It is Important to Have Black Faces on Dollars, but More Important to Get Dollars in Black Hands

This article was co-written with Kylie Patterson, Senior Manager at the Racial Wealth Divide Initiative

On April 20, 2016 Treasury Secretary Lew announced design plans for the new $20, $10 and $5 bills. The fanfare, mostly positive, focused on the proposed new face of the $20: abolitionist, Civil War veteran, suffragist, former slave and conductor of the Underground Railroad Harriet Tubman.

Harriet Tubman, who led a multitude to freedom, fought against women's disenfranchisement and acted as scout during the Civil War, constantly fought and worked for civil rights. Placing Harriet Tubman on the face of the $20 bill is an important step in recognizing the contributions of all of those who fought for freedom in this county, which for so long denied (and continues to deny) freedom to too many of its inhabitants. Placing black faces and the faces of others who have been disenfranchised on our legal currency is a positive, albeit symbolic, step in the acknowledgement of past wrongs. But it must be accompanied by practical steps forward in addressing today's injustices.

White supremacy, the original sin of this nation, is guided by the desire for economic gain at the expense of others. Today in the United States, racial economic inequality persists because of the failure of will to invest in people of color, who continue to pay the price for a 21st century economy built off of the white supremacy of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is not a coincidence that two of the most economically disenfranchised groups in the United States -- Native Americans and African Americans -- have the longest history of being exploited for economic gain.

The story of these disenfranchised groups, unlike the one often told about Harriet Tubman, has yet to have its happy ending. Indeed, even Harriet Tubman had to launch an advocacy campaign to petition for her veteran's benefits, which in 1899 were set at $20 a month.
This same type of advocacy is still needed today. Just as Tubman called on her congressman to do what was right with regard to her veteran's benefits, we must now call on our leaders in Congress and the Administration to reform the policies that continue to perpetuate racial wealth inequality.

Tubman is frequently quoted as saying, "If you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there's shouting after you, keep going. Don't ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going." This is the call for all people committed to ending racial inequality and advancing racial economic equality in the United States. Keep going; the line has yet to be crossed, erasing the deep scars of racial injustice is still distant on the horizon. It will require substance and not just symbolism. It will require the billions of dollars of investment called for in the Freedom Budget of 1967, which is still needed to truly honor the legacy of Harriet Tubman and all those who fought to make white supremacy a part of this nation's past.