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Tribalism and the $20 Bill

New research finds debates over what historical figures should be on our currency break down along partisan and racial lines.
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A worker looks for defective bills in the sheets of newly printed $20 bills at the Department of the Treasury in Washington, D.C.

A worker looks for defective bills in the sheets of newly printed $20 bills at the Department of the Treasury in Washington, D.C.

National symbols often inspire passionate debates: the flag; Confederate monuments; kneeling during the national anthem.

And then there are those slips of green, government-issued paper we all carry around in our wallets.

The faces that festoon our currency are a reflection of who we revere, and who we are as a people. And during these tribalized times, there is no consensus on either of those questions.

Given that reality, the findings of a newly published study are dispiriting, but not particularly surprising. It reports reaction to the federal government's plans to switch out some of the faces on our bills breaks down along all-too-familiar lines.

"A bill of money is not just a piece of paper," write Ohio State University's Brad Bushman and Kevin Collier. "When it comes to preferences for U.S. currency, race, gender, political orientation, and the biases associated with them seem to be at the forefront of citizen's minds."

In 2015, the Department of the Treasury announced that a woman would replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill. Its timing was terrible—thanks to his eponymous musical, the first secretary of the treasury had become an unlikely rock start—and less than a year later, the plan was revised: It was then announced that abolitionist Harriet Tubman will replace slave owner Andrew Jackson on the $20.

The switchover isn't happening any time soon. The Trump administration's Department of the Treasury announced in April that the change has been delayed until at least 2026, and this week, it hedged on whether the makeover was still planned. The study suggests this hesitation makes perfect sense, given that likely Trump supporters were never in favor of the change.

The researchers conducted studies soon after both the 2015 and the 2016 announcements, surveying 209 and 208 American adults, respectively.

Participants in the first survey indicated whether they would rather stick with Hamilton on the $10 bill, and voted for the woman they would most like to see replace him (Eleanor Roosevelt came out on top). Those in the second survey reported whether they would prefer sticking with Andrew Jackson on the $20, or switching to Tubman (in which case the abolitionist's image would be on the little-used $2 bill).

They also provided information on their income, education, and political ideology, and responded to a series of statements designed to measure their degree of racism and sexism. These included: "If blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites," and "Many women are actually seeking special favors under the guise of equality."

The sample was split fairly even on changing the currency. A small majority (54.4 percent) opted to keep Hamilton on the $10, while 56.7 percent voted to keep Jackson on the $20. But support for the proposed changes varied greatly depending upon one's political orientation.

In both surveys, the more conservative participants were, the more resistant they were to changing the currency. Blacks were far more supportive of making the change than whites. Not surprisingly, support for keeping Hamilton and Jackson also increased with higher levels of racism and sexism.

"Participants from high-status groups sought to maintain the status quo, and the dominance of the groups they belong to," the researchers conclude in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

Of course, precisely who constitutes one's group is a key question facing a rapidly diversifying America. As Bushman and Collier note, a more inclusive definition of who is a "real" American could be cultivated by currency that isn't exclusively adorned with the images of white men.

You'll know we're making progress when someone asks if you have change for a Tubman.