In his 1990 poem “Harlem,” Langston Hughes inquires, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up… / …Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. / Or does it explode?”
Higher education is a fundamental right that should be accessible to all. Black women, the most educated group in the United States, continuously excel as they climb the ivory towers of academia to pursue their dreams and build greater generational wealth through the attainment of those higher degrees. Nevertheless, Black women in America who borrow student loans are the most disproportionately impacted by debt.
Why is the highest achieving, most educated population in the United States targeted and weighed down by the glare of debt? The loans Black women take out often transform from essential tools covering the cost of their education to long-term financial burdens. Through that transformation process, those burdens manage to hinder job mobility, limit the ability to purchase a home, and generally open the door to exploitation for less pay and more restrictions. Black women should not be penalized for pursuing higher degrees, exploring different career opportunities, securing higher-paying jobs, or simply wanting to buy a home without the debt of a necessary education weighing on their greater dreams.
In his recent student loan forgiveness plan, President Biden offers Pell Grant recipients—many of whom are Black borrowers—student loan cancellations of up to $20,000. Yet, the gender and racial biases that deepen disparities in opportunity—and specifically challenge Black women—remain prevalent barriers that overshadow this temporary solution. Wisdom Cole, National Director of the NAACP’s Youth and College Division, explains that the inequity in debt accrued by Black borrowers is a racial justice issue that needs to be confronted, since “it impedes [Black borrowers’ abilities] to actually participate in [the] economic system.”
Likewise, Terri Friedline—Associate Professor of Social Work at the University of Michigan—hints at the ever-present glass ceiling in YES! Magazine when she states that the salary cap ignores the role of structural racism and socioeconomic class, which significantly impact women and minorities seeking advancement. Notably, Friedline mentions that Black women borrow more than white men on average and, since student loan interest accumulates rapidly, many Black women borrowers remain in debt decades after enrolling in school.
In Erick Stoll and Astra Taylor’s short film “Freedom Dreams: Black Women and the Student Debt Crisis,” educator and activist Nina Turner illuminates student debt as a systemic issue predicated upon race, gender, and class biases that should not exist at all. Dr. Shamell Bell—part-time teacher at Harvard—also discusses how she was conditioned to believe that, once she earned her PhD and climbed the economic ladder, her generational wealth would increase and more opportunities would open up. Nevertheless, she soon realized that the cost of her education would subsume any wealth she had with the accumulation of student debt, preventing her from experiencing true upward mobility. Hence, while some claim that Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan is a step in the right direction, as Turner and Bell reveal, it is not enough.
To make the transition from financial disadvantage and disparity in career advancement to prosp(a)rity and opportunity for Black women, capitalism must be materially confronted. Due to the transient nature of Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan, more sustainable and longer-lasting solutions are needed to relieve the profound burdens of student loan debt. Dismantling these structures of inequity requires not just providing a temporary fix for the financial burdens weighing down countless generations of marginalized people of color, but completely canceling student loan debt altogether.
Toward the end of the short film, Bell shares her own desires as an educator and purveyor of knowledge: “I wanted to be the educator that told the truth and the educator that unlocked dreams.” She succinctly highlights the severe impact debt has on the lives of Black women and how that directly reverberates through the livelihood of everyone else, as “a system where Black women do not have to be subject to crushing debt is a system that would benefit everyone.” Educator and nonprofit founder Dr. Richelle Brooks adds, “Anything less than full debt cancellation is a loss, especially for the most marginalized.” The film ends with Nina Turner’s advocacy for complete cancellation of student debt as she leads the audience to chant, “…cancel the student debt. Cancel it all. Cancel it all.”
Why has the capitalist structure of the United States created a hierarchy where Black women are less able to share knowledge in a classroom without paying a heavy fee, access the job of their dreams, be the owner of a home they pay for, cultivate lasting wealth that can be passed onto future generations of their family, and explore a vast array of opportunities without financial restrictions and disparities? Black women’s dreams exceed any monetary cap. To prevent those dreams from ‘exploding’ as Langston Hughes described, severe financial burdens must be alleviated. If Biden and those steering the laws are willing to provide a crumb of relief from student debt, then they are more than capable of offering the whole cookie of student loan cancellation, particularly to the most marginalized and well-educated group of Americans.
The capitalist, patriarchal, and oppressively racist structures of inequity that continue to divide the United States must be dismantled, if not demolished. Only then will Black women’s access—and there everyone’s access—to a good education, a high-paying job, a secure home of one’s own, and the freedom to explore one’s passions transform from a sliver of possibility into an actionable, realized right.
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Astra Taylor and Erick Stoll, https://theintercept.com/2022/08/22/student-debt-cancellation-black-women/
David Leonhardt, https://messaging-custom-newsletters.nytimes.com/template/oakv2?campaign_id=9&emc=edit_nn_20220825&instance_id=70190&nl=the-morning&productCode=NN®i_id=91773315&segment_id=102310&te=1&uri=nyt%3A%2F%2Fnewsletter%2F50d72dd6-0eaa-50fd-8403-6c65ab2edb57&user_id=e6063b78ee08daf6ac4e60421fdb5f01
J Geiman and Alpha S. Taylor, https://www.clasp.org/publications/report/brief/disproportionately-impacted-closing-the-racial-wealth-gap-through-student-loan-cancellation-payment-reforms-and-investment-in-college-affordability/
Langston Hughes, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46548/harlem
Terri Friedline, https://www.yesmagazine.org/economy/2022/08/25/student-loan-forgiveness-explained?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=YTW_20220826&utm_content=YTW_20220826+CID_2e9f340950ef01a98aa3029dedea5f19&utm_source=CM&utm_term=What%20Student%20Loan%20Forgiveness%20Means