Ever since the Biden Administration first entered office, talks about putting Harriet Tubman on the $20 in place of Andrew Jackson have come back into public discourse. The movement to do this began during the Obama Administration, and even gained some support from top politicians, but was halted under Trump (who put a painting of Jackson in his oval office). Well, with Biden as President the idea is coming back, but is the movement to put Tubman on money asking the right question?
Before we continue I should note that, yes, this idea screams of “white liberal syndrome,” sometimes also called “white moderate syndrome” in reference to Martin Luther King Jr’s famous line from his Letter From Burgingham Jail:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”
Basically, it’s the idea that if we just make a change or two here or there we can end any and all systemic issues without fundamentally changing the system. You’ll note that this is the same thing we’ve been trying for decades now and every time it fails so badly that a year or two later we’re having to come up with a new policy to address the issue we were told we already solved. Sometimes, in fact, more often than not now that I think about it, the solutions proposed actually boomerang and hurt Black Americans more than if they did nothing at all.
For example, back in the 1970s, it was noticed that even after the Fair Housing Act Black Americans were unable to get mortgages white people could get, in large part because they did not have the wealth needed to have credit scores which made it so they could secure loans. So instead of helping them build wealth, the federal government made an easier for Black Americans to get loans through various regulations, starting with the Community Reinvestment Act in 1977. Of course, many of them then got predatory loans they were unable to pay back, and then when the Housing Market crashed thirty-years later Black Americans were harmed the most.
Here is then-Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo (yes, the same Andrew Cuomo who’s currently Governor of New York) on 11/16/1998 — just under a decade before the Housing Market crashed:
The latest data on mortgage denial by race and ethnicity, made available under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) for 1997, shows denial rates for conventional mortgages of 53% for black applicants, 52% for Native American Indians, 38% for Hispanics, 26% for whites, and 13% for Asian-Americans. Differences among the groups remain even after income levels are accounted for. Last year, upper-income black and Hispanic applicants were denied conventional mortgages more than twice as often as whites at that income level. Previous studies that account for income and credit risk-most notably that by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston-suggest that discrimination explains a significant part of the gap.
Twice as often — that’s nearly two times! We need more minorities in the unstable and clearly bubbled Housing Market! Oh — the Housing Market crashed and minorities were hurt the worst in large part because of policies we supported — whoops.
But seriously, did you notice something? Those rejection rates are nearly one-to-one in order of how wealthy that racial group tends to be. The Federal Government could have responded to that by actually giving minority communities the tools to build wealth — instead, they just made it easier for them to get loans they could not payback.
Those of you who read Ramblings Of A Mad Man: Life As An Anarchist might remember I made this point in my chapter on slavery reparations. The federal government had engaged in many programs by that point, all of which had been sold basically as making up for historic injustices towards Black Americans — all of which must have failed considering we’re having this conversation in the first place. And to be clear, I do believe they have failed, the Black-White wealth gap today is even larger than it was at any point during the Jim Crow era, it’s obvious something is going on. And many Black Americans have taken note and grown sick of these old reforms, hence why in 2020 many started wanting more radical changes like defunding the police force or moving the American economy towards socialism. Compare this to the response they got after George Floyd’s death, which includes calls for him to be given a Funco Pop and the voice of Cleveland Brown stepping down.
So what do Black Americans think of this? Well I am white, but Brittney Cooper is not, she was even on the “Root 100” list, a list of the top one-hundred most influential Black people by the Black website The Root in 2013 and 2014, and here’s what she wrote about the idea in Time:
I know in a country that worships at the altar of capitalism — an economic system made possible by the free Black labor procured through the Transatlantic slave trade — a Black woman’s face on our currency seems like the highest honor we could bestow. But what a stunning failure of imagination. Putting Tubman on legal tender, when slaves in the U.S. were treated as fungible commodities is a supreme form of disrespect. The imagery of her face changing hands as people exchange cash for goods and services evokes for me discomfiting scenes of enslaved persons being handed over as payment for white debt or for anything white slaveholders wanted. America certainly owes a debt to Black people, but this is not the way to repay it.
