More Window Dressing

When I was nine years old and in the third grade, I ran for student body treasurer (a symbolic office if there ever was one). I did manage to win, owing to an inane campaign speech that must have stuck in the minds of my schoolmates. What the administration had not told me when I placed my name on the ballot, however, was that they were about to implement a major redistricting plan in the fall, which would mean my having to attend a different school and not being able to serve my term. The day following the election, in the usual cowardly and patronizing manner of most power structures, they did not bother to contact my parents but broke the news to me directly, offering me instead a 15-cent ice cream cone.

When I arrived home with the news, my mother hit the ceiling and got on the phone. Ice cream or no ice cream, she wasn’t going to stand for it. My mom was normally a gentle person, except when it came to her kids. Then she could exhibit the strength of a she-bear. She got on the phone and would not let go of the bone until I was promised a special dispensation. Needless to say, I served as treasurer. I relate this incident, not because of its overwhelming significance on the scale of injustice, but because it conveniently and ridiculously illustrates how power structures operate.

It seems to be a favorite pastime of governments to try to address deeply entrenched injustices in the most cheap and superficial ways possible (or in other words, not to address them at all). On the heels of race rioting here in the 1960s, for example, many municipalities offered (grudgingly) to change the names on street signs. So across America, at least in the cities with large black populations, Main Street became MLK Boulevard and Washington Avenue was renamed Malcom X Drive. Much cheaper to spend several thousands on new metal signs than to address the real and cruel economic inequalities stemming from racism.

Now, the U.S. Treasury is proposing putting a woman’s face on the $10 bill, a move that, ironically, would depose Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury and father of modern banking. Some have balked that the $20 bill would be a more appropriate target, since it has long sported the portrait of perhaps our most racist President, responsible for the genocide of tens of thousands of Native Americans. Replacing Jackson’s portrait with that of Shoshone heroine Sacajawea, who guided Lewis and Clark, would certainly be a mild form of poetic justice, but hardly addresses centuries of systemic injustice. More like too little too late.

The problem is that the $20 bill is widely used in stores and ATMs, and so makes up about 22% of bills in daily circulation (compared to about 11% for the $10). That’s probably why a patronizing Treasury is willing to throw Hamilton, its founder, under the bus (he’s already dead. after all), rather than risk having a woman’s face flying out of cash machines. Still, the latter alternative would be vastly cheaper than seriously addressing, say, issues of economic inequality between the sexes.

Since last week’s horrible massacre at a Charleston church, we have seen the Confederate flag lowered for the last time at the South Carolina state capitol and thrown off Walmart store shelves. I realize the gesture is a good idea (about 150 years over due, but still a good idea), since the flag (like the swastika) has long been a rallying symbol for racism. It is a small but necessary start. But like the other cases, such appeasement alone is a largely symbolic and inexpensive attempt at addressing deep-seated inequality in this country. Certainly, a far cry and billions cheaper than making reparations to African-American families harmed by slavery and Jim Crow.

In Luke 11 Jesus gives a blistering attack on the hypocrisy of the Pharisees : “Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs!” He was right, of course. Laying an annual wreath on MLK’s tomb is always much cheaper and more convenient than searching our hearts, helping to empower the powerless or sharing the wealth, which is what King stood for to begin with.

God grant us the strength and true repentance to see justice through to the end and not to accept mere window dressing.

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