President Biden has recently committed to both closing the wealth gap between Black and white Americans, and addressing the student debt crisis. While some have applauded him for these steps – in particular his plan to forgive $10,000 in student loans – there are many reasons why his actions are woefully inadequate. Biden owes us a lot more than the piecemeal proposals he has put forth.
According to the White House Initiative on Education Excellence for African Americans, Black college graduates have an average of $52,726 in student debt, compared to $28,006 for white students. A $10,000 student loan forgiveness would wipe out one-third of the burden of the average white debtor, while doing relatively little for the average Black debtor – and this is important because white debtors already have an easier time paying off their loans. Anything short of full forgiveness will only widen already existing disparities. White graduates, on average, owe 10% less than the amount they initially borrowed, Black graduates on the other hand owe 6% more than what they initially borrowed, and Black borrowers are more likely to never be able to pay off their loans at any point in their lives.
Offering student debt abolition for Black students is the right thing to do, both morally and politically. Politically, because Biden owes his victory to Black voters, and should offer them something concrete in return for their loyalty. And morally, because he has personally contributed to many of the inequities that plague Black Americans today.
While Biden is hardly the single chief architect of American racism, he has contributed to institutional racism since his early days as a bipartisanship-obsessed senator from Delaware. He opposed the desegregation of schools through federally mandated bussing programs that would have Black students attend better funded white schools. He argued that there were other ways to desegregate, particularly through housing, but opponents pointed out that he could simply support both paths. He also argued that it should be up to local municipalities to make the decision, using the same local autonomy argument that conservatives used to oppose most plans for desegregation. Data would later show that bussing was one of the most effective means of desegregating schools, until it was rolled back in the 80s and 90s. Schools immediately began to resegregate and have remained segregated since.
Biden has also proudly championed his role in creating the 1994 Crime Bill and moving the Democratic party even further towards a tough on crime stance. Referring to this victory Biden said: “The liberal wing of the Democratic party is now for 60 new death penalties. That is what is in this bill. The liberal wing of the Democratic party has 70 enhanced penalties … The liberal wing of the Democratic party is for 100,000 cops. The liberal wing of the Democratic party is for 125,000 new state prison cells.”
Although the bill itself did not fulfill its goal of radically increasing the number of incarcerated Americans, it helped a few state governments do so by providing incentives to mimic the bill and funding to build the prisons necessary to do so. Biden already had a history of tough-on-crime policies that disproportionately affected Black Americans. In 1984 he worked with the conservative senator Strom Thormond – who once ran for president on a pro-racial segregation platform – to pass the Comprehensive Control Act, which expanded the powers of police to lawfully rob those who they suspected of selling drugs, sometimes keeping thousands of dollars in cash and property despite not finding any drugs.
Whether or not Biden intended it, these laws, and those he helped set the precedent for, have all disproportionately affected Black people
Biden also co-sponsored the bill that treated crack cocaine as 100 times worse than cocaine and created new mandatory minimum sentences for drug charges, clearly targeting the image of the poor Black crack user who seemed more threatening than the mirage of the docile, white, middle-class cocaine user. His personal war on drugs was carried on by both Republicans and Democrats leading to the 1998 Higher Education Act provision that permanently barred many students with past drug convictions from receiving financial aid. While the majority of drug users are white, Black people represent 55% of all drug convictions.
Biden’s bipartisanship also helped bring forth the age of welfare reform, a euphemism for singling out Black welfare recipients and pushing harsh new guidelines. In 1988, he wrote a column arguing for tighter welfare restrictions, paraphrasing conservative racist dog whistles, he said: “We are all too familiar with the stories of welfare mothers driving luxury cars and leading lifestyles that mirror the rich and famous. Whether they are exaggerated or not, these stories underlie a broad social concern that the welfare system has broken down – that it only parcels out welfare checks and does nothing to help the poor find productive jobs.”
In 1996 he got his wish with the passing of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which brought a new slew of welfare regulations, empowered states to craft their own racist guidelines, and capped federal spending on welfare. While this program was considered a success for forcing more single mothers into the workforce, those women often earned no more money than what they had lost in benefits. While the number of people using welfare plummeted, studies have found that between 42% and 74% of those people remained in poverty after doing so. And there is evidence that it increased deep poverty, those living on less than $2 per person a day, by 153% between 1996 and 2011. Within the first decade of welfare reform, the deep poverty rate for Black children rose by 4.9%, while falling for white children by roughly 2%. Today, 10.8% of Black Americans live in deep poverty, compared with 4.1% of white Americans.
Whether or not Biden intended it, these laws, and those he helped set the precedent for, have all disproportionately affected Black people – and weren’t the last of his policies to do so. In 2005, he backed a bill that removed bankruptcy protections from millions of students and exacerbated the already growing student debt bubble, essentially choosing to protect creditors and lenders over students. While Black students are less likely to take out private student loans, they are four times as likely to struggle in repayment of those loans. It is worth mentioning that Joe Biden has received nearly $2m in campaign contributions from the lending industry since his time in the Senate.
Despite all this, Black people have showed up to support Biden every inch of his way towards the presidency. The Biden campaign nearly collapsed after his early underperformance in the primary, only to be resurrected by Black southerners who scored points for him in South Carolina and carried him through Super Tuesday. In the general election he was again saved by Black people. In crucial states such as Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania, Black people represented a disproportionate amount of the Democratic base that voted for Biden, and Black activists led the voter drives and political mobilizations that not only ensured his victory, but protected the results afterwards. Black women in particular played a monumental role in his victory, with 91% of Black women voting for Biden, retaining their role as the most consistent base of the Democratic party. Black women also led the organizations, such as the New Georgia Project headed by Stacey Abrams and the Black Voters Matter Fund co-founded by LaTosha Brown, responsible for voter turnout in crucial states. Black women also have the highest student loan debt of any racial or ethnic group in the United States.
Student debt abolition wouldn’t solve the issues of systemic racism in the United States, but it would at least begin to address some of the damage Joe Biden has done in his lifetime. According to the liberal thinktank the Roosevelt Institute, white households with young adults have 12 times the average wealth of similar Black households – debt abolition would shrink the difference down to fives times the amount of wealth. A drop in the bucket in the grand scheme, but a drop that could fundamentally alter the lives of Black people across the country.
Akin Olla is a Nigerian-American political strategist and organizer