Turning Student Loan Debt Into A Civil Rights Issue

It was kind of Jacob Sullum to save his Gertruding to the end of his post, even if he’s about a decade behind reality.

The ACLU continues to do good work in defense of civil liberties. But its embrace of wide-ranging progressive goals is clearly undermining the principles that made it distinctive and worthy of support from people who don’t necessarily agree with that agenda.

That the ACLU has abandoned its old mission of defending civil rights in favor of the mission creep that’s infected so many once-useful organizations is beyond cavil. But it only does “good work” as long as that work is directed at its overarching constraint that it only do good work when that work serves the social justice sensibilities of its executive director, Anthony Romero, its staff of warriors and its donors.

Is it still “good work” when it’s only for those of the correct race, gender, sexual orientation or political views? One might well argue that this is exactly the opposite of good work, the abandonment, if not denigration, of civil rights for one’s enemies. If the test of integrity is the will to stand up for rights regardless of how deeply you despise the party from whom they’re being taken, the ACLU fails, and fails miserably.

Maybe Jacob Sullum is an optimist, hoping that some positivity toward the ACLU will not alienate them further from integrity and that someday, when the insanity subsides, they can be brought back into the fold of a civil rights organization. Maybe, as a libertarian, he sees it as beneficial to have them available as an ally when the cause involves a party the ACLU doesn’t deem a pariah. Being more a fan of integrity than expediency, perhaps this Gertruding is the wiser way to go and makes sense for a post at Reason. But I’m not as willing to hold my nose when the stench of hypocrisy fills the air.

The Gertrude comes at the end of a post raising yet the latest effort by the ACLU to use its legacy status as a credible defender of civil rights for an ulterior purpose.

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 issue was raised by, naturally, a twit from the ACLU.

This is not a post about whether student debt should be cancelled, whether Biden has the authority to do so or whether it in fact falls “heaviest” on black women, whatever that means. This post is limited to the question of how the ACLU seeks to “reimagine” this as a civil rights problem.

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.

In response, Jacob presents a litany of issues that “fall heaviest” on white people, like suicide and opioid-related deaths, arguing that these issues “presumably” aren’t civil rights issues since they are more heavily suffered by the oppressors rather than the oppressed.

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.”

Jacob then goes on to raise the more libertarian distinction that the ACLU is conflating private action, such as pay disparities and job discrimination, with “state-supported racism.”

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.

There is no question that Equal Protection is a constitutional right, and that fighting for it would be part of “the ACLU’s historic mission.” But this does nothing to address the initial question of whether student loan debt is a racial justice issue. By the invocation of empty rhetoric, connections which are both factually dubious and so wildly attenuated as to be absurd, anything can be a “racial justice” issue if there is some black person negatively affected by it. The problem is Equal Protection doesn’t guarantee that black women get their Ph.D.’s in critical theory or particle physics free of charge, but at no greater cost than anyone else.

If, on the other hand, the argument is that black women should get a free degree in reparations for historic discrimination, then make that argument. The only problem is that it would violate the Equal Protection Clause, the very one that the ACLU’s “historic mission” was to protect.

18 thoughts on “Turning Student Loan Debt Into A Civil Rights Issue

  1. LRB

    It may be that those who characterise the issue as one of racial justice do so simply because it makes it more difficult to make a reasoned argument against their position. A rational debate can be had about student debt (or any other issue to which the justice label is now applied: food justice, climate justice, health justice etc). But if the issue can be framed as a civil rights struggle, and constitutionalised by co-opting the 14th Amendment, people might think twice before putting an alternative view. Why are you against justice? What’s wrong with you?

    1. SHG Post author

      Playing to the pop issue of the moment is a deep insight that few would even notice had you not pointed it out.

  2. Elpey P.

    Equal Protection but for demographics rather than individuals.

    It’s partly confusion because our discourse has always been terrible at navigating the wave/particle divide between the two. Ironically this conflation is a critical underpinning of racism.

    But it can also be intentional and reflective of the ongoing battle between individualism and collectivism. I think it’s related to Judith Butler’s recent comments in last week’s Holberg Debate that she is “skeptical of personal liberty these days” and “not so sure what the personhood of personal liberty is.” Maybe soon the ACLU will be all in on protecting ideological constructs (identity) and their administrators against what she calls the “death drive” of individualism, and the transformation will be complete.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’ve read some of Judith Butler’s writings in the past and it made me sad. I choose to avoid doing so and thank you for taking one for the team.

