Student Loans Are a Labor Issue
Canceling student loans is front and center in the national discussion because coalitions like The Debt Collective and Movement for Black Lives put it there. As a part of a larger labor movement, activist coalitions have reframed the student debt issue from one of individual failure to one of widespread economic exploitation. But it is important to understand that student loan debt is not unique in capitalism. It is another way in which our economy forces the working classes to finance their livelihoods — via mortgages, credit cards, payday loans, bail, and private loans. Black people, along with Latinos, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans, uniquely carry greater debt burdens, because the U.S. economy has always lent rather than granted them access. In other words, student loan debt is the crisis, but it is not the underlying problem. The problem is capitalism.
The only form of capitalism that has ever existed in the U.S. is racial capitalism: the accumulation of capital through unequal relations preserved by racism. Racial capitalism ensures that if an opportunity becomes available to Black people, we will experience it through racialized debt. History holds the evidence: slavery-sharecropping-landownership-mortgages-probation. And, most recently, the racial wealth gap, which has been put forth as the primary explanation for the student debt crisis. None of these examples, however, created the Black student debt crisis, not even the racial wealth gap. All of them stem from the roots of racial capitalism, which exploits crises for profit — crises that it created in the first place.
Under racial capitalism, Black students’ access to higher education has primarily hinged on student loans and on institutions with less funding and worse outcomes. Loans and stratification are not characteristics of opportunity, but they are traits of a hidden racial debt trap.
Racial debt traps easily hide because their success requires that Black people have no choice but to use them. Debt traps like student loans do not feel forced. Instead, people often desire or seek them for the opportunities they promise to bring. In the U.S., one must earn a credential to find a good job that pays a living wage. It has become normal for credentials to be used as a tool to sort some people into livelihoods of comfort and stability, if they have a good job, and others into lives of precarity and exhaustion, if they have a bad job.
So, the main force driving Black student borrowing is the desire for a job that pays a livable wage. The trouble is, Black people experience rampant racism in the job market whether we have a degree or not. We are always in danger of being steered toward bad jobs. The whole multibillion-dollar student loan industry — involving colleges and universities, loan servicing companies, Wall Street, the Department of Education, and state governments — relies on Black people’s desire for quality employment. This, in turn, means all these entities also rely on Black people’s overexposure to bad jobs. Bad jobs versus good jobs epitomize the unequal relations on which racial capitalism thrives.
But what if we focus less on getting Black people good jobs and more on turning the bad jobs — those that pay poverty wages, lack benefits, shackle labor rights, and are interlocked with racist employment practices — into good ones? If we remove the labor conditions that make debt desirable for mobility and necessary for survival, then student loans, along with other racial debt traps, will become obsolete.
This is a call for legislation to create good jobs — and increase the minimum wage to a living wage, federally guarantee employment, provide universal healthcare, and strengthen workers’ organizing power. Equally important is the need for labor policies that explicitly focus on empowering workers in sectors like caretaking and service work where Black workers already are. To secure these wins, we have to remember how we started the national conversation in the first place: by organizing and movement-building. So, yes, cancel student debt, fund free college, but also make labor anti-racist.
Jalil Bishop is a vice-provost postdoctoral scholar and lecturer in the higher education division at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. His research centers on how education pathways are influenced by race, class, and place and the ways in which marginalized Black communities challenge and build power.