Chin: Change You Can Spend

by Clara Chin | 4/27/16 6:13pm

Replacing Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, along with placing women and civil rights activists on other bills, is a subtle way of creating sociopolitical change. Seeing new faces on our money won’t solve any big policy problems. Nevertheless, it redefines the way we think of our nation’s founders and, perhaps more importantly, symbolizes that the politics of race and gender have a place in our society.

During a typical day as a college student, my interactions with money revolve around deciding whether to buy snacks from the vending machine. I don’t look at my money and think about how George Washington or Andrew Jackson formed this great nation. I have never thought about the fact that our money only features white men, many of whom owned slaves and, like Jackson, created roadblocks for Native American rights. I do, however, recall thinking that the dollar coin was cool because it featured a Native American woman; I did not consider the possibility of extending this “coolness” to our paper money, I also did not think that such a modification would be politically important. The men on our legal tender carry literal and figurative value, and because we see them on our paper money every day, we forget to think critically about them.

When Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew initiated this change, I started to imagine the historical significance of adding different faces to our paper money. Featuring civil rights activists like Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman would redefine what it means to be valuable to our nation. It demonstrates the importance of racial and gender equality to the progress of our country, while traditional notions of equality in the days of Washington and Jackson focused on economic differences between white men.

Many supporters of keeping Jackson on the $20 bill claim that he was “more important” than Harriet Tubman. For instance, David Greenberg wrote in Politico in 2015 that Jackson “made American democracy democratic.” In many ways, this is an argument that perpetuates itself. One of the reasons we deem Jackson so important is because he is on a bill. While Jackson was certainly an accomplished president, paying off the national debt and strengthening presidential power, it is difficult to dismiss his aggressive support for the Indian Removal Act and his condescending treatment towards Native Americans. So why is it that the accomplishments of Harriet Tubman, who worked towards universal equality, a pillar of democracy, are so easily minimized? One major difference is due to time. Clearly, modern-day political consensus is different from political consensus in 1928, when Jackson was added to the $20 bill. Jackson was not the first person on the $20 bill, nor should he be the last. The bill has changed before, and it can definitely change again. It is time to redefine what Greenberg calls a “key to birthing the expansive American democracy we know today.” It is time to revisit who we consider valuable in our current political world.

This change also demonstrates the importance of social activism. Many current faces on U.S. currency held high positions in the government, such as president. Many of the candidates for the new faces of currency are activists who worked separately from, and sometimes against, the government. Though ironic, this change is a reminder that there is value beyond formal, well-celebrated positions. Just as figures like Washington serve as old symbols of democracy, American activists like Anthony and King could serve as role-models for modern-day activists who want to expand the meaning of liberty and democracy. That is, after all, what our money stands for, even if we don’t actively think about it.

When the new $20 bill comes out in 2020, I won’t think about the accomplishments of each figure every single day, but hopefully, the importance of activists and activism in modern-day America will become accepted. This small gesture towards the efforts of activists will continue to shape democracy in our country.