Harriet Tubman on the $20 Bill Is Problematic Now, Too

by Celina Durgin

Not to be appeased, some progressives are upset about Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s decision to honor a once-enslaved black woman on the $20 bill.

Victoria M. Massie at Vox believes replacing Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the face of the 20 is “tricky” (i.e., problematic), and Ijeoma Oluo at the Guardian believes it “papers over racism” because money is, of course, a symbol of capitalist oppression. Massie quotes Jay Smooth, “What we’re basically talking about right now is honoring the work Harriet Tubman did to free us from slavery by putting her face on the reason we were in slavery.”

Oluo shares this line of thought:

Our economic system has always required winners and losers. It has always required that a select few occupy the top tiers, while the rest are forced into their respective rungs lower on the ladder. Race has always been one of the easier identifiers for those who need to designate an “other” for exploitation.

In other words, not only did a large number of American capitalists participate in the slave trade, the capitalist system is intrinsically exploitative and unjust.

Last year, Feminista Jones wrote on the same topic in the Washington Post that Tubman’s “legacy is rooted in resisting the foundation of American capitalism [slavery]. Tubman didn’t respect America’s economic system, so making her a symbol of it would be insulting.”

These writers are conflating all of capitalism with slavery. They don’t accept as possible the counterfactual scenario in which American capitalism developed without slavery. In a sense, this is the view of Marxism, but with an American-progressive makeover. On this view, the evil is inherent to the system, not in the people who chose to dehumanize and oppress their brothers through that system. They think the substratum of society and the driving force of history is economics, not communities, values, or individual human choices. They elevate to a philosophy the Sunday-school error of misquoting 1 Timothy 6:10 as “money is a root of all kinds of evils,” rather than the love of money.

So it’s understandable why Oluo and Jones don’t want to tarnish Tubman’s historical achievements by putting her face on our money, an evil capitalist tool, even if Oluo does “get some joy from knowing that white people have to look at Harriet Tubman’s proud and defiant black face every time they reach in their wallet.” Never mind that most economic systems throughout history involved slavery at some time. Are Oluo and Jones as ready to blame the socialist system for the forced-labor camps of Soviet Russia? Or would they blame Joseph Stalin, too?

These writers acknowledge that Tubman deserves renown. “But,” Oluo demurs,

the image of Tubman on our currency as some sort of corrective action for centuries of oppression and subjugation, or as a symbol of how far we’ve come in ending racism, is more symbolic of our fundamental misunderstanding of race in America.

Placing Tubman’s image on our currency shouldn’t be understood as a corrective action. Her legacy shouldn’t be wielded as a tool to redeem the cruelty of our ancestors. There should be no intention to “paper over” racism. The action should rather esteem a woman who defied unjust laws, trusted God, and endangered her life for others’ freedom. It should remind us that human goodness can prevail despite the evil that other humans do.

We should venerate people for displaying something that has nothing to do with their race, sex, origins, or social standing: virtue.

The capacity to be — or not to be — virtuous is the most significant source of human equality, and it is inalienable. It is Tubman’s historic selflessness and courage, not her state of oppression, that we honor.

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