Euphoria reigned supreme among many on April 20, 2016, at the announcement by then-Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew that the front of the $20 bill would be redesigned and feature the face of black abolitionist icon Harriet Tubman. Tubman would move aside Andrew Jackson, whose face has been on the front of the bill since 1928.
Jackson had shoved aside President Grover Cleveland, who had been on the bill for years, in 1928.
The move to replace Jackson had the enthusiastic imprimatur of then-President Barack Obama, but it was a move that was not taken lightly.
The move to replace Jackson actually began a year earlier when several women’s advocates groups pounded the department to shove Jackson aside and put a noted historic female women’s rights advocate on one of the all-male faced U.S. currency bills. Jackson was a special target for ouster because of his nefarious history as a slaveholder and for his mass forced removal of American Indians from the South.
Getting rid of Jackson, though, was never a done deal even after the Treasury approval. The change wouldn’t take place until 2020, four years after Lew and Obama were out of office.
Anything could happen in that time to torpedo Tubman on the bill. The anything didn’t take long to surface.
In her tell-all book, “Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House,” former Trump administration White House insider Omarosa Manigault said that President Donald Trump openly stated that putting Tubman’s face on the bill would be an insult. Even though Jackson’s face wouldn’t exactly win any beauty contest.
Trump wasn’t just wisecracking. He read Brietbart News, legions of other rightwing blogs, websites, and of course Fox News. They went ballistic at the news that Jackson was out and Tubman in. In case anyone didn’t get Trump’s disgust at scrapping Jackson from the bill, he repeatedly praised Jackson as a great president.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin gave a huge signal that Tubman was in trouble. In a coy answer at the Economic Club of Washington in January 2018 to a question about his department delaying putting Tubman on the bill, Mnuchin tersely quipped that a final decision hadn’t been made yet. The final decision would be in his hands.
A handful of Democratic House and Senate members, frustrated at Trump’s stonewalling Tubman, tried to take matters into their hands and introduced bills to push the Treasury Department to move ahead with putting Tubman on the bill. The bills wouldn’t do anything to change things with Tubman. The decision on it was still in Mnuchin’s hands.
Trump turned Tubman into a political football for the same reason he has turned everything else that even remotely touches on race into a dog whistle to rev up his base. Take the comments on Breitbart, a huge Trump cheerleader, at the prospect of Tubman knocking Jackson off the $20.
There were thousands of them, and most are too sickening to read, with their vicious, salivating drip of crude racist epithets. I’d bet that few, if any of them, if asked who Jackson was could tell exactly what he did as president to merit staying on the $20 bill for nearly a century.
But the issue wasn’t Jackson. It was the thought of a black woman on a popular U.S. bill of currency that ignited their outrage.
The racial obscenities about Tubman fit neatly in with the hard-edged climate of racial polarization and racial violence that Trump calculatingly injects into the daily life of the nation. This is not merely one scheming, conniving, rotten president’s personal bigotry. It’s pure politics.
Trump shot out the term “political correctness” to denounce Tubman on the bill. This has long been the new code word for whipping up racist passions. Those passions have colossal political consequences in the run-up to the 2020 presidential elections.
Trump will be in a tough re-election battle. He’ll need the Tubman loathing crowd typified by their bile, racial comments firmly at his side. He will need them to march to the polls in big numbers in the five or six must win states that put him over the top in 2016. He banks on them to put him over the top again.
There is yet one more irony in the Trump-Tubman flap. It’s not the first time Tubman and the figure of $20 has been an issue of battle.
Tubman served in the employ of the Union Army as a spy and fighter during the Civil War. She was promised a pension for her efforts to the tune of $20 a year. She had to fight for that, a fight that took more than three decades for her to force the government to finally relent and cough up the money.
Now, more than a century later, Tubman and that $20 is the issue again. And like a recalcitrant government stiffed Tubman then, Trump is just as bound and determined not to recognize that face in any way again.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of the forthcoming “Why Black Lives Do Matter” (Middle Passage Press). He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.