Racism doesn’t always show up with tiki torches and epithets; more often it manifests as disregard. Black voters ostensibly matter during political campaigns, but once in office, more often than not, politicos devalue the Black labor, input, and demands that propel them to victory. Democratic politicians, in particular, owe a political debt to Black voters.
Biden, the head of the party, can pay it by canceling student loans.
More than a political issue, Black voters are suffering under student loan debt. The $1.7 trillion in outstanding student debt is a problem for many racial groups. But most student debt is held by households with zero to negative net worth, a group in which, due to ongoing and systemic racism, Black people are overrepresented. An estimated 19% of Black American families have zero to negative net worth compared with 8% of white families.
While on the campaign trail, President Joe Biden stated, “We should forgive a minimum of $10,000/person of federal student loans.” Doubling down on that pledge, Biden supported the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force goal to “forgive all undergraduate tuition-related federal student debt from two- and four-year public colleges and universities [and historically Black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions] for debt-holders earning up to $125,000.”
However, Biden has not delivered on his promises to cancel student debt.
Instead, the Biden administration suggested students would begin repaying their federally backed student loans after the worst of the pandemic is over. But the epidemic of racism won’t dissipate with the virus. The reluctance to cancel student debt exemplifies the garden variety racism of disregard that continues to ignore the structural inequalities that create racial disparities.
Most Black borrowers have higher loan balances than they did originally. These increased loan balances weigh down entire communities, particularly Black majority neighborhoods, by lowering the disposable income and decreasing the investment opportunities of Black residents. Black borrowers, regardless of their incomes after graduation, carry more student debt, pushing down their creditworthiness.
Marcia Fudge, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has acknowledged that high levels of student loan debt make owning a home so untenable for Black households that Black people with a college degree have lower homeownership rates than white high-school dropouts. This is why Black-led organizations, including the NAACP, have pushed Biden to cancel as much student debt as possible.
Biden’s campaign promises meant something to the Black voters who helped deliver the presidential victory. Forty percent of Black voters are unwilling to vote for a candidate who opposes eliminating student loan debt, compared to 37% of all Democratic voters, according to a poll sponsored by the civil rights organization Color of Change. For political reasons alone, Biden should have signed the executive order to cancel student debt on his first day in office.
When White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stated in December that the administration was going to end its pandemic-induced student loan freeze in January of 2022 without any cancellation, the announcement dealt a blow to many of Biden’s supporters. It especially deflated and angered the civil rights groups, Black-led get-out-the-vote organizations, and Black voters who overwhelmingly voted for the president. Since then, the repayment moratorium has been extended to Aug. 31, but the sentiment holds.
Suggesting student borrowers can begin repaying when the pandemic subsides is to say wealth is held equally among all groups. According to the Federal Reserve, in 2019, the median net worth of White families was $188,200 — 7.8 times that of their Black peers, at $24,100. That wealth gap translates to many other disparities, including student debt outcomes. To ignore the wealth gap is to turn a blind eye to the discrimination that created it. When White students graduate from college, they expect to receive gifts and help with down payments on their homes whereas when Black students graduate from college, they’re expected to use their higher incomes to help their families, according to research from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Colorblind income analyses often suggest student debt cancellation is regressive, only benefiting those with high income because low-income households are going to die indebted, regardless.
Biden must center antiracism in his approach by focusing on the effects of policy on Black lives. He has signaled that he wants to narrow the racial wealth gap and to build Black wealth, but words without policy action in higher education fall flat. The president has the control to fulfill campaign and in-office promises, build Black wealth, and kick the economy into full gear. According to legal scholars, Biden has the power to cancel, via executive order, more student debt than he already has, empowering Black people to start their families, purchase homes, and open businesses. Biden doesn’t have to consult with Congress because the legislative branch has already given him and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona the power to compromise and settle all debt obligations. By canceling all student debt, or at least $50,000, President Biden would be facilitating his larger agenda.
The student loan payment moratorium has been successful at helping the most disadvantaged borrowers. Federal direct student loans that have been subject to the moratorium are held by borrowers with the lowest credit scores; the highest income and highest credit borrowers have already refinanced into privately held debt with better interest rates. The moratorium has helped those with lower credit scores to build their credit, avoid missing payments, and repay other sources of debt. As the moratorium ends, Black households, particularly those in Black majority neighborhoods, are more likely to struggle with their student loan payments.
By centering Black lives, Biden can effectively govern for all people. This is the distinction between a centrist who places Black concerns at the margins and an antiracist president.
It’s not too late for Biden to become an antiracist leader. Black people can no longer wait to redress our political needs. He should cancel a minimum of $50,000 of student debt, acknowledging the history that continues to pick Black voters’ pockets. But Black people can no longer hope for change. Come election time, if Black people can’t win, then neither should the candidates who only represent with empty promises.
Andre M. Perry is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and is the author of “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities.”
Carl Romer is data analyst at the California Policy Lab at the University of California, Los Angeles.