There’s an ancient black proverb: “When white folks catch a cold, Black folks catch pneumonia.” It means that any problem that hits America broadly is going to hit Black America worse. We see this almost everywhere we bother to look: In health outcomes, economic measures, environmental issues—whatever is hitting white people hits black people harder. Pretty much the only case where this trend is reversed is the virus of fascism: Black folks seem a little more resistant to the allure of white ethno-nationalist authoritarianism than white folks. Go figure.
When it comes to the student debt crisis, a new study from the Education Trust shows that white people have a cold, Black people have pneumonia, and Black women have the goddamn bubonic plague. Women of all races carry two-thirds of the $1.7 trillion in outstanding student loan debt in this country, but Black women carry more per capita, carry it for longer, make less money, and have less help when trying to pay back their debts. It’s a bleak picture: Essentially, Black women are punished for daring to try to improve their prospects with education and credentials.
Black women sit at the intersection of racism and misogyny, so one might have expected that their student loan burdens would be greater than other groups’. But the sheer disparity charted in the report (which you can read in full here) took me aback. Black women who completed a four-year degree graduated with an average of about $38,000 in student debt, compared to around $35,000 for Black men and $27,000 and $24,000 for white women and men respectively. Another way of putting those numbers is that Black women graduated with almost 60 percent more debt than their white male counterparts.
The numbers balloon when you talk about graduate school. Black women who seek postgraduate education are coming out with an average of around $49,000 in debt, compared to just around $29,000 for white women—a nearly 70 percent increase in debt burden. This seems like a good time to mention that Republicans have no intention of helping women of any race pay back their educational debts but do think the government can live, rent free, inside a woman’s uterus if she becomes pregnant at any point under any circumstance.
Black women have the least amount of help when paying back these debts. Only 9.5 percent of Black women reported receiving help from family or friends to pay back their student loans within a 12-month period. That’s compared to 15 percent of Black men, 20 percent of white women, 21 percent of white men, 25 percent of Asian men, and 30 percent of Asian women. When you remember that Black women make less than any other group, that a Black woman with a bachelor’s degree or better makes on average just a little more than what a white man with some college but no degree makes, the higher debt with less help is all the more crushing.
This all leads to the most devastating statistic of all. Twelve years after starting college, Black women (and Black men) as a group owe more money than they borrowed, not less. Black women owe, on average, 13 percent more than they borrowed, at a point where white men have paid down an average of 44 percent of their debt.
President Joe Biden kept his campaign promise and put a Black woman on the Supreme Court. Now, he should back up that achievement with cash money and keep one of his other campaign promises: to cancel at least $10,000 of student loan debt. People don’t often talk about student debt relief as an issue of racial justice, but it absolutely is. Black people borrow more, make less, and are less likely to have family members with enough wealth to help out. Debt relief is much more of a “Black” issue than, say, sentencing reform for crack/cocaine disparities.
And like so much else in society, reforms that help Black women tend to help everybody else too. There are 43 million American debtors and, again, two-thirds of them are women. Half of the people who borrowed money still owe at least $20,000 20 years after entering college.
In addition to being a Black issue and a women’s issue, student loan debt is also a young person’s issue. Recent polls show that Biden’s approval ratings are flagging with young voters, down to levels that are probably unsustainable for successful Democratic candidates. I might not have the political acumen of the centrist geniuses who counsel Democrats to abandon Black folks and “do things that are popular,” but it sure seems to me that giving people money is a political winner.
Student debt relief is a win for younger voters, women, Black people, and especially Black women. Predictably, Joe Manchin will not allow it to happen. Manchin even had free community college removed from the Build Back Better reconciliation bill last fall.
But Biden can and should cancel federal student debt via executive order. There is authority for him to do so. It’s not the most rock-solid grant of authority, but it would be more than enough if Biden were a Republican. Biden could use the Higher Education Act of 1965. That law arguably gives the Department of Education the authority to “enforce, pay, compromise, waive, or release” federally held student debt.
Now, I don’t think that the HEA was designed to allow the president to just cancel student loan debt without an act of Congress. But I’m also old enough to remember when a Republican president declared a fake emergency under the National Emergencies Act in order to steal money to build a wall that was explicitly not authorized by Congress. And the courts more or less let him get away with it. The HEA gives Biden more authority to cancel student debt than Trump had to build a wall under the NEA.
Speaking of national emergencies, student loans are already “paused” until the end of August 2022 and have been on pause since March 2020 because of Covid—thanks to the authority Trump used under the Heroes Act of 2003. That bill allows the president to pause student loans repayments in the event of an emergency. Before Biden extended the pause through August just last week, it had been set to expire at the end of April.
It would be, to put it delicately, an epic act of political malfeasance for Biden and the Democrats to allow this loan forbearance to lapse on September 1, two months before the midterm elections. I don’t even have a word for how insanely goddamn self-defeating that would be. Romeo killing himself while Juliet napped comes to mind—though Romeo would look at the Biden administration and say, “At least I had a plan,” before bleeding out.
Canceling student debt is an issue of gender equity, racial justice, and raw political calculus. It centers three demographic constituencies Democrats cannot win without. It’s the morally right thing to do, particularly in a country where some institutions of higher learning (or diploma mills masquerading as institutions of higher learning) practice straight-up price gouging on students who they know can just borrow the money. And shifting our budget priorities from war toward education is a smart long-term play for the advancement of human civilization.
Not doing it—essentially demanding that people resume payments to the federal government right before a national election—is political suicide.