When I graduated from college, I knew my purpose was to serve this country’s most vulnerable. For the last eight years, I have served as an educator and high school principal in Los Angeles, California, and in 2021 I founded ReTHINK It, a nonprofit that addresses the material needs of marginalized communities. I have dedicated myself to empowering and educating young people and advocating for folks victimized by systemic and systematic oppression.

But I drastically underestimated the cost of this work—both personal and financial. 

At present, I owe $230,000 dollars in student loan debt. Like countless borrowers, I owe more than I did when I first graduated college. I am but one example of the stark racial disparity governing the student debt-loan crisis: After 12 years of payments, the typical white male in the US has paid off 44% of his student loan balance, while the typical balance for Black women borrowers grows by 13%.

I am but one example of the stark racial disparity governing the student debt-loan crisis: After 12 years of payments, the typical white male in the US has paid off 44% of his student loan balance, while the typical balance for Black women borrowers grows by 13%.

On April 4, debtors and our allies from around the country will head to the doorsteps of the Department of Education in Washington, DC, to demonstrate our collective strength and send a clear message that Joe Biden must do more than simply extend the payment moratorium. He has the power to cancel all student loan debt with a stroke of his pen, a move that will ensure Black women have, for perhaps the first time, a real shot at prosperity.

For years, I believed my student loan debt was the result of my personal failings—a lie that countless borrowers, particularly those who are Black or from poor and working-class families, come to internalize. Then, in September of 2020, I joined the Debt Collective, an organization fighting for the abolition of all forms of debt through the creation of a debtor’s union. Soon, I became one of the Biden Jubilee 100; we declared ourselves on strike from ever repaying our student loan balance, and demanded the full cancellation of student loan debt within President Biden’s first 100 days in office.

Joining the Debt Collective allowed me to finally politicize my experience. More importantly, it showed me that I was not alone: All student loan debt is the result of the systemic failures in this country. And the policy decisions and economic arrangements that created this system, which has buried generations under mountains of un-repayable student loan debt, comprise a catastrophic societal failure that can and must be rectified. 

Growing up, I was told that achieving the American Dream would require going to college so I could secure a career. Home ownership, one of the most important ways that families build intergenerational wealth, is comically beyond reach. In my hometown of Carson, California, the median home price has increased over the past year by 19.7% to over $700,000.

For my generation, the American Dream feels like just that, a dream—it is never going to become reality. With my student loan debt, owning a house of my own is a hopeless fantasy.

Racist banking practices have also made the prospect of home ownership increasingly infeasible for Black borrowers. Wells Fargo has faced renewed public scrutiny in recent weeks, following a bombshell Bloomberg report that found the bank had denied home loans to 53% of its Black applicants in 2020, at the height of the pandemic-induced crisis and the ensuing economic hardship. The highest-earning Black families, or those earning over $168,000 a year, were approved for home loans at a rate nearly identical to the lowest-earning white families, or those earning less than $63,000 a year. The blatant discrimation was infuriating, yet hardly surprising.

For my generation, the American Dream feels like just that, a dream—it is never going to become reality. With my student loan debt, owning a house of my own is a hopeless fantasy.

The same goes for most millennials. According to one recent survey, student loan debt has kept some 35% of millennial borrowers from buying a home—nearly double the amount of baby boomers. It is especially hopeless for those of us from poor and working-class communities. Student loan debt decimates our credit-worthiness, barring many from ever owning a home.

For millions of us, wage discrimination makes the dream even more illusory. Although Black women make up a substantial share of the workforce, they earn just 63% of what white men are paid. Overall, women across nearly all races and ethnicities experience higher rates of poverty than men, a disparity due largely to single motherhood and the gender pay gap. But Black women are disproportionately represented among all women living in poverty: In the US, they constitute 22.3% of women living in poverty, but only 12.8% of the population.

As women aim to “pull themselves” and their families out of poverty, low and stagnant wages fail to allow them to make a living. Debt piles up. Women graduate college owing, on average, about $22,000—for men, it’s $18,880. Black women graduate college owing nearly twice the debt of men, an average of $37,558. Thanks to astounding interest rates, these balances grow over time.

On April 4, debtors and our allies from around the country will head to the doorsteps of the Department of Education in Washington, DC, to demonstrate our collective strength and send a clear message that Joe Biden must do more than simply extend the payment moratorium. He has the power to cancel all student loan debt with a stroke of his pen, a move that will ensure Black women have, for perhaps the first time, a real shot at prosperity.

Without assertive action from the Biden administration, many families will be unable to free themselves from the shackles of debt. Between 1989 and 2019, the national household net worth for white families grew from $462,000 to a whopping $953,000; meanwhile, the national household net worth for Black families only moved slightly, from $82,000 to $141,000.

Evidence shows that the racial wealth gap is growing wider, decade after decade. Student loan debt will exacerbate this as the indebtedness of Black families continues to grow. While white families can and tend to pass on their wealth and net worth to succeeding generations, Black families pass on debt and use their resources to support family members who also lack wealth and net worth. On average and in the aggregate, wealth compounds with each generation for white families, while indebtedness compounds with each generation for Black families. We are fighting now for the survival of our children and their children.

As I came to be more involved with the Debt Collective, I watched Black women suffer under their growing loan balances, even as they continued to show up for their families, communities, and this nation. But I also realized that, together, we had power beyond anything I could have imagined.

Black women have been outspoken about the perverse systems barring us from any form of upward mobility. We are doing everything “right” to ensure our future generations aren’t forced into the same dire situations: going to college, graduating, pursuing well-paying careers, attempting to purchase homes and build savings and resources so we can pass them on to future generations. But we cannot dismantle entire systems without the help of those who most benefit from our marginalization.

Specifically, this means white men, the most privileged demographic in this country—they must use their power, wealth, and social capital, to repair the harm endured by people who are categorically oppressed by the very system that empowers them. The longer Joe Biden fails to act, the longer he perpetuates the violence of a white supremacist system that further traps us in debt.

Empty praise and calls to “thank Black women” are not enough. We need material redistribution and economic transformation. We are owed nothing less.

By canceling student loan debt, Joe Biden could create jobs, stimulate the economy, and narrow the racial wealth gap. Doing so would keep trillions of dollars in the hands of people and communities. Families would have less debt and more money to spend, providing immediate and direct economic stimulus to those impacted most by the pandemic: Black families and other families of color. Debt cancellation would provide Black families, especially millennial-parent households, a chance at home ownership, immediately increasing the possibility of building up one’s net worth and having intergenerational wealth to pass on. It’s that simple.

As countless pundits have noted, Black women voters saved the country from a second Trump term, all without adequate recognition or compensation. Empty praise and calls to “thank Black women” are not enough. We need material redistribution and economic transformation. We are owed nothing less.

We have paid enough—and I say no more. I am not asking for “debt forgiveness.” I am demanding justice.

Dr. Richelle Brooks

Dr. Richelle Brooks is a member of The Debt Collective; Biden Jubilee 100 striker; founder of ReTHINK It, an organization dedicated to addressing anti-blackness through education and mutual aid; a full-time educator; and a single mom of two children. As a first-generation college graduate and formerly houseless person, she has learned to navigate the most oppressive and racist systems and institutions, and has made it her life-work to help others do the same while simultaneously working to dismantle these systems that perpetuate inequities.