There has been debate for some time about who, if anyone, should replace President Andrew Jackson on the twenty dollar bill. For years people have floated the idea of having the late civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. replace the slave-owning despot responsible for the Trail of Tears. Recently, however, an organization called Women On 20s began a campaign to replace Jackson’s grim visage with the face of an accomplished, influential woman from America’s history. In that regard, there was no shortage of choices. The campaign’s website held an online contest in which readers could vote for such feminist luminaries as Susan B. Anthony, Patsy Mink, Margaret Sanger, Rosa Parks, Betty Friedan, and Eleanor Roosevelt. In the end it was escaped slave and Underground Railroad architect Harriet Tubman whom voters selected by some 7,000 votes.
There’s no doubt that representation matters, especially for folks who are politically powerless and underrepresented in contemporary culture — women, people of color, religious minorities, and LGBTQ people come to mind. It’s very easy to dismiss the racial and sexual homogeneity of the images on our currency, or the superheros in our comic books, or the characters in our television shows and movies when you’re a member of the majority or dominant political class.
That being said, this well-meaning effort to introduce some much-needed diversity to our currency, if carried out, may appear more disingenuous than anything, especially given our country’s historic and ongoing mistreatment of women and people of color — especially for women of color who faced barriers due to race and sex.
Women’s reproductive rights have been, and continue to be, under assault. Since the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) which enshrined the abortion as a constitutional right, religious zealots and far-right lawmakers have tried various strategies to chip away at a woman’s right to choose in the name of saving zygotes and fetuses. The state of Tennessee not only passed an amendment to its constitution declaring that nothing in it “secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion,” it also passed a law which allows for the arrest and prosecution of pregnant women suffering from drug addiction. In Indiana 33-year-old Purvi Patel was arrested and recently sentenced to 20 years in prison for having induced her own abortion. Arizona lawmakers passed a law which would allow doctors to lie to women, for instance by telling them that medically induced abortions are “reversible,” in order to dissuade them from undergoing the procedure. Not to be outdone by our various state legislatures, our Republican-dominated Congress is attempting to pass a draconian 20-week abortion ban inspired by faulty science on fetal pain.
Women also face discrimination in employment. The gender pay gap, despite what conservative blowhards and antifeminists say, is a very real and very serious problem for women nationwide. In 2014 the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that women, on average, earned 78 cents for every dollar a man earns. While critics point out that such a disparity could be explained by job choice or some other benign factor, according to the available data this is highly unlikely. A 2003 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office examined the gender pay gap and concluded that it cannot merely be explained away by factors such as “industry, occupation, race, marital status, and job tenure.” The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has also found that this pay gap exists regardless of what industry a woman works in or what job she takes. Contrary to popular belief, this includes jobs which have historically been dominated by women (e.g. nurse, secretary, social worker).
When race comes into the equation the gender pay gap becomes even more pronounced. While African American women earn 91 percent of what African American men earn, they earn just 64 percent of what similarly situated white men are paid. Even more disturbing is the gap for Hispanic and Latina women as well as American Indian and Alaska Native women, who make 54 percent and 59 percent of what white men make respectively.
Racial discrimination is similarly pervasive from the courtroom to the boardroom and beyond. A 2004 study examined racial bias in hiring by sending out applications in response to some 1,300 classified ads in the Chicago area. The resumes were divided by race, with half of the fictitious applicants being given “White-sounding names” (e.g. Emily Walsh or Greg Baker) and the other half being given “African-American-sounding names” (e.g. Lakisha Washington or Jamal Jones). Apart from their implied races, the study also examined the impact of prospective applicants’ credentials, with the examiners “experimentally vary[ing] the quality of the resumes in response to a given ad.” Typically they sent out four resumes in response to each ad, two “higher-quality” resumes and two “lower-quality” ones. They then randomly assigned an African-American-sounding name to one of the higher-quality resumes and one of the lower-quality resumes. The study’s results were striking:
We find large racial differences in callback rates. Applicants with White names need to send about 10 resumes to get one callback whereas applicants with African-American names need to send about 15 resumes. This 50-percent gap is statistically significant. A White name yields as many more callbacks as an additional eight years of experience on a resume. Since applicants’ names are randomly assigned, this gap can only be attributed to the name manipulation.
Moreover, the study found that applicants whose postal addresses were situated in wealthy neighborhoods tended to do better than applicants who lived in poorer neighborhoods. Specifically, they found that “living in a wealthier (or more educated or Whiter) neighborhood increases callback rates,” but that “African-Americans are not helped more than Whites by living in a ‘better’ neighborhood.”
