Why did Nancy Pelosi appeal to white supremacy to reject student loan forgiveness?
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has shot down the possibility of Biden forgiving student loan debt, and the reasoning for her stance is deeply problematic. | J. Scott Applewhite / AP

It is now seven months into the Biden administration. During the election campaign, Sen. Chuck Schumer, now ostensible leader of the Senate, talked about how it is legal for the president to forgive student debt. He and Sen. Elizabeth Warren drafted a resolution calling for President-elect Biden to do so on Day One.

That didn’t happen, as you know. Presumably, this appeal wasn’t simply a cynical means of drumming up votes for Biden and other Democrats.

Coalitions like American for Financial Reform, a broad coalition of labor and community organizations, show the harmful economic consequences of the debt crisis on workers and explain how the president has the power to cancel it.

So far, President Biden has used that power to cancel the debts of a few thousand former students who borrowed money to finance taking classes with organizations that turned out to be scams. You know, like Trump University.

On Wednesday, July 28th, however. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi came out and rejected the president’s power to do this at all. It must be “an act of Congress,” a statement that virtually positions the issue as a non-starter.

Pelosi said, “Suppose your child just decided at this time they do not want to go to college, but you’re paying taxes to forgive somebody else’s obligations. You may not be happy about that.”

Pelosi’s shocking retreat into right-wing talking points is openly an appeal to white supremacy. First, in U.S. political rhetoric appeals to fairness for taxpayers are irretrievably discourse about white people. To frame her opposition to student loan forgiveness as unfair to white people who pay taxes is standard white nationalist talk right out of the playbook of Trump, Bush, and Reagan.

It is also a massive distortion of reality. Not only does the President have the power — unless Schumer is a liar — but it is the working class who are subjected most to student debt.

The timing of the statement is especially disturbing, signaling as it does the Democratic Party’s intention to drop from its agenda even the possibility of a large-scale student loan forgiveness.

If people benefit from student loan forgiveness, it would be morally distinct from a system designed to benefit the rich who have multiple ways of avoiding their fair share in taxes. It would be far more just than massive injections of public investment for private contracts to already powerful corporations. It would far more equitable than a massively bloated military budget that funds interventions, wars, occupations, and across-the-board human rights abuses.

To call student loans themselves a benefit is laughable. Bloated war budgets, unnecessary tax cuts for the rich, and shameful cuts to social programs coincided with huge education funding cuts and profit-driven student loans schemes that drove up tuition rates astronomically.

And while the U.S. ruling class likes to pretend it lives in an innovative society that depends on high levels of education to continue to grow, it doesn’t fund educational programs like it actually means that.

Working-class people are caught in a trap between accessing higher education, the primary avenue for social mobility (if one actually exists), and entering the workforce directly without specialized training or credentials.

Black, Latinx, and Native working-class students are forced to borrow at much higher rates than their white counterparts. They end up paying far more than the tuition rate for their education, also out of proportion to white working-class students. According to Demos, higher rates students of color have to borrow thousands of dollars more than white students.

To be sure, student loan cancellation would benefit about 4 or 5 million Black, Latinx, Native, and other students of color. And those 4 or 5 million workers would also shoulder part of the cost of that, but it would be far more reasonable.

To appeal to a fantasy about the fairness to taxpayers is deeply rooted in the right-wing tradition of attacking Black and Brown people in defense of an elite agenda of supporting finance capital. That is the central plank of the Republican Party’s platform.

Pelosi could make the same argument about welfare, about highways, about public transportation, the post office, Obamacare, about public schools. She could say it about any sort of public investment in cultural, social, or economic infrastructure.

It is frustrating for working-class people to see the leaders they elected who are supposed to be their allies making right-wing arguments about policies that protect the working class.

Are Democratic Party leaders signaling that they are trading away the truly urgent working-class struggle for the protection of voting rights, a raise in the minimum wage, a wealth tax on billionaires, union organizing rights, and police reforms for one or two votes on Biden’s infrastructure agenda?

The working class didn’t authorize such a surrender. It is time the Democratic Party prioritize the working class. Cancel student debt. Pass the PRO Act. Raise the wage. Protect the right to vote.


Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of "Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature, Settler Colonialism, and Racial Capitalism in the Long Nineteenth Century" (International Publishers) and "The Collectivity of Life" (Lexington Books).