The ‘Identity Politics’ Behind the Faces on US Bills

A debate surrounding plans for a newly-designed set of U.S. paper currency has set the whole of the United States abuzz. The year 2020 will mark the centennial of women’s suffrage in that country. Several days ago, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew announced that 2020 would also see a new set of banknotes issued, including a new $20 bill featuring famed American abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s portrait on the front side, with former President Andrew Jackson’s image being shuffled to the rear. The statement stirred the metaphorical hornet’s nest of “identity politics” within American society and prompted various presidential candidates to speak out on the issue. Hillary Clinton expressed her support, while Donald Trump claimed that the change was born of “pure political correctness,” going further to suggest that President Jackson’s likeness remain untouched.

The fact is, however, that the Obama administration has its own reasons for seeking a change of pecuniary pace. First, it would symbolize how American societal values have been fundamentally transformed by a century of unflagging efforts on the part of the identity politics movement. At the onset of the 20th century, marginalized groups such as women, African- Americans, and lower-class citizens began to frame their position from a perspective of gaining “recognition,” and strove to rectify the societal injustices suffered as a consequence of their “vulnerable” status. By the 1960s, identity politics had swelled into the women’s rights, civil rights and workers’ rights movements, and had profound effects across the whole of the nation. Now, American society, as it exists in this post-civil rights and post-women’s rights era, has seen many become increasingly sensitive toward discrimination based on gender, class, age or sexual orientation. Their focus on the affairs of the marginalized and their questioning of mainstream values has been a spark that has ignited the nation. It is reported that in 2014, one girl still in elementary school wrote to President Obama from Massachusetts, noting that all of the figures featured on U.S. bills were male. This stands as evidence of the impact that identity politics has had upon subsequent generations.

Next, Obama himself is a beneficiary and supporter of the identity politics movement. The redesigned U.S. currency is both a reflection of the current administration’s social values and a display of its determination in facilitating and propagating the movement’s development. In terms of its domestic social agenda, the Obama administration has consistently worked toward elevating the social standing of marginalized groups, including women, the LGBT community, African-Americans and Latinos, as well as encouraging more diversified societal recognition free from ties to gender, race or sexual orientation. During his time in office, Obama has appointed the first Latina Supreme Court justice, first black attorney general, and the first openly transgender White House staff member.

Despite the intractable nature of many problems within American society, Obama has remained a president of some conviction, and rethinking the portraits that appear on U.S. bills is a demonstration of that drive. The contrasts between Jackson and Tubman could not be clearer; the former was a white male slaveowner, called an “Indian killer,” and a former president, while the latter was black, female and a slave for many years before later devoting her life to the abolitionist and women’s rights movements, aiding the poor and downtrodden. At present, the various denominations of banknotes all feature white male politicians on their faces. Replacing the current figure on any one of the bills with the image of a black female former slave and champion of minority rights could easily be called an ambitious reboot of American values and views toward its history. Of course, apart from the $20 bill, the new $10 and $5 notes will also commemorate the women’s rights movement via various details. The new series of bills reflects the progress that has been made through the sacrifices of every ethnicity and group within the identity politics movement, and is a clear indication of the great strides forward being taken in U.S. cultural and political diversity. And yet, as with Trump’s admonishments regarding “political correctness,” there are also a significant number of Americans who worry that things have advanced too far.

At the end of the day, the significance of the symbolism within the change to U.S. currency is clear, but the realities facing the country are not so easily reversed. Women still earn lower pay, with black and other minority females earning particularly low incomes, and minority groups as a whole still fight against social injustice, at times quite vehemently. But the coming monetary makeover has galvanized the public, reminding them that conflicting views and ethnic strife still persist within American society, and that a plethora of issues within the identity politics movement have yet to be resolved at a structural level.

The author is a professor at China Foreign Affairs University’s Institute of International Relations.

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