Now, I’ve defended Joe Biden against claims of racism in the past, and I do not take any of those defenses back. But with that said, I do take the word of a Black woman on racism more seriously than I do the man who said this in 1977:
Unless we do something about this, my children are going to grow up in a jungle, the jungle being a racial jungle with tensions having built so high that it is going to explode at some point.
But with all that said, I think we should talk about the idea itself and not just the people behind the idea. To start out with, I think it’s best to talk about the thought process behind this effort: That being that Andrew Jackson was a bad person, Harriet Tubman was a good person, therefore it is bad to have Jackson on money and good to have Tubman.
Now I do agree that Jackson was a bad person and Tubman was a good person, however, what does putting someone on money mean? Well, it means more than just “they were a good person,” if that’s all it meant then almost anyone could be on the money, it means that this person is amazing, that they deserve your admiration, and that they should be idols.
Now, Tubman is a much better idol than Andrew Jackson, make no mistake. Mind you, not everything Andrew Jackson did was bad, he expanded Democracy in the United States, removed many political insiders, and was a great general during the War of 1812. In 2018, Jackson was ranked as the fifteenth best President in United States history, meaning he was a much better President than the majority of them. However, things like his direct causing of the Trail of Tears even after the Supreme Court declared his actions unconstitutional and him being the only President directly involved with the slave trade show he was far from perfect.
However, instead of replacing one idol with another, how about we just stop having idols? The common defense of keeping Jackson on money, one we also heard regarding the debate on statues, is that nobody is perfect. On that point, I’m in total agreement — but my takeaway from that is that we should therefore not have idols, not that we should allow questionable people to become our idols.
On 8/17/2017, Vice ran an article by Wilbert L. Cooper titled “Let’s Get Rid Of Mount Rushmore,” originally published as “Let’s Blow Up Mount Rushmore,” in reference to a satirical Daily Caller article by Scott Greer titled, what else, “It’s Time To Blow Up Mount Rushmore.” Cooper’s article asks one question: Even if Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, or Roosevelt did great things, do they deserve to be craved in the side of a mountain? (In Roosevelt’s case, the actual historical answer is that he was friends with the man behind Mount Rushmore.)
If Rushmore ever did get “blown up,” what should those dudes be replaced with? Fact is, I’m not sure there is any American president worthy of being etched into the side of a 60-foot mountain with explosives and jackhammers. I mean, every single one has at least been partially complicit in horrific atrocities.
. . . Obviously, Washington and Thomas Jefferson were remarkable individuals who helped usurp British rule in America and, eventually, establish a new empire. But they also enslaved their fellow man, committing special kinds of inhumane acts that should never be confined to footnotes. Unfortunately, that is exactly how those troublesome truths are treated when you face the awesome grandeur of Rushmore, a monument so incredible it obscures the multifaceted nature of these old dudes, transmogrifying them from individuals with a capacity both for greatness and evil into pure American deities.
Now, some of you might respond to the second paragraph by making the point that slavery was common back then — and you’d be right, and that’s a good reason why we shouldn’t idolize people from the past. Personally, I have been inspired by the words of Thomas Jefferson, and much of what he has said has directly inspired my political views. This does not mean I don’t recognize he was a flawed human being who commonly failed to live up to the logical conclusion of his ideology.
Now Cooper does recognize he is in somewhat of a glasshouse, and says that he does not want people he admires today to be idolized either:
In case you’re wondering, I don’t think Barack Obama should be lionized with some sort of larger-than-life monument, either. While he is a man who embodies so many of the dreams I had for this nation as a child, he has also committed acts I absolutely abhor. His embrace of aerial drone strikes, especially in nations like Somalia, was extremely disheartening for both their attendant civilian casualties and the shaky legal framework in which they were committed. His expansion of surveillance programs that sprawled under George W. Bush could theoretically now be used by the Trump administration to stymie movements like Black Lives Matter, which is comprised of people actually doing work to make this nation more equitable. And in case you haven’t noticed, as great as the optics of Obama’s presidency were, they seem to have done little to heal the wounds of racism in this nation or dismantle the institutional apparatuses that fuel injustice.
