“You want to thank Black women? Cancel student debt—all of it. Black women carry more student debt than any other group in America. Save your words of appreciation. Policy is our love language,” Representative Ayanna Pressley tweeted on January 19. As a Black woman carrying student debt, I couldn’t agree more. That’s why I’ve joined the Biden Jubilee 100 debt strike demanding that President Biden cancel all student debt during his first 100 days.
Black women in the United States have been publicly recognized and acknowledged for playing a monumental role in the 2020 presidential, state, and local elections. Most notably, Georgia’s “blue wave” made history, as Stacey Abrams and other Black women led the charge in organizing and mobilizing voters across the state. Time and again, we’ve witnessed Black women stand up, fight, and mobilize against systemic structures and policies that alienate and marginalize the most disenfranchised communities, including our own.
As Representative Pressley’s tweet points out, Black women selflessly invest the labor that has allowed this country to progress toward more equitable practices, legislation, and policies, and in return we are taken for granted or given empty praise. Black women must be thanked in tangible practices that address the ways in which oppressive, racist, and sexist policies further marginalize us. Policies must be changed.
Heavily subjected both to racism and sexism, Black women are especially susceptible to violence (ranging from micro-aggressions to being murdered by police), illness, abuse, and poverty. Data proves what Black women have been courageously naming and calling out for decades: According to a 2015 study by the Violence Policy Center, Black women are 20 percent more likely to be raped in their lifetime and more than two and a half times more likely to be murdered by men than their white counterparts are. Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women, and 22.5 percent of Black women are living in poverty, compared to 19.4 percent of Black men and 9 percent of white women. These racial and gender disparities are a result of a system built upon the traditions of anti-blackness and sexism inherent in this country, traceable back to founding principles that denied the full equality of Black people and women, or even our humanity.
Racial and gender discrimination pervade all systems, and education is no exception. Student loan debt in America is one of the many ways Black women are negatively affected by policies that have not only failed but are also, as Representative Pressley has pointed out, violent—violent in their disproportionate targeting of marginalized people.
Just a few decades ago, higher education was free or low-tuition in California, where I live, and the same was true, to varying degrees, nationwide. As historians have shown, public education came under attack as a result of a right-wing and racist backlash, with the effect of making it expensive and inaccessible to many people. Black Americans have been forced into a grueling dilemma: Most careers that offer a livable wage require a degree, but obtaining a degree is costly. Considering that many Black families are already at a disadvantage because of income inequalities, and a lack of intergenerational wealth that ultimately stems from slavery and Jim Crow, saving for college is unrealistic for many Black families, who are forced to take out loans. The burden of student loan debt puts social mobility out of reach for Black families.
In addition to race being a factor for inability to afford college, so is gender. Women hold two-thirds of student loan debt, with Black women carrying the most student loan debt of any other ethnic group. The gender pay gap puts women at a further disadvantage, making it more difficult for us to afford college and to pay off the debt accrued. Black women are paid 61 cents for every dollar earned by their white male counterparts. Over a 40-year span, this amounts to a difference of nearly $1 million. Over time, Black women’s student loan debts rapidly compound, worsened by disparities and predatory lending practices. After 12 years, the typical white male has paid off 44 percent of his student loan balance, while the typical Black woman borrower’s balance grows by 13 percent. A Black woman’s inability to pay translates into an increased balance as interest accumulates.
Being a Black woman and a single mama, I am no stranger to these discriminatory practices and the debt trap that results. Although I have a doctorate degree and well-paying career, my $220,000 student loan debt is debilitating and makes survival difficult. Rent in Los Angeles is roughly $3,000 for a three-bedroom apartment. I cannot afford to pay that and cover my monthly student loan payments. In addition to student loan debt, I also have $10,000 worth of debt that I acquired while juggling part-time and underpaying jobs before graduating. As I pay off this debt, my only option for my children and myself was to move in with my mom. Home ownership is a dream of mine, but I’m fearful that will never be a reality for me. I am fearful, if things don’t change, that it won’t be a reality for my children either. That’s the way debt works. It affects entire families across generations, making it nearly impossible for Black women who are single mothers to leave anything but debt behind for their children.
The fact is, I cannot pay this debt, and I shouldn’t have to. That’s why I have declared myself on strike, along with 99 others. We call ourselves the Biden Jubilee 100. I strike not only for myself and my children but for all Black women and their children weighed down by predatory, unjust debts. We, the Biden Jubilee 100, are on strike to demand full cancellation of all student loan debt and tuition-free college for all, to ensure that future generations don’t have to mortgage their futures for a chance to improve their lives, or just get by.
Eliminating student loan debt will not absolve the United States of its responsibility to end the racist and sexist discriminatory systems that hurt Black women; it would show that the country is serious about starting this process. Black women are being acknowledged publicly for continually showing up and saving this nation from self-destruction. We expend enormous amounts of labor to save a nation riddled with failed policies that perpetuate our victimization, pain, and death. This harm cannot be repaired without deep structural change. “You want to thank Black women? Cancel student debt—all of it.” That is a start.