The ACLU’s Push To ‘Cancel’ Student Debt Shows How Far It Has Strayed From Defending Civil Liberties
Is forgiving student debt, 92 percent of which is held by the federal government, a good idea? Although I don’t think that policy would be fair or sensible, I recognize that reasonable people of good faith disagree. But one thing is beyond serious dispute: The Constitution does not guarantee a right to a debt-free college education. To put it another way, continuing to collect payments on student loans violates no one’s civil liberties.
So why is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which ostensibly exists to defend constitutional rights, collecting signatures for a petition urging the Biden administration to “cancel up to $50,000 in student debt per borrower by the end of 2021”? This initiative is yet another sign that the venerable organization has strayed so far from its historic mission that it is becoming indistinguishable from myriad progressive advocacy groups. That’s a shame, since a consistent defense of civil liberties is the ACLU’s raison d’être and the singular reason why its work deserves wide support.
The ACLU argues that “student debt is a racial justice issue,” because it is “a crushing burden that falls heaviest on Black communities, and especially onto Black women.” By this logic, any problem that disproportionately affects a particular racial group is likewise a racial justice issue and therefore, by the ACLU’s reckoning, a civil liberties issue.
White people, for example, are much more likely to commit suicide than black people, Latinos, or Asian Americans (although Native Americans are the group with the highest suicide rate). Non-Hispanic white people also have a higher rate of opioid-related deaths than Latinos or African Americans.
The ACLU presumably would argue that suicide and opioid-related deaths are not racial justice issues because they do not reflect a history of oppression and discrimination. “Centuries of structural inequities and racism have created large barriers in access to education for Black communities,” it says. “For instance, Black families have far less generational wealth to draw on to pay for college than white families—and as a result, are more likely to take on student loans and struggle with repayment, which is exacerbated by job discrimination and pay disparities.” According to the ACLU, the disparate impact of student debt is “a direct result of systemic racism.”
That explanation of the ACLU’s stance on student loans conflates state action with private action, assumes that “pay disparities” result from “job discrimination,” and posits that the lingering effects of state-supported racism explain most, if not all, educational and economic disparities between black people and white people. These are all highly contentious issues on which Americans of different ideologies and political preferences strongly disagree. While an organization that consistently defends civil liberties cannot avoid controversy, opening this can of worms detracts from that central goal, needlessly alienating potential allies.
If “racial justice” means equal treatment under the law, it is clearly part of the ACLU’s historic mission. But if racial justice encompasses any outcome that allegedly results from “systemic racism,” it entangles the ACLU in all sorts of public policy controversies that have nothing to do with civil liberties, including attempts to reduce racial disparities through welfare programs, education spending, job training, affirmative action, public housing, tax credits, and state-subsidized health care.
The organization is already descending this slippery slope. Its “racial justice” page highlights three facts “you need to know”:
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