I have love for Obama as a black man, but I don’t need to see his face on the side of a mountain. I certainly don’t want to see him turned into some kind of great black superhero, devoid of his flaws and failures. If it happened, it would mean we didn’t learn important lessons from his presidency that could help us move the buck further the next time around.
The quote about how idolization “would mean we didn’t learn important lessons from his presidency that could help us move the buck further the next time around,” is easily the most interesting thing about Cooper said. Advocates of tearing down statues or taking people off of money are often accused of “erasing history.” (For the record, Jackson was not on the $20 bill until 1928 — it seems like people remembered him just fine without him being on money is all I’m saying.) However, it is commonly those people who are trying to bring history back into public light — specifically, the flaw of those people that have been commonly overlooked by the mainstream public.
In fact, Cooper goes on to say that idolizing people in the status quo can obscure some of their best work, especially if we don’t live under the system those people truly fought for. As an example, Cooper cites the common view of Martin Luther King Jr. which ignores much of what he stood for:
One of the worst things about these statues is that the enshrinement of leaders doesn’t just hide the bad things about them — it can also obscure the good. As a young man, I was always skeptical of Martin Luther King Jr., in comparison to more radical leaders like Malcolm X. I couldn’t help to notice how King was hailed by white people who wanted to avoid hard discussions about race. These people wanted to rely on a flimsy “dream” instead of grappling with the “fierce urgency of now.” Many critics felt that it was this false, tepid caricature of King that was initially captured in his monument in Washington. The people behind the sculpture arguably distorted a quote of King’s about overthrowing the political order through radical change and turned it into something bland, meaningless, and wholly uncontroversial. As art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott wrote in an editorial in the Washington Post back in 2011, “The memorial could be vastly improved simply by removing the statue.”
I tend to agree with that. I’m not sure that a monument put on by the state, which still perpetuates violence across the world and has immense inequality here at home, could ever produce a work that truly honors the real, radical legacy of Dr. King. King was a man who damned capitalism and war as much as he strived for black boys and black girls to hold hands with white boys and white girls.
Now that’s an interesting argument, because King is so honored in the status quo the implication for him was that King would support the status quo — not that the status quo had lied to him about King. King actually grew to hate just how popular his I Have A Dream Speech got, not because he didn’t agree with it, but because it overshadowed his socialist beliefs. On this very topic, King noted in 1968, the year of his death:
It didn’t cost the nation one penny to integrate lunch counters. It didn’t cost the nation one penny to guarantee the right to vote. The problems that we are facing today will cost the nation billions of dollars and undergo a radical redistrubtion of economic power.
King believed in Universal Healthcare, a minimum wage that was a living wage, and even a Universal Basic Income. King was assassinated while in Memphis, Tennesse, a location he had visited to show support for sanitary workers as part of his Poor People’s Campaign, a movement with the goal of better wages for all people which also started that same year. King’s flight had actually received a bomb threat, causing it to be delayed, but King went anyway because he long understood that being a public figure of his kind put him in danger. King’s last speech ever given even directly references the bomb threat and how he was not afraid of his own death, with him noting:
And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
While King’s left-wing economic views have gotten more attention in recent years (in 2020, John Oliver told his HBO audience “It turns out Martin Luther King had more than one dream, and one of them was about wealth redistribution.”), for decades they remained something most people were hush-hush about. If you mentioned King was a socialist, you were seen as the same as a Ku Klux Klan member or part of the John Birch Society — if only because those were the only two groups mentioning that historical fact in an attempt to discredit him. In the mind of the status quo, King’s dream has become true — we even have a holiday named after him, so how could anyone say we’ve failed the mission he started?
As it stands, I do not believe we should be making idols out of anyone. There’s a quote from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the French Marxist and first self-described anarchist, that I think applies here:
I dream of a society where I would be guillotined as a conservative.
To put it simply, the greatest people in history are people who can be built on beyond what they thought possible. The Founding Fathers wrote the ninth amendment, promising the right to more than just what’s explicitly listed in the Constitution, for this very reason. The greatest people in history want to be seen as a stepping stone to things that are greater, not as people who did everything that needed to be done in their lifetime. Because of this, making idols out of people can be seen as, if anything, the greatest form of disrespect.