Representation costs far more than $20

Honoring a woman who fought a capitalist institution by placing her on money is incongruous.

by Alia Jeraj

Last week, Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew announced that ex-slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman will replace President Andrew Jackson as the face of the $20 bill. Jackson, however, will not be removed completely, but simply relegated to the bill’s back side. 
Lew also announced plans to modify the back of the $10 bill by adding scenes of suffrage leaders Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul and Susan B. Anthony. The back of the $5 dollar bill will show Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Treasury will not reveal the final designs for the new bills until 2020, and sometime after that date the money will enter circulation. 
Lew’s announcement inspired a number of reactions. Many people, including former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, celebrated the change, citing Tubman’s admirable work as a freedom fighter and American hero. 
I, too, am delighted to see a female abolitionist replace a man who fueled his presidency with genocidal policies against American Indians. However, I wonder about the impact of the switch, both symbolically and practically.
Slavery existed because of capital. Many scholars agree that slavery was essential to the development of our country’s capitalist system. Today, capitalism perpetuates racist ideas, although perhaps not as overtly as it did during slave times.
Tubman was born into slavery. After escaping, she became a prominent abolitionist, leading hundreds of people to freedom as a “conductor” along the Underground Railroad. She worked tirelessly to deconstruct the very backbone of our capitalist system. 
Thus, I question the symbolic impact of putting Tubman on the $20 bill. To me, the Treasury seems to have made this decision without much critical thought about its potential implications. Some argue that putting Tubman’s face on a bill is an insult rather than an honor to her legacy.
Moreover, placing Tubman on the $20 bill seems be a blithe move which fails to address the economic inequalities that face black women in the U.S. On average, women make only 79 cents for every dollar a man makes, and for black women, that figure is 63 cents.
I have somewhat conflicted feelings about the new change, as I am largely excited to see Tubman and other deserving women earn representation on our currency, which is arguably the most important symbol of our country. 
We must stop glorifying figures like Jackson — who actively promoted slavery and genocide — and begin to honor people like Tubman, who worked against such atrocities.
At the same time, we need to be critical and conscious of how we honor people like Tubman and consider the implications of such actions.
Alia Jeraj welcomes comments at [email protected].