I will not benefit from Biden’s plan for up to $10,000 in student loan debt cancellation (or up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients) for individuals making less than $125,000 a year. And while I don’t find the reasoning behind the income cap to be dispositive, I do get the point: higher income people, like me, can generally manage their loans more easily than lower income people. There is some theoretical truth to this, but ultimately this “solution” is doubly disappointing: it’s not a big or bold enough rethink of how we approach education in general, and it completely misses the mark for black Americans in search of a country, that wants racial justice.
I don’t regret forgiving anyone’s loans under this new policy, even if I don’t get relief; However, I lament the administration’s failure to properly assess the role that wealth plays or should play in student loan forgiveness. I mean wealth unlike income –wealth meaning assets that can be passed down from generation to generation. Many of the people I studied with in law school 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 higher education but also I live with a generational buffer of financial security that eludes me and my family members. I don’t come from a family of wealth. When my (black) father died, he left literally nothing financially; a small life insurance policy covered the cost of his cremation. (I’ve written before about how racism has affected his life.) When my mother dies, she won’t leave behind anything financially either; she is a social worker and was a single parent. No wills, estates, trusts, bequests, equity, nothing. In a way, I feel rude and uneasy putting “things of financial value” in the same sentence as death – but that’s how wealth works. One generation accumulates and the next generation inherits after the older people die.
Here’s another thing about how wealth works: it cannot accumulate among people who are not allowed, whether by law, social norms, or economic reality, to accumulate it. If, as in the example of the black half of my family, things like the red line, and the GI bill, and even current home assessments reflect anti-black racism, then in all but the rarest of circumstances, black individuals and families literally cannot create wealth. The elders won’t reach the end of their lives with assets to pass on, and the kids won’t have a nest egg or windfall—let alone a silver spoon—to build on. The policies and norms that create this reality are purposeful, not accidental, and date back, at least philosophically, to chattel slavery. For centuries, and driven by a false ideology of white supremacy, the people who make up federal, state, and local governments have created and maintained powerful barriers to black wealth even as they facilitated white wealth (see eg the GI Bill) . Like almost anything with roots in antebellum America, we still haven’t fully come to grips with the problem. Those of us who pay for education with loans but don’t have family wealth pay the price.
And blacks once again shoulder a huge burden. In addition to earning disproportionately less money than their white American counterparts, black Americans have one-sixth the wealth of white Americans on average per capita. It’s no surprise then that Black families borrow at higher interest rates than their non-black counterparts and that they owe more. According to the brookings institute, “interest rate and college loan disparities result in black graduates holding nearly $53,000 in student loan debt four years after graduation—almost twice as much as their white counterparts.” You don’t have to be a rocket scientist, to understand that ten thousand dollars in aid will benefit whites more than blacks. Nor does it take a scientist to figure out how wealth affects student loan debt: People with more wealth should borrow less, and if they do borrow, they do so with some certainty. They won’t fall through the cracks and are much less likely to be ravaged by the vagaries of the job market and the economy as a whole.
Was the Biden administration seriously considering any of this as it mapped out its options? Did it think, for example, that from the beginning the federal student loan program disadvantaged blacks? In 1958, when the first federal student loans were offered, they went to promising high school students at the discretion of colleges; it was a time when high schools and colleges were brutally segregated, black schools were brutally and deliberately under-resourced, racism was worn as a badge of honor, and there wasn’t even a language for the concept of unconscious bias in college admissions.
Did the administration see this moment as a chance to finally find a new and better North Star that meets the imperative to create racial equality despite and because of our racial origins? It seems the answer to these questions is no. My frustration is, unfortunately, familiar.
Let me be clear. I’m not saying that only black people deserve loan forgiveness. Quite the opposite: I think student loans should be repealed, period, and that we should recognize, through policy changes, that poor and middle-class people of all races have been defrauded by the student loan industry, which, as Wall Street Journal reporter Josh Mitchell puts it, “privatize[s] earnings and socialization[s] lose.” We must recognize that education, whether viewed as improving the mind in itself or as an economic imperative, is a human right. But there’s no denying that black Americans will suffer disproportionately from Biden’s half-hearted, tepid response to what should be understood not only as a financial crisis but also as a racial crisis.
Indeed, the administration has let a moment for broad racial justice slip through its fingers. Eliminate even just a little More ▼ student loan debt—not even all of it! — would have a profound impact on racial justice. According to the consumer rights group A public citizen, canceling a $50,000 debt would instantly increase black wealth by forty percent. That 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, start businesses, buy homes, marry when wish, to have children if and when they wish to give philanthropically, gain access to legal justice, give political influence, and dream about the future instead of worrying about it.
The policy revealed today is simply too small. Too little imagination, too little intelligence, too little understanding of the wider context. Too little for all of us, but especially for those of us who don’t have generational wealth—even modest wealth—to rely on.
It’s too little, but thankfully it’s not too late. Biden should consider his new policy as a first draft. His administration should take the notes of progressive and race-conscious scholars, historians, and activists to heart and try again. Build better, you might say. everything borrowers would benefit from a broader sense of fairness here; and perhaps most importantly, given our history, black borrowers could remove some of the deeply unjust 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 choices. If he doesn’t like that impact, then he needs to change the policy. That’s what the American dream is all about, right? We aim high, we don’t give up, and we all cross the finish line better than we started.
More must-see stories from TIME