What Steve King Doesn't Understand About Harriet Tubman

Despite the Iowa Republican’s effort to block her, putting Tubman on the $20 bill isn’t about political correctness—it’s about historical correctness.

Library of Congress

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.

But there’s something more in King’s remarks:

Here's what's really happening: This is liberal activism on the part of the president that's trying to identify people by categories, and he's divided us on the lines of groups .... This is a divisive proposal on the part of the president, and mine's unifying. It says just don't change anything….

President Obama's on his way out the door. He's going to do everything he can think of to upset this society and this civilization.

King gets it one-third right. The project to put a woman on U.S. money is clearly a piece of liberal activism. To paraphrase Obama in a different context, “That was the point.”

But King is wrong that the Tubman proposal is divisive and his is unifying. The liberal activists have won. In a poll in April, right after the decision, SurveyMonkey found a comfortable majority of Americans backed the proposal. Some Republicans disagreed, as well as seven in 10 Donald Trump supporters, but for the most part it wasn’t a big deal. If anything, it’s less of a big deal now. The whole thing has mostly slipped under the radar, mostly recurring in jokes ( “If this material works well, I'm going to use it at Goldman Sachs next year. Earn me some serious Tubmans,” Obama joked at the White House Corespondents Dinner) until King’s outburst.

Moreover, King’s notion that putting Tubman on the $20 is an example of Obama “do[ing] everything he can think of to upset this society and this civilization” rings false. It’s predicated on a notion of America built entirely by white men like, well, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Andrew Jackson. Perhaps King doesn’t know better; he’s of an age where outdated, inaccurate history might have been all he was taught.

Nonetheless, it is not, as Donald Trump had it in April, “pure political correctness” to suggest otherwise. It is simply historically correct. People of African descent have been part of the United States for as long as it has existed, and in fact back to the beginnings of colonization. The modern United States would not exist without the contributions of people of color—most crucially, the prosperous economy built on the backs of slave labor, including some of the slaves Tubman worked to free. Insisting that cash can’t be changed to reflect that mixed heritage amounts to defending white male supremacy as the fictitious narrative of the nation.

The Department of the Treasury isn’t making Harriet Tubman an important American historical figure by putting her on the $20, any more than it erased Thomas Jefferson by largely killing off the $2 bill. She’s always been a part of this society and this civilization—even if that upsets Steve King.