Kick Andrew Jackson Off the $20 Bill!
Of course, contemporary Native American communities have much bigger problems than whose face is on a bill. The Pima Indians in Arizona have the highest rate of diabetes in the world. A Native American woman has a 1-in-3 chance of being raped during her lifetime—more than twice the national average. There’s an epidemic of suicide among Native American teenagers and youth. Rates of unemployment in Native American communities are disproportionately high—not surprising, since inferior reservation lands are often unsuitable for farming and a lack of infrastructure makes it difficult for other businesses to succeed. Dropout rates at reservation schools are among the highest in the country. There’s a housing shortage on tribal lands. Native American areas have been disproportionately used as radioactive waste dumps. Jackson’s visage on the $20 doesn’t compare.
But this issue isn’t merely cosmetic, or a nod to political correctness. Symbolic change and practical change have a symbiotic relationship. By confronting and correcting the symbols of our violent and racist histories, we prompt conversations about how that legacy continues to affect marginalized communities today.
This wouldn’t be the first campaign to change a face on our currency. In 2010, H.R. 4705 called for Ronald Reagan to replace Ulysses S. Grant on the $50 bill, and in 2003 the “Ronald Reagan Dime Act” tried to bump Franklin Delano Roosevelt off the dime. (Amazingly, those weren’t the only recent legislative attempts to put Reagan on money. There were at least two others.) If our government wants to spend time arguing about who should be represented on dollars and coins, it can start by booting off the man who championed a genocide.
No historical figure is perfect, but we don’t need perfection. In fact, it’s a low bar to clear: We just need someone better than Andrew Jackson.
Given that Jackson’s image has been on the $20 for nearly 90 years, it might be appropriate to celebrate his opposite. Frederick Douglass is a prime candidate, both for his work as an abolitionist and for his campaigns on behalf of Native Americans, women, and immigrants. Osceola, a Seminole Native American, led a war of resistance against his people’s forced removal from Florida. Davy Crockett risked his political career to fight against the Indian Removal Act. Ralph Waldo Emerson would also deserve the honor, both for his timeless writing and for his eloquent arguments against Jackson’s policies.
Personally, my vote goes to Harriet Tubman. If Jackson’s humble origins inspire people, you can’t start much lower than Tubman, who was born into slavery. Although Tubman escaped to Philadelphia, she bravely risked her life to return to the South and help more than 300 enslaved people escape to freedom through the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War, she served our country as a nurse, armed scout, and spy for the Union Army, and wrapped up her heroic life by campaigning with Susan B. Anthony for women’s right to vote. It doesn’t get more inspirational than that.
Andrew Jackson’s legacy opened the door for Americans from all economic backgrounds to participate in politics. For that, he deserves our thanks. But let’s not whitewash Jacksonian democracy. Let’s elevate a more honorable American instead.
This piece originally appeared at Slate.com on March 3.
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