  3. Stephen

    On one hand, school vouchers, the ACLU says that it is a constitutional violation to force taxpayers to fund programs that may go to religious education. On the other hand, student loans, the ACLU says that its a constitutional violation if taxpayers DON’T fund programs that would go to paying for religious education. It’s telling that they speak so strongly about the constitutional issues when it comes to vouchers, but never even raise the religious funding issue with regards to student loan payoffs.

      1. Stephen

        I agree with the ACLU regarding vouchers, but I do not agree with student loans being a constitutional issue. My problem is the ACLU’s abandonment of a real civil liberties issue (public funding of religious schools – which student loan payoffs essentially do) so they can jump at the chance to promote a “woke” issue like student loan payoffs.

        1. SHG Post author

          That’s an issue addressed here in many ways. But if you raise it about vouchers, you make the argument about vouchers. As you correctly note, vouchers aren’t the problem.

  4. David

    If the argument is student debt has a disproportional effect on black people, shouldn’t it only be cancelled for black (or other specified minority groups) people?

    Then the ACLU and BLM can join together in their mission-creep journey on the woke road away from foundational premises.

    Are you doing a hat trick, a third mission-creep by an organization post tomorrow?

      1. B. McLeod

        Yeah, they are in on this student debt thing too. Especially for students who will be joining the oppressed and marginalized legal profession. They are probably assuming young lawyers will pay dues out of gratitude. I think the truth will make them sad. Again.

    1. Elpey P.

      If it has a disproportionate effect on black people, cancelling it would have a disproportionate benefit for black people. In this way colorblind reforms can be “reparative justice” while also addressing issues for all groups.

      Unlike the days of A. Philip Randolph and his “Freedom Budget For All Americans,” disproportionate benefit doesn’t satisfy the zero-sum gladiator mentality of today’s politics, whether institutional or activist. Too much potential for effective solidarity and brand erosion.

      This is all of course aside from the question of whether canceling student debt is a wise idea or a practical application of the ACLU mission. But it’s how you could get to “racial justice” as an alternate framing for a larger issue.

      1. David

        About half of Asian Americans and one-third of non-Hispanic white Americans have 4-year college degrees, but only about one-sixth of black non-Hispanic Americans (Hispanic Americans about 1 in 10). So cancelling debt even if disproportionately helpful to those individual black people it helped, would do nothing for 5 in 6 (and would disproportionately help higher percentages of white and Asian Americans).

        To say nothing of the fundamental issue, how is this a civil rights matter (or, even if that objection were overcome, why should only student loan debt be paid off?).

        1. Elpey P.

          I was assuming arguendo the same premise you were. The challenge you had made to it wasn’t that it was false in this case, but that it should lead to a racially exclusive solution. For an alternate argument in circumstances where this premise is true, see MLK’s forward to the Freedom Budget.

          Based on the statistics you provided, this case sounds like another example of the anything-goes incoherence we get from capriciously switching between individuals and groups when it helps our arguments. We would probably have people claiming that both cancelling and not cancelling student debt would be racial oppression. Oppression discourse is an art, not a science.

  5. cthulhu

    “Equal protection under the law” and defending the unclean is so yesterday; if you’re going to get invited to all tomorrow’s parties, you gotta have street cred with the kool kids, and how better to show you’re down with the program than to put your mouth behind freeing them from indentured servitude to the Man! Morals, schmorals…it’s time to reinvent Radical Chic!

  6. Rengit

    Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but has the distinction between “civil rights” and “civil liberties” all but vanished? Admittedly there’s some overlap, as in a Section 1983 claim, but my understanding from poly sci/gov classes and law school was that “civil rights” are statutory rights held against (for the most part) other private parties, as in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the National Labor Relations Act, while “civil liberties” are freedoms that citizens inherently possess and which the government is constitutionally prohibited from restricting.

    While I would expect committed left-liberals, progressives, and assorted leftists to use the terms interchangeably, whether out of ignorance or cynicism, reading someone like Sullum, who is presumably a libertarian, flip back and forth between these two words as if they are synonymous is surprising. If the two words no longer have any clear distinction, even among self-described libertarians, then it’s no wonder the ACLU itself is no longer anything other than another progressive organization, one that views individual liberties as subordinate to civil rights issues like disparate impact.

    1. SHG Post author

      Some people harp on that distinction. Others do not. Whether it’s salient enough to be a big deal is up to others to decide. In the scheme of issues, that one falls somewhere below the horizon for me.

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