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House blocks amendment by Republican who said the Tubman $20 is “racist” and “sexist"

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) said the $20 Tubman is "racist" and "sexist."
Rep. Steve King (R-IA) said the $20 Tubman is "racist" and "sexist."
Women on 20s

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) played the race and gender cards Tuesday in an effort to block a vote on featuring the face of abolitionist and Union Army spy Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill.

King said changing the bill was both "racist" and "sexist" and filed an amendment to the annual Treasury Department spending bill to block redesigning American currency. The Rules Committee obstructed the amendment, but King’s convictions are clear: Change is divisive, especially the kind that fits into American wallets.

"Here’s what’s really happening: This is liberal activism on the part of the president that’s trying to identify people by categories, and he’s divided us on the lines of groups," King said. "This is a divisive proposal on the part of the president, and mine’s unifying. It says just don’t change anything."

In 2014, a Massachusetts third-grader made headlines after writing a letter to President Obama about putting a woman on US currency. The president responded with a letter saying that was "a pretty good idea." The nonprofit organization Women on $20s started campaigning in March 2015 to overhaul America’s very male money problem, and a poll of campaign supporters the following May found Tubman was the favored figure.

Earlier this year, the Treasury Department announced that Tubman would become the new face of the $20 bill, replacing former President Andrew Jackson, whose face will appear on the back. But the proposed modification received mixed reviews from various points on the ideological spectrum.

For some, the $20 Tubman symbolized poetic justice. Tubman used her $20 pension for serving in the Union Army to buy her father’s freedom from slavery. And what better way to rewrite the wrongs of a former president who opposed paper money, backed slavery, and was responsible for the Trail of Tears than by replacing his face with that of a formerly enslaved black woman?

Others reckoned with potential historical hypocrisy. "What we’re basically talking about right now is honoring the work Harriet Tubman did to free us from slavery by putting her face on the reason we were in slavery," Fusion contributor Jay Smooth noted in a 2015 video.

The divide rested largely on how people were trying to define justice. Tubman stands out as a formidable woman in American history, but her experience as a former slave demands a more nuanced evaluation of what it takes to fight institutionalized sexism, especially as a black woman. King, on the other hand, expresses no concern other than to maintain the status quo.

"It’s not about Harriet Tubman, it’s about keeping the picture on the $20," King said. "Y’know? Why would you want to change that?"

There’s one good reason: White men (like Jackson and King) comprise only 30.6 percent of the US population and in 2012 were only 35 percent of electorate. Yet white men make up a majority of our elected officials. After the 2014 midterm elections, the House of Representatives was 80.6 percent male and 79.8 percent white. Eighty percent of senators were men, and 94 percent were white.

Racism and sexism in America derive from inequalities that disproportionately favor white people and men, respectively. Contrary to King's proposal, the absence of change helps maintain those inequalities instead of creating space to redress them.

The $20 Tubman will not be available for public display until 2020. Though King has attached the bill change to Obama, the new currency is unlikely to be in circulation until 2030, long after Obama leaves the White House. In the interim, it is likely that racism and sexism will linger. But at least the $20 Tubman represents a form of change that forces America to face these issues.

Watch: Women on banknotes around the world