Student loan forgiveness is a step towards racial justice

OPINION: As far as Black people are concerned, student loan forgiveness should be a down payment on reparations.

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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

President Joe Biden must cancel the student loans now. Black people need it and deserve it, and this is a racial justice issue.

After pressure from activists and a prolonged two-year pause on federal student loan payments brought about by the COVID pandemic, the Biden administration is considering a plan for student loan forgiveness. The White House has floated ideas such as providing relief to individuals earning $125,000 or less and couples making up to $250,000 and canceling at least $10,000 in debt per borrower—which is nowhere near enough—but not $50,000 or more, as Senate Democrats have suggested.    

Americans owe a staggering $1.7 trillion in college debt, mostly federal loans. That’s nearly half a trillion more than auto loans and double the amount of outstanding credit card debt in the U.S.

The student loan payments are too damn high. We know this, and Black people know this more than most. While the need for relief from this staggering amount of debt is nationwide and runs across the entire population—including the 43.4 million people who owe federal student loans—the impact lands a particular way for Black borrowers.

Black college graduates have an average of $52,000 in student debt, which is $25,000 more than their white counterparts, according to the Education Data Initiative. Over half of Black borrowers owe more than their net worth, and monthly payments are a struggle, as they are more likely to miss payments and default on their loans. And four years after graduation, 48 percent of Black students owe an average of 12.5 percent more than the amount of the original loan!

And it is no surprise that as members of two marginalized groups and the victims of racism and sexism, Black women have more student debt than any other demographic in America. Yet, they often are students and parents at the same time, have few resources to repay the debt. And their salaries are lower than their male and White counterparts, notes The Education Trust’s National Black Student Debt Study

Even with income-driven repayment (IDR) plans that cap monthly payments based on one’s income, these plans do not reduce the loan principal. Defaults persisted for Black borrowers before the pandemic pause on loan repayments, and student loans emerged as a lifelong debt you can’t get out of, can’t get over, and can’t get from under. 

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Everyone wants to get an education to move up the ladder, get ahead and make a better life for themselves and their family. But how do you do that when you are crippled with all that debt?

Then there’s the racial wealth gap. Due to institutional racism, systemic discriminatory practices and all those years of stolen and unpaid labor and an inability to build intergenerational wealth, Black people cannot catch a break. Degree or not—and many borrowers never earned their degree—Black people make less than white people due to racism, yet they must take out more student loans while supporting their children and their parents. No intergenerational wealth.  

The pursuit of education through student loans increases the racial wealth gap and fosters the fragility of the Black middle class, according to Brookings. The average white family has 10 times the wealth of an average Black family, and white college graduates have seven times the wealth of Black college grads. More debt means a lower credit score, and with no assistance from their family for things such as buying a home, Black college degree holders have lower rates of homeownership than white college dropouts.

Some people would tell you that Black people are simply making bad decisions about their education and piling up all this debt they can’t handle. But the debt itself is the bad idea, a uniquely American system of economic exploitation where college costs are exorbitant compared to the rest of the world, and public underinvestment in education means students pay more for their education, and the most marginalized in society pay a whole lot more.

Contrary to public opinion, educational debt is not good debt, and as the Education Trust learned in its report “Jim Crow Debt: How Black Borrowers Experience Student Loans,” Black borrowers compare their student loans to a form of racial oppression. Describing the debt as “shackles on their ankle” or “like Jim Crow,” Black borrowers say they “do their time” when they re-enroll in IDR every year, with no hope of paying off their loan balance.  

President Biden and the Dems need to forgive all student debt now. The need is especially urgent for Black borrowers. As far as Black people are concerned, student loan forgiveness should be a down payment on reparations. While a student debt jubilee would ease the pain and stress and allow Black folks to breathe and live their lives with more comfort, it would not erase the rest of the institutional racism Black America faces. But it would be a good start.


David A. Love, theGrio.com

David A. Love is a journalist and commentator who writes investigative stories and op-eds on a variety of issues, including politics, social justice, human rights, race, criminal justice and inequality. Love is also an instructor at the Rutgers School of Communication and Information, where he trains students in a social justice journalism lab. In addition to his journalism career, Love has worked as an advocate and leader in the nonprofit sector, served as a legislative aide, and as a law clerk to two federal judges. He holds a B.A. in East Asian Studies from Harvard University and a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He also completed the Joint Programme in International Human Rights Law at the University of Oxford. His portfolio website is davidalove.com.

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