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Delay of Harriet Tubman $20 bill undergirded by racism, misogyny

Throughout my life, Harriet Tubman symbolized strength, courage, and determination.

The abolitionist hero was the only woman of color in our school’s American history book while I was growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s. It was Tubman’s selfless and tenacious efforts to free enslaved people that inspired my own desire to make a difference in the world. That’s why I joined the board of directors for the Southern Poverty Law Center and now serve as its interim president

Last week, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin announced that the Trump administration is delaying the release of the new $20 bill featuring Tubman. Originally, it was scheduled for release in 2020 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. Mnuchin now indicates it will not be in circulation until 2028, long after Trump has left office. He claimed the delay was based on a more immediate need to focus on anti-counterfeiting features of currency, beginning with the $10 and $50 bills.

But this decision – like so many of Trump’s statements, decisions, and policies – clearly seems undergirded by racism and misogyny. It is not lost on the American public that candidate Trump opposed putting Tubman on the $20 bill in 2016, calling the move “pure political correctness.” He offered to consider placing her portrait on the little-used or circulated $2 bill instead.

The world has evolved. Yet, we still do little to honor and celebrate the women and people of color who helped make this nation great. But Southern states have no qualms about enacting laws to protect Confederate monuments, many of which were erected to promote white supremacy as the Jim Crow era began and during the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s.

It’s not just about symbolism. Across the South, conservative legislators are passing draconian statutes that invade a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body and health. And at the southern border, Trump’s immigration policies continue to rip children away from their parents. 

These policies are the result of the bigotry and hate toward women and people of color that has seeped into mainstream thinking and policy development.

We are in a battle for the soul of our nation. The fight for material justice is even more important now than ever before. Placing Harriet Tubman on the new $20 bill will not stop Trump from implementing extremist policies. But it will begin the process of reconciling our nation’s true history, so that we can move forward, together.

For nearly 50 years, the SPLC has been working tirelessly to develop “underground railroads” for children, youth, families, and communities: liberation from broken and historically racist systems such as education, justice, and health; freedom from acts of bigotry, hate, and violence; and education to help emerging leaders become active participants in a diverse democracy. Together, with our community partners and allies, we must ensure that the next 50 years of our nation will move us closer to that north star.

Photo by Niday Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo