Ideas
August 25, 2022 10:57 AM EDT
Nolan is Executive Director of the Center for Social Justice at UC Berkeley School of Law. Her new book is Don't Let It Get You Down: Essays on Race, Gender and the Body. You can follow her on Instagram and on her blog.

I 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. I mean wealth as distinct from income–wealth meaning assets that can be passed from generation to generation. Many of the people I went to law school with will benefit from this loan cancellation and also come from families that own homes, land, boats, cars, stocks, etc. Which is to say, they took out loans for graduate school but also live with a buffer of generational financial security that eludes me and my family members. I don’t come from a family with wealth. When my (Black) dad died, he left quite literally nothing behind of financial value; a tiny life insurance policy covered the cost of his cremation. (I have written before about how racism impacted 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. One generation accrues, and the next generation inherits after the older folks die.

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. If, as in the example of the Black half of my family, things like redlining, and the GI Bill, and even current home valuations reflect anti-Black racism, then, in all but the rarest of circumstances, Black individuals and families literally cannot create wealth. 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. The policies and norms that create this reality are purposeful, not accidental, and they date, at least philosophically, to chattel slavery. For centuries, and driven by a false ideology of white supremacy, the people who comprise federal, state and local governments have created and maintained powerful blocks to Black wealth, even while facilitating white wealth (see, e.g., the GI Bill.). Like nearly everything with roots in antebellum America, we’ve yet to fully tackle the problem. Those of us who pay for education with loans but have no family wealth are paying the price.

And Black people, once again, are shouldering an outsized burden. In addition to making disproportionately less money than their fellow white Americans, Black Americans have one-sixth the wealth of White Americans on an average, per capita basis. It is no surprise, then, that Black families borrow at higher rates than their non-Black counterparts, and that they owe more. 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. Nor does it take a rocket scientist to understand how wealth impacts student loan debt: people with more wealth need to borrow less, and if they do borrow, they do it with a cushion of security. They will not fall through the cracks, and are far less likely to be ravaged by the vagaries of the job market and economy more broadly.

Was the Biden administration seriously reckoning with any of this as it mapped its options? Did it consider, for instance, that from square one the federal student loan program has disfavored Black people? 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 like a badge of honor, and there wasn’t even language for the concept of unconscious bias in college admissions.

Did the administration grasp this moment as a chance to finally locate a new and better North Star, one that responds to the imperative to create racial equity despite, and because of, our racialized origins? It would seem the answer to these questions is no. My disappointment, unfortunately, is familiar.

Let me be clear. I’m not suggesting that only Black people deserve loan forgiveness. To the contrary: I think student loans should be canceled, period, and that we should acknowledge, through policy changes, that poor and middle-class people of all races have been swindled by the student loan industry, which, as Wall Street Journal reporter Josh Mitchel puts it, “privatize[s] profits and 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.

Indeed, the administration has let a moment for broad-impact racial justice slip through its fingers. Eliminating even just a little more student loan debt—not even all of it!—would have profound racial justice impacts. According to consumer right advocacy group Public Citizen, canceling $50,000 of debt would immediately increase the wealth of Black people by forty percent. This matters. The wealth gap has long and varied tentacles: in addition to making education more attainable and educational debt more manageable, wealth allows families to weather financial emergencies, to start businesses, to buy homes, to marry when they wish, to have children if and when they wish, to give philanthropically, to access legal justice, to yield political influence, and to dream about the future instead of worrying about it.

The policy unveiled today is simply too little. Too little imagination, too little gumption, too little understanding of the larger context. Too little for all of us, but especially those of us with no generational wealth—even modest wealth—on which to rely.

It is too little, but thankfully not too late. Biden should consider his new policy a first draft. His administration should take the notes of progressive and race-conscious scholars, historians, and activists to heart, and try again. Build back better, you might say. All borrowers would benefit from a more capacious sense of fairness here; and maybe most importantly given our history, Black borrowers could put down some of the profoundly unfair burdens of American racism. If Biden refuses to cancel student debt entirely, then he has a moral duty to acknowledge the racial impact of his policy choice. 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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