For everyone who is excited by the replacement of Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman, the United States Mint has unveiled a special commemorative coin. With her toga and braids, Lady Liberty – for the first time – is depicted as a black woman. This is the introduction to a series that will release a new coin every two years to “reflect the cultural and ethnic diversity of the United States”. Thus, future editions will feature Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and Native Americans.
Despite popular opinion, there are at least three problems with these initiatives. First, they are superficial gestures that gloss over the real, material conditions of women. Compared to every dollar earned by white men, here is what women earn:
- Asian-American $0.90
- White $0.78
- Pacific Islander $0.65
- African-American $0.64
- American-Indian $0.59
- Hispanic/Latina $0.54
Therefore, if Harriet Tubman were alive today, she would earn just $12.80 for every $20 bill with her face on it received by a white man. The right-wing agenda (empowered by a Trump administration) has waged a war on worker’s rights and reproductive freedom – assaults that are felt acutely by non-white women. Having women of color on American money is like a coach not allowing someone to join the Team but making their image the Team logo. Putting women of color on the money is not a substitute for putting money in their wallets.
Second, removing and/or replacing a controversial figure from the monetary supply is not indicative of structural change. The popular demand to remove Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill cited his hateful Indian Removal policy as a main reason. But this is not synonymous with decolonization for indigenous people – as toxic waste plants are disproportionately located near reservations (Smith, 2005), and the Dakota Access Pipeline is still on hold. Although Jackson was removed from the bill, the United States government still adheres to an anti-indigenous worldview.
In that same vein, the decision to have an abolitionist grace the face of the $20 bill does not signify sympathies to black liberation. History shows the exact opposite is true. The FBI used COINTELPRO to dismantle and discredit black movements and activists in the 50s, 60s, and 70s – such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, etc. To this day, the United States seeks to contain and dilute the specter of black freedom.
Third, whether intentionally or unintentionally, the coins rewrite American history as if oppression never happened and is not happening. Since 2017 marks the 225th anniversary anniversary of the Mint, black Lady Liberty is situated on the coin between ‘1792’ and ‘2017’. This neat and tidy timeline crowds out the fact that black folks were slaves in the U.S. between 1619 and 1865. Beneath black Lady Liberty is the motto ‘In God We Trust’ – but black folks were not a part of the We in 1792. As I argue here, black folks were never incorporated into the We – and never can be. The word ‘liberty’ is on the coin but black folks were not free in 1792 and are not free today. That stated, featuring a Native American woman will only gloss the fact of conquest and genocide. Featuring a Latina will only gloss the fact of rampant exploitation and deportation.
The forthcoming $20 bill and the new commemorative coins are illusions of inclusion for women of color.
Photo credit: Reuters
Smith, Andrea. 2005. Conquest.