As the New York Times reported in 2009, a similar study was conducted on New York City restaurants looking to hire waiters. According to the study’s results, nonwhite job applicants were “54.5 percent as likely as white applicants” to receive a job offer, nonwhite applicants were “less likely than white testers” to receive a job interview, and the work experience of white applicants was “less likely to be subject to scrutiny.” In addition, white applicants with “slight European accents” were “23.1 percent more likely to be hired than white testers with no accent,” although accents in nonwhite applicants “made no difference.”
A 2014 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) revealed that black job applicants, more than any other racial group, are routinely turned away by U.S. companies due to the assumption that they are using illicit drugs. This is, of course, in spite of the fact that white Americans are just as likely, or even more likely, to use drugs as black Americans. As Abigail Wozniak, the study’s author, told the Huffington Post, “The results [of the study] don’t look like what you would call typical old-school racism. The research in the paper suggest that the bias is coming in more subtle ways.”
These subtle biases and stereotypes about nonwhite criminality and drug use may be the root cause of the frequency at which police officers stop and search black and Hispanic drivers. According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in 2013 black and Latino motorists in Chicago were more than four times more likely to have their vehicles searched during a traffic stop than white motorists. Statewide, black and Latino motorists were nearly twice as likely as white motorists to be searched during a traffic stop, even though whites were 49 percent more likely to have contraband found during a search than blacks.
Illinois is far from alone in this regard. Researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill analyzed some 1.3 million stops and searches made by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department from 2002 to 2014. Chief among their findings was that black drivers account for 60 percent of “vehicle equipment” stops in Charlotte, and that young black men between the ages of 16 and 30 are three times more likely to be searched as the average driver. Researchers at the University of Kansas, meanwhile, found that while black drivers were no more likely than white drivers to be pulled over for a routine traffic safety stop, black drivers are three times more likely than white drivers to be pulled over for a so-called investigatory stop — where officers “drag the stop out as they try to look at the vehicle’s interior, ask probing questions, and ultimately seek consent for a search.”
And then there’s the recent spate of high-profile killings of unarmed black men and women, usually ending with their killers receiving no punishment at all: Sean Bell, Kathryn Johnston, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Tanisha Anderson, Michael Brown, Natasha McKenna, Tamir Rice, Tony Robinson, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott. The list drags on and on, and most of these victims were in fact murdered by law enforcement. Especially chilling is the fact that black men are roughly 21 times more likely to be on the receiving end of deadly force in a police encounter than white men. Throw in the fact that black criminal defendants — or even defendants with “black features” — are more likely to be given a death sentence than white defendants, and it’s no wonder why the United Nations raked the U.S. over the coals in a recent human rights assessment.
Bearing these kinds of injustices in mind, The Root‘s Kirsten West Savali was blunt in her assessment of the decision to place Harriet Tubman on the twenty: “That’s not progress. It’s hush money.” In fact, it is a slap in the face — an insult — to women of color, considering how much the deck is stacked against them:
When nearly half of all single African-American women have zero or negative wealth, and their median wealth is $100—compared with just over $41,000 for single white American women—it is an insult. When black women are the fuel for the prison-industrial complex, with incarceration rates increasing 800 percent since 1986 and black girls being the fastest-growing population of a corrupt juvenile-criminal system, it is an insult. When African-American women earn on average 64 cents (pdf) for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men, compared with the 78 cents that white women earn for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men, it is an insult.
Not only would the government be slapping a Band Aid on a bullet wound by putting a black woman on our currency, but Women On 20s’ timing — petitioning the White House to make the change by the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment — is rather tone deaf, considering that many women still could not vote after it was passed. “Let’s be clear,” Savali wrote, ” Not all women are white. Not only did African-American women face discrimination within the women’s suffrage movement, but we most certainly did not attain the right to vote 95 years ago. After decades of literacy tests and other disenfranchisement tactics, it was the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that finally allowed African-American women to vote somewhat freely—the same Voting Rights Act that in 2014 was gutted by the Supreme Court.”
So, at the end of the day, is it a step forward to honor Harriet Tubman or Rosa Parks by placing their faces on our money? Would it be an insult to their memory by linking their images with the physical representation of American capitalism — a system which owes much of its success to the blood, sweat and labor of black slaves? Is it an insult to women, black or otherwise, considering the discrimination they face on a daily basis? Is it a slap in the face to men and women of color? I readily admit that I do not have the answers to such questions, but at the very least it represents but one facet of a conversation on race, sex, and gender that women and the black community is having right now. White men should add to this dialogue, too, but more than anything we should learn to listen.