For those of you stockpiling your $20 bills before the PC Police and the SJWs tarnish another symbol of our country’s rich history, I have some good news.
The Trump administration, in its endless quest to not so much do anything as undo everything from the last eight years, will likely not follow through on President Obama’s plan to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. For now, at least, the proud legacy of Andrew Jackson—the architect of the Trail of Tears and the only president to be censured by the Senate—remains secure.
You can’t blame the Obama administration for trying. Harriet Tubman is as unimpeachable a figure in American history as you’ll find, and no politician in their right mind would risk potentially ruinous backlash by scrapping the plan to put her on U.S. currency. But since Donald Trump is neither a politician nor in his right mind, it appears that Obama’s plan will fail to come to fruition.
Many Americans believe Trump is himself a white supremacist or, at the very least, sympathetic to white supremacists. Though I personally hesitate to label the president as such, the optics of this recent announcement certainly don’t do him any favors. We’re barely three weeks removed from the events in Charlottesville and Trump’s “both sides” argument that was celebrated by white supremacists as implicit approval of their ideology.
As a result, we’re left with one of two conclusions: either Trump is so blinded by his efforts to undermine everything President Obama did during his two terms that Trump simply doesn’t understand how this makes him look, or he’s a neo-Nazi sympathizer. Hanlon’s Razor tells us “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”; still, I have my doubts.
When asked about the proposed change, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin responded that “[i]t’s not something that I’m focused on at the moment.” According to Mnuchin, currency changes primarily occur as a protective measure against counterfeiting. “Why redesign the bill unless there’s a rash of counterfeiting of that bill” seems like a pretty reasonable argument, right?
The $100 bill was updated in 2013; the $10 bill was last updated in 2006; the $5 bill was last updated in 2008. Despite Mnuchin’s implication that the $20 bill doesn’t need to be updated, a 2013 report by Reuters found that along with the $100 bill, the $20 is the most counterfeited bill in the United States. And when was the last time it was updated? 2003.
Further complicating matters, when the Obama administration unveiled their plan last year, Trump blasted the decision as “pure political correctness.” Given that information, it’s hard to argue that logistics are the reason for Trump’s reversal of course.
You may be wondering “Why Harriet Tubman?” I’m glad you asked, hypothetical person.
In 2015, a campaign called “Women on 20s” circulated a petition to put a woman on the front of a bill by 2020 (the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment). The candidates included Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Rosa Parks and were voted on by respondents, and Tubman won with roughly 20% of the vote.
The results and the petition were forwarded to the White House, and then-Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced in 2015 that Tubman would replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill by 2020. (Following the success of the musical Hamilton, the decision was made that Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill instead.)
The decision was met with the usual resistance and outcry; few objected specifically to Tubman’s inclusion, but the general theme among the dissenters was “this is the way it’s always been” and “currency should be reserved for heads of state.” The first argument is by no means a useful one; the second argument is invalidated by the fact that Benjamin Franklin was never President, even though 25% of participants in a 2016 study believe he was. (In a 2015 poll, nearly two-thirds of respondents named Franklin the “Greatest American President.”)
If it hasn’t already been made, I am certain a counterargument will soon surface that for better or worse, Andrew Jackson is a part of this country’s history, and we cannot scrub all record of him from the public consciousness simply because we are ashamed of our past.
In response, I offer two points. First, as far as I’m aware, books have not been outlawed in the United States; just as you can still learn about Robert E. Lee without a monument to him in the public square, so too can you learn about Old Hickory without his face plastered on the front of a $20 bill. And if you can’t possibly fathom a world without Andrew Jackson’s craggy visage glaring at you every time you open your wallet, I offer my second point:
Andrew Jackson wasn’t going to be removed from the $20 bill. He would have just been on the back of the bill instead of the front.
There is no good reason not to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. We spend a lot of time acknowledging that there are distasteful or reprehensible elements of this country’s past, and while the first step to overcoming a problem is admitting you have one, acknowledgment that’s not followed by action is ultimately meaningless.
By reversing course, one thing is certain: the Trump administration is squandering what could be the first step towards rectifying the racial inequality that exists in this country. Whether it is due to malice or mere stupidity is another question entirely.