The Trump administration couldn’t have sent a clearer message about its disregard for the race and gender issues dividing America than its decision to shelve next year’s planned redesign of the $20 bill — a change that was supposed to have replaced the image of President Andrew Jackson with slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
The Treasury claims it can’t start creating a new design until 2026 because it’s currently focused on anti-counterfeiting measures. That’s a transparent excuse that conveniently keeps the Tubman issue off President Donald Trump’s desk even if he gets a second term. This is, pure and simple, Trump’s latest dog-whistle to the worst elements of his base. But it’s also a perfect symbolic issue for his 2020 election opponents.
In April 2016, then-President Barack Obama’s Treasury secretary, Jack Lew, announced a remaking of the imagery on paper currency. Most significant was the plan to replace Jackson on the $20 bill with Tubman. She was to be the first African-American woman to be depicted on U.S. currency.
In addition to leading slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad, Tubman served as a Union spy in the Civil War; she is a historic inspiration to generations of African Americans and women. The Tubman redesign was to be unveiled in 2020, 100 years after women won the right to vote. Tuesday marked the centennial of Senate passage of the 19th Amendment.
Then-presidential candidate Trump derided the plan as “pure political correctness” and suggested that Tubman instead be downgraded to the $2 bill. Trump didn’t want to demote one of his favorite presidents, Jackson — a slaveholder and architect of the “Trail of Tears” Indian-removal policy that caused Native American suffering and death on an epic scale.
Since Tubman’s selection was the result, in part, of a national campaign by civil rights advocates, it perhaps would have been too outrageous for even Trump to simply announce he was canceling it. Instead, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin last month offered obfuscation and double-talk that said essentially that.
Pressed by Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., about redesigning the bill, Mnuchin repeatedly diverted to the separate issue of improving anti-counterfeit design elements. When Pressley finally asked him point-blank if the plan was still to put Tubman on the bill, he responded: “I’ve made no decision as it relates to that, and that decision won’t be made … until most likely 2026” — the year after the next presidential term ends.
In short, Mnuchin sounded exactly like a man who’d been been ordered by his boss to scuttle that business about putting that black woman on the $20 bill, but knew he couldn’t just say that into the cameras.
Democratic presidential candidates are missing a prime opportunity to challenge Trump by vowing to restore the Tubman plan upon taking office in January 2021. Are any Republicans bold enough to join the call?