It won’t benefit from Biden’s plan to cancel up to $10,000 of student loan debt (or up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients) for individuals making less than $125,000 a year. And though I don’t find the reasoning behind the income cap dispositive, I get the basic idea: those with higher incomes, like myself, can generally handle their loans more easily than those with lower incomes. There’s some theoretical truth to this, but ultimately this “solution” is doubly disappointing: it’s not a big or bold enough reimagining of how we treat education in general, and it completely misses the mark for Black Americans in search of a country that wants racial justice.
I don’t begrudge anybody having their loans forgiven under this new policy even if I won’t get relief; I do, however, lament the administration’s failure to properly weigh the role that wealth plays, or should play, in student loan forgiveness. What I meant was Wealth as distinct from income–Wealthmeaning that assets can be passed down from generation to generation. Many people with whom I was in law school will reap the benefits of this loan cancellation AlsoThey come from families with homes, farms, vehicles, and stocks. This is because they borrowed money to attend graduate school. But also Live with the financial safety net of a future generation that is available to me and my family. I don’t come from a family with wealth. My (Black) father left nothing of financial worth. A small life insurance policy paid the cremation costs. I have previously written about the impact racism had on his life. When my mom dies, she’ll leave nothing behind of financial value, either; she is a social worker, and was a single parent. There are no wills, no estates, no trusts, no bequests, no capital, no nothing. In a way, I feel crass and uneasy considering “things of financial value” in the same sentence as death–but that is how wealth works. After the elder folks pass, one generation accumulates and the next inherits.
Here’s something else about how wealth works: it can’t accrue to people who are not permitted, whether by law, social norms, or economic realities, to accumulate it. As in my example, the Black family cannot build wealth if things such as redlining and the GI Bill and current home values reflect anti-Black racism. The elders will not reach the end of their lives with assets to pass down, and the children will get no nest egg or windfall—let alone silver spoon—on which to build. This reality is not an accident. The norms and policies that created it are deliberate and intentional. Federal, state, local and local government officials have been creating and maintaining powerful black wealth blocks for decades, while facilitating white wealth. Like nearly everything with roots in antebellum America, we’ve yet to fully tackle the problem. We are all paying for the consequences of those who have to borrow but not from our families.
Blacks are again being weighed down by a huge burden. Black Americans make a disproportionately lower income than white Americans and have one-sixth of the wealth per capita as White Americans. As a result, it’s not surprising that Black households borrow at higher interest rates than non-Black families and have higher owes. According to the Brookings Institute, “differences in interest accrual and graduate school borrowing lead to Black graduates holding nearly $53,000 in student loan debt four years after graduation—almost twice as much as their white counterparts.” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that ten-thousand dollars of relief will benefit white people more than Black people. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to grasp how wealth affects student loan debt. People who have more money tend to borrow less. If they borrow they borrow with security. They won’t fall through the cracks and will be less affected by economic fluctuations and other factors.
Did the Biden administration really consider any of these issues as it considered its options? It was perhaps aware that, from the beginning, the federal student loan program discriminated against Blacks. In 1958, when the first federal student loans were offered, they went to promising high school students at the discretion of colleges; this was a time when high schools and colleges were bitterly segregated, Black schools were brutally and intentionally under-resourced, racism was worn to like a badge of honor, and there wasn’t even language for the concept of unconscious bias in college admissions.
Was the administration able to see this as an opportunity to find a better North Star that would respond to our need to achieve racial equality despite and because of our race? The answer would be no. My dismay is unfortunately not unusual.
I will be very clear. I’m not suggesting that only Black people deserve loan forgiveness. The contrary is true: Student loans need to be terminated immediately. I also believe that policy change should recognize that students loan companies have swindled middle- and poor people from all backgrounds. Wall Street Journal reporter Josh Mitchel puts it, “privatize[s]Increase profits while you socialize[s] losses.” We should acknowledge that education, whether viewed as betterment of the mind for its own sake or as an economic imperative, is a human right. But it is undeniable that Black Americans will suffer disproportionately from Biden’s half-hearted, tepid response to what must be understood as not just a financial crisis, but a racial one, too.
In fact, this administration is letting a chance for broad-impact and racial injustice slip by its fingers. Even a small amount of racial justice should be eliminated More student loan debt—not even all of it!—would have profound racial justice impacts. Public Citizen, a consumer rights advocacy organization, estimates that removing $50,000 worth of student loan debt will immediately boost the wealth of Blacks by 40%. This is important. This is important.
Today’s policy is just too small. Too little imagination, not enough gumption or understanding of larger context. Too little for all of us, but especially those of us with no generational wealth—even modest wealth—on which to rely.
While it may seem too small, it’s still a good start. Biden should not consider this his first draft of a new policy. His administration must take the lessons of historians, activists and progressive scholars to heart and make a second draft. You might even say, “Build back better.” All Borrowers would be better served if there was a greater sense of fairness. Perhaps most important, given American history, Black borrowers might have to accept some of the deeply unfair burdens of American racism. Biden must acknowledge that his decision to not cancel student loans completely is racist. If he doesn’t like that impact, then he should change the policy. That’s what the American dream is all about, isn’t it? We aim high, we don’t give up, and we all cross the finish line better than we started.
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