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Racial Capitalism and The Black Student Loan Debt Crisis

by Jalil B. Mustaffa & Caleb Dawson - 2021

Background/Context: Student loans reflect a larger shift in U.S. society in which people are forced to go into debt for basic needs. Student loan debt in the United States has been recognized as a political economic crisis that disproportionately devastates Black people. Scholars have statistically reported on racialized and gendered stratification in student loan outcomes and several name the racial wealth gap as the main contributing factor to the Black student debt crisis. Yet minimal attention has been dedicated to examining, let alone theorizing, the logics and systemic forces that racialize debt in higher education.

Purpose: Drawing on a theory of racial capitalism, this article fills analytic and theoretical gaps in the study of the Black student debt crisis by detailing how the crisis has been arranged as well as how it functions to constrain, dispossess, and exploit Black people.

Research Design: This article offers a corrective history, systematic analysis, and theoretical explanation of the Black student debt crisis.

Findings/Results: The paper draws on racial capitalism to account for how student loans as a policy has relied on anti-Black racial logics and systemic forces. The authors address how Black educational desires are co-opted, the government configures inclusion according to predatory terms, and the student loan industry forms a debt trap that exploits repayment struggles. While the majority of Black people who enroll in higher education never secure the promise of college as always “worth it,” the arrangement continues to be worthwhile for student loan profiteers. Student loans are perfect for racial capitalism because they answer demands for social access and inclusion (which are already reduced to mean credentialism) and reproduce both the disposability and dispossession of Black people’s everyday lives.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The authors call for the full cancellation of student loan debt. This call forms part of a larger mobilization to abolish the racist logics, processes, and policies that make the Black student debt crisis and Black precarity possible in the first place.  

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 6, 2021, p. -
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23696, Date Accessed: 9/21/2021 1:37:44 AM

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About the Author
  • Jalil B. Mustaffa
    Villanova University
    E-mail Author
    JALIL B. MUSTAFFA, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of higher education at Villanova University. His research agenda focuses on studying the role of racism and anti-racism in higher education through the institutional system’s connections to K–12 inequality and its intersections with societal inequities. He employs community-engaged, qualitative, historical, and policy-oriented research methods coupled with critical theory to question the extent to which education pathways are or can be a social equalizer, particularly for Black students and communities.
  • Caleb Dawson
    UC Berkeley
    E-mail Author
    CALEB DAWSON is a doctoral candidate in critical studies of race, class, and gender at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. He researches the cultural politics of institutional change and the political economy of inclusion in higher education. His current project is a Black feminist institutional ethnography that investigates what it takes for Black people to improve their working, learning, and living conditions at an elite public university. A community organizer, Caleb loves to dance and indulge in food that tastes too good to be vegan.
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