Why doesn’t Biden understand that Harriet Tubman wouldn’t want to be on a $20 bill?

Victoria Gagliardo-Silver
·3 min read

Joe Biden has held the office of the president for six days. While America may feel relieved to have a competent team in the West Wing again, I find myself concerned that we are returning to Obama era-style performative activism with very little substance beneath. President Biden’s renewed focus on printing $20 bills with Harriet Tubman’s face on them makes me feel my concerns are valid.

While Flint, Michigan still doesn’t have clean water in 2021, while people of color in America are dying of Covid-19 at disproportionate rates, while Black women in the US have birth mortality rates akin to a developing country, America has much more important things to focus on than which historical figure belongs on what dollar bill.

If Harriet Tubman could see the state of things for Black individuals in our nation, she’d be rolling in her grave. She was a liberationist, a radical who sought freedom and equality as the bare minimum for Black people by putting her life and body on the line. And despite slavery being “a thing of the past”, our country has yet to achieve racial equality because racism is baked into this nation. Harriet Tubman was never American, until whitewashing her into an American hero benefited the narrative.

America was founded with the idea that Black people are less than human — three-fifths of a human, to be exact — an idea that continues to influence laws and policy today. Our state-sanctioned pain is recent, as recent as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study ending in 1972. As recent as Breonna Taylor’s death at the hands of a police force that is never held accountable. As recent as sentencing guidelines for crimes leading to longer incarceration rates for Black men as opposed to white men. As recently as Trayvon Martin’s killer was acquitted. Giving us a $20 bill with Harriet Tubman on it is the equivalent of putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound, handing us a cookie, and saying get well soon.

More importantly, Harriet Tubman would not want to be on the $20 bill. She would see it for what it is: a performative, pandering act of faux-activism to please adoring liberals while working toward little effective change. Wealth is the source of all American inequality, and it is not something Tubman would have wanted to be associated with. The wealth gap between Black women and white men is 61 cents to a dollar, and to print money with a Black woman on it before closing that pay gap feels like a slap in the face.

If the Biden administration really wanted to honor Harriet Tubman, the best way to do so would be through economic reparations in her name for people of color below the poverty line; through raising education funding in lower income areas of color; and through directing a focus to medical treatment inequality in Black patients versus white ones.

Biden still has a lot of work to do to earn Black people’s trust. Lest we forget, it was his 1994 “Tough on Crime” initiative that helped build the school-to-prison pipeline for young Black boys. And he was against mandatory busing initiatives to desegregate schools — something even his running-mate Kamala Harris brought up during the Democratic presidential debates.

It would be nice to see myself reflected on American currency, as a Black woman. It would be nicer to not have to worry about racist systems in American hospitals, police forces, and the government which devalue my life every day. The Biden administration has the funds and the means to help change that — if we hold them accountable.