Representative Steve King isn’t the first white man to try and fail to stop Harriet Tubman, and he probably won’t be the last.
The Iowa Republican this week attempted a maneuver to block the Treasury Department from adding the Underground Railroad conductor to the $20 bill. He filed an amendment to the annual appropriations bill, seeking to prevent the government from spending any money on redesigning cash—sort of like Ted Cruz’s attempt to defund Obamacare, except far less substantive. Like Cruz’s effort, however, King’s came to naught, with the House Rules Committee blocking the amendment.
But the way King argued his case is illuminating about this moment in the United States. On a superficial level, King appealed to the purest conservatism—not the conservatism of Burke, or of religion, or of economics, but simply the desire to keep things the same way. “It's not about Harriet Tubman, it's about keeping the picture on the $20,” he said, according to Politico. “Y’know? Why would you want to change that? I am a conservative, I like to keep what we have.”
It may not be about Harriet Tubman specifically, but as King made clear, it’s very much about her being a black woman. He called the attempt to put Tubman on the bill “sexist” and “racist.” The idea that somehow adding a single woman of color to a set of bills dominated by white men is sexist and racist is a classic, callow claim of “reverse racism,” deployed here to fight against slightly more proportional representation. It’s perhaps to be expected from King, a man with a history of outlandish, racially charged comments.