The wrong kind of gesture on Harriet Tubman


Removing statues has been in the news a lot lately, and rightly so. Their removal is an indication that we no longer want to celebrate dogmas and ideologies that are—at least among enlightened people—unpopular and inconsistent with the community and country we aspire to be.

But removing statues isn’t a panacea. It isn’t particularly restorative, redemptive, remedial or reparative. Removing statues doesn’t change our past, and it remains to be seen whether doing so will have a positive impact on our future discourse.

Their removal is, more than anything, a gesture.

We’re big on symbolic gestures and indications that we are changing. They give us hope.

When I heard last April that there were plans underway to have Harriet Tubman replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill, that was a hopeful moment. I thought every trip to the ATM would be an homage to the conductor of the Underground Railroad. A former slave, a human rights champion, a black woman who reclaimed her time and her people – prominently displayed on a $20 bill? Love it! Black women, rejoice!

Having Tubman, a fearless abolitionist, “standing face-to-face” with Jackson, a slaveholder and architect of the Indian Removal Act on our currency, would have been a noble gesture, a timely idea, a balanced approach to telling a more inclusive story of Americans who contributed to our history. And, even though the genesis of the effort wasn’t an attempt to placate the increasingly frequent calls to remove statues, this counter visual would facilitate a shift in the narrative, a change in the zeitgeist.

In other words, a noble gesture.

Changing the portrait on paper money requires an order from the treasury secretary or direction from the president to the secretary to make the change. It doesn’t require an act from Congress. It takes 100,000 votes to petition the White House for executive action. In 2015, the campaign organizers submitted 600,000 votes.

Despite this show of support and little opposition from the Republican party, it appears this change could be derailed.

The Trump Administration appears to be backing away from the putting Tubman on the $20 bill. Secretary of the Treasury, Steve Mnuchin, said it wasn’t important. (Perhaps, he meant not as important as trying to undo other aspects of President Obama’s legacy, which seems to be this administration’s primary focus and intent.) He offered this reason not to make the change: “People have been on the bills for a long period of time”.

Read: White men have been on the bills for a long period of time. Read: That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Read: Currency represents power and where we place our trust in this country. Why would we want to signal that we’re ready to change that?

In the wake of Charlottesville, this administration could have conveyed that it is not utterly tone deaf and steadfast in its commitment to dismiss what is morally, philosophically and socio-politically sensitive as being politically correct.

Instead, it did not.

A typical gesture.

Tiffany Capers leads Black Lives Matter Charlotte, which is not affiliated with the national Black Lives Matter organization, and serves on several nonprofit boards and committees. Email: capers08096@gmail.com.