Why We Should Keep Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks Off the $20 Bill

With the state of black women in this country, putting one of these icons on U.S. currency is not progress—it’s hush money.

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Harriet Tubman in 1880; Rosa Parks in 1955

Wikimedia Commons; Wikimedia Commons

Harriet Tubman or Rosa Parks may be the next face featured on the U.S. $20 bill—that is if Women on 20s (W20), a grassroots organization committed to the realization of female representation on the nation’s currency, has anything to say about it.

After a “robust” voting process spearheaded by W20, the civil rights icons, along with former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation, were selected from a multigenerational pool of accomplished women spanning diverse industries.

“We believe this simple, symbolic and long overdue change could be an important stepping stone for other initiatives promoting gender equality,” said W20 on its website. “Our money does say something about us, about what we value.”

Yes, it absolutely does, and that “something” is not black women. No amount of subversive symbolism changes that fact.

This country was founded on the idea that all white men are created equal and no one else. As such, Andrew Jackson—slave owner, seventh president of the United States and current face on the $20 bill—represents exactly the values and ethics upon which this country was founded. You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig—the pig in this case being a capitalist structure hell-bent on the expansion, maintenance and protection of white supremacy at any costs.

Specifically, there is something both distasteful and ironic about putting a black woman’s face on the most frequently counterfeited and most commonly traded dollar bill in this country. Haven’t we been commodified and trafficked enough? Slapping a black female face, one of our radical icons, on a $20 bill as if it’s some attainment of the American dream would be adding insult to injury.

When nearly half of all single African-American women have zero or negative wealth, and their median wealth is $100—compared with just over $41,000 for single white American women—it is an insult. When black women are the fuel for the prison-industrial complex, with incarceration rates increasing 800 percent since 1986 and black girls being the fastest-growing population of a corrupt juvenile-criminal system, it is an insult. When African-American women earn on average 64 cents (pdf) for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men, compared with the 78 cents that white women earn for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men, it is an insult.

And frankly, putting a white woman’s face on a bill would be akin to Hillary Clinton becoming the president of the United States: a woman’s face on the same old racist, patriarchal political system that continues in both insidious and blatant ways to disenfranchise women and people of color.

That’s not progress. It’s hush money.

Women on 20s has stated that its goal is to petition the White House to make the change by 2020, the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which purportedly gave all American women the right to vote.

Let’s be clear: Not all women are white. Not only did African-American women face discrimination within the women’s suffrage movement, but we most certainly did not attain the right to vote 95 years ago. After decades of literacy tests and other disenfranchisement tactics, it was the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that finally allowed African-American women to vote somewhat freely—the same Voting Rights Act that in 2014 was gutted by the Supreme Court.

So, no, 2020 isn’t a landmark year for black women, and cosmetic diversity is nothing but a placebo in the service of white, liberal guilt.

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.

I don’t want Rosa Parks’ face on a $20 bill; I want black people to be able to travel from point A to point B without being targeted by discriminatory and violent policing tactics. That’s how we honor her.

Although I’m sure that Women on 20s and its approximately 256,000 voters mean well, the very narrow lens through which they appear to view gender equality and sociopolitical progress leaves very little room for the lived experiences of black women throughout America’s history and into the present day; in fact, it erases them.

And the cost of that erasure is a hell of a lot more than $20.

Kirsten West Savali is a cultural critic and senior writer for The Root. She was named to Ebony magazine’s 2015 “Power 100” list and awarded a 2015 Harry Frank Guggenheim Fellowship. Her provocative commentary explores the intersections of race, social justice, religion, feminism, politics and pop culture. Follow her on Twitter.

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