don’t want Harriet Tubman’s face on a $20 bill; I want our people to be free from the chains of institutionalized racism and economic slavery. That’s how we honor her".
In contrast, those in favor of the change argue for the social benefits of having a Black woman on U.S. currency, especially in a time when representation and recognition seems such an important aspect of social equality. They recognize that putting Harriet Tubman on the twenty would in no way "fix racism", just like how Obama’s election into the White House didn't signify a sudden emergence of national racial equality. The argument in favor of Tubman’s placement, however, contests the idea that both representation and further work toward equality cannot be achieved simultaneously. They would argue that wider representation triggers wider discussion, and that progressive opposition shouldn’t view this as a feeble move to solve the tangible societal issues facing the Black community. The importance of the change would manifest itself as a small representative step in the direction toward large cultural change, with history supporting the assumption of positive impact regarding greater general inclusion.
Some of the concern held by those against the change could come from a belief that this move will hinder conversation about further necessary progress; those opposing social equity and reform could point to this event and say, “We’re doing plenty, stop bothering us for more.” The progressive stance opposing Tubman on the twenty presents a methodical view on social reform, regarding such symbolic alteration as unnecessary and counter to their objective of substantial societal change. With much more needing to be done for the Black community to improve the vast inequities seen in American society, the change of the twenty dollar bill does not address the serious issues they believe should be getting attention.
The treasury has now locked in their decisions, so any further change or backtracking based on newly surfaced arguments or objections would be surprising. The dispute will undoubtedly continue for some time seeing as the treasury won’t even finalize the bill’s design until 2020; the change will most likely go down as positive on the surface with the obvious negative undertones remaining for those in disagreement. As a celebratory mark of advancement, progressive opposition looks at the change and points out that there hasn’t been much progress in the form of social equity or institutional change within the last several years, and putting Tubman on the bill creates some sort of false stamp of achievement. Tubman will sit as a reminder that those in power recognize the vital role that Black people have had in building American society, while the legitimate and lingering issues still plaguing the population continue to be swept under the rug.
Savali, Kirsten West. "Why We Should Keep Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks Off the $20 Bill." The Root. N.p., 13 Apr. 2015. Web. 01 May 2016.
Here you can find all of our articles up to 2018.