Issac Bailey says honoring Tubman on the $20 bill means confronting America's ugly racial history, which many people want to forget
Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey has been a journalist in South Carolina for two decades and was most recently the primary columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The views expressed are his own.
In life, Harriet Tubman was so tough, so dynamic, she said she would be willing to shoot one of the slaves she was trying to free if that was the only way to get others to safety.
In life, she overcame bondage and scaled seemingly impossible racial and gender barriers to do God’s work in the face of people who would have loved nothing more than to string her up high on a tree and literally whip her to death.
In life, she was the embodiment of our Founding Father’s hypocrisy; the challenges she faced, the indignities she had to endure, are forever their shame, even as that collection of white men is celebrated for their accomplishments and bravery and intellect while their myriad sins have either been forgotten or glossed over in the minds of many, if not most, Americans.
No wonder that Donald Trump, the man who vaulted to the top of the Republican Party primary race in part by making appeals to open bigotry, would reduce Tubman’s elevation to the $20 bill – the first woman to be so honored – to little more than political correctness run amuck.
“I think it’s very rough when you take someone off the bill,” Trump said on the “Today” show. “I think Harriet Tubman is fantastic, I would love to leave Andrew Jackson.”
The question is why many others are joining him.
Greta Van Susteren of Fox News Channel – not known for hyperbolic comments – called the decision “awful” and “stupid” and divisive and suggested maybe a $25 bill would have been more appropriate for Tubman.
“It’s so easy to make everyone happy,” Susteren said, by leaving Jackson on the 20 and putting Tubman on a $25 bill.
Dr. Ben Carson, former presidential candidate and current Trump supporter, said it was wrong to remove President Andrew Jackson and put him on the back of the bill because he was “the last president who actually balanced the federal budget.” He suggested instead that Tubman should go on the rarely used $2 bill.
It’s not just high-profile conservatives or personalities. I got the same reaction from a variety of readers when I posted about the change on Facebook, with many believing that honoring Tubman in this form is just another way to shame white people, make them feel guilty or rewrite history.
Here’s a taste of that reaction, a sentiment I’ve been hearing for years and which has become particularly acute during the Obama era: “Our country was shaped by hardworking people and incredible leaders. It’s a shame that whites are being shamed for what our ancestors did. I know Harriet Tubman was a great woman but she does not deserve to be on the 20$ bill. The only reason that she’s getting put there is because the white race is bending over to the blacks for no reason. Our country has become much more divided over the last 8 years it’s ridiculous and it’s all about the blacks screaming and crying over the situation that their parents and ancestors put them in.”
Is all of this driven by racism? It’s likely more the result of tradition bias, a deep-seated belief that what has long been should always be, that to push for change – even if it is long overdue and to correct wrongs – is automatically divisive and politically correct.
Tradition bias blinds people in ways they don’t realize.
Because people a long time ago decided to honor a man like Jackson – who built wealth by owning black slaves and whose barbaric treatment of Native Americans stands out even among other racists in our history – we must uphold that decision or else be tarred as revisionists or anti-Americans who want only to tear down traditions.
It matters little that those traditions include hanging black people from trees, a genocide of Native Americans and the subjugation of women. In their minds, it only matters that they are traditions, and that alone makes them sacrosanct, principles to be deified, never examined.
For some, upholding tradition for tradition’s sake has become a kind of religion. For others, upending those traditions is a personal threat because they are invested in a particular view of America.
They forever want to believe that this country has only been a beacon for others – which it has been and remains – while ignoring that many of its citizens, with the backing of a large part of America’s power structure, burned men and women alive, cut off their genitals and stuffed them in their mouths as they suffered as hundreds, sometimes thousands, of white people cheered – perfecting ISIS-like tactics long before there was an ISIS.
Americans like Tubman are heroes in large part because they openly and actively opposed Americans like Jackson, men who did good but also participated in evil.
During the height of slavery, Tubman dragged this country, kicking and screaming, into examining its sins and living up to its stated ideals. In 2016, when the country is fast becoming a majority-minority nation, she’s doing it again. If for no other reason, that makes the Treasury’s decision profound – and correct.
Issac Bailey has been a journalist in South Carolina for two decades and was most recently the primary columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The views expressed are his own.