When Senator Kamala Harris announced a student loan cancellation plan over the weekend, it was roundly, and justifiably, met with disdain. Convoluted and bloated with caveats, the plan would provide $20,000 of student loan debt relief … for Pell Grant recipients…who also operate a business in a disadvantaged community … for at least three years (sarcastic ellipses mine).
After pushback against her rather niche proposal, Harris clarified that the plan is part of a larger package of entrepreneurship policies, not her education policies.
But a review of both the education and entrepreneurship packages on her campaign website suggests a bigger problem. A Kamala Harris presidency would be ineffectual for the demographic that will probably comprise much of her base: black women.
Black women have more student loan debt than any other graduates in the country. Of college graduates repaying student debt, black women experience more financial difficulty than anyone else in the country. Black women are paid the least of any group of people of both high school graduates and college graduates with a bachelor’s degree.
The causes for these inequalities vary, but research points to wealth disparities generally, differences in family dynamics between young black and white people, and hiring discrimination. According to a report by Demos, 41% of white college-educated families, compared with 13% of black families, get an inheritance. The report adds that “black people are more likely to financially help older family members, preventing wealth accumulation and leaving them more financially vulnerable”. Further, “employers persist in discriminating against black workers in hiring, in assigning more precarious employment prospects to black workers than to white workers, and in requiring more education of black workers for the same job as white workers”.
A Kamala Harris presidency would be ineffectual for the demographic that will likely comprise much of her base: black women
Young black people, and black women in particular, are keenly aware of the latter. Without the same social networks to rely on as non-black workers in the event of lay-offs and to enter fields where we have been customarily excluded, black women heed the lessons that education is the great equalizer. We are at an intersection of racial and gendered expectations to work two times harder, not just because we are black, but also because we are women who tend to be underestimated in the labor force. This creates more pressure to “professionalize” ourselves, and it’s not yet proving to pay off.
These vast structural hurdles in higher education and employment opportunity cannot be overcome with the sort of piecemeal economic reform Kamala Harris has recommended. By her campaign’s estimate, as reported by the Cut, the limited student loan cancellation program will affect .04% of the 45 million Americans with student loan debt.
Instead of championing substantial debt relief, which would significantly close the black-white wealth gap, Harris seems to prefer shallow virtue-signaling to black voters. When she’s not suggesting these modest proposals, she’s taking the language of candidates to her left while muddying the water of what her policies will actually do. Instead of proposing free college tuition, she refers to “debt-free” college, without specifying what that means. While saying she supports reparations, she clarifies that they won’t be particular to black Americans. While taking the debate stage to suggest that she supports a single-payer Medicare for All, she later advocates a different plan that won’t be single-payer.
Even worse, her assertion that she has no intention to “restructure society”, even though scholars argue a government-backed redistribution of wealth is necessary for racial equality, makes Harris sound more like Joe Biden than Shirley Chisholm, after whom she has fashioned herself. While she may be able to make distinctions between herself and Joe Biden on civil rights, her brand of economic moderation is in some ways more dangerous.
Appealing to black women superficially, without the substance to back it, gives her enough legitimacy to win black women over while offering little in return. This leaves progressive black women in the awkward position of not critiquing her so that she gets the nomination, which becomes not critiquing her so she wins the general election, which turns into leaving her presidency unchallenged so she can govern. While protecting the career of a single black politician, black women as a whole are likely to face unabated, growing inequality.
We can’t afford the four years of piecemeal moderation that Kamala Harris offers, and we have the debt to prove it.
Malaika Jabali is a public policy attorney, writer and activist whose writing has appeared in Essence, Jacobin, the Intercept, Glamour and elsewhere