Normally, the only thing I’m thinking about at 9 a.m. on a Friday is whatever obligations are standing between me and the end of the work week.
But last week, I had something heavier on my mind — the correlation between student loan forgiveness and an ugly, all-too-recent stain on our country’s history. So I did what millions of people around the world do every day: I took my feelings to Twitter, a massively flawed digital bullhorn ... but an effective one.
“Black Americans paid taxes during segregation for pools they weren’t allowed to swim in, fountains they couldn’t drink from and buses they had to ride in the back of. So ... miss me with this ‘Why am I paying for school I didn’t go to?’ At least this is about uplift, not hate,” I wrote.
My comments didn’t specifically name the Biden administration’s decision to forgive $10,000 worth of student loan debt to many Americans. It’s more of what’s called a subtweet, but it was clear to many who read it what I was talking about. And more than 3,000 new followers, 239,000 likes, 52,500 retweets, several Instagram reels and at least one sassily inspired TikTok video later, it’s apparent that Twitter was listening. Not to mention I caught the attention of notables from actress Yvette Nicole Brown to iconic drummer Questlove of The Roots.
I’d hit a nerve, a dead center. To quote fictional fellow journalist Ron Burgundy, one that escalated quickly.
My tweet addressed the stance of myriad opponents of forgiveness that it was unfair to cover that debt with the taxes of the hard-working, who either paid off their own loans earlier or never even went to college. As I wrote back in July, I’m willing to make that sacrifice to help my neighbors facing worse loan amounts, interest and job prospects than I did to benefit them and our economy.
But a lot of people disagree with me. In fact, some said that having to pay for others’ loans is like slavery. Being the descendant of ACTUAL SLAVES WHOSE NAMES I KNOW, I took emphatic umbrage at that, because I don’t see any shackles on your wrists, dude. This is also dumb, because childless people pay taxes that support schools and others pay taxes to repave bridges and roads they’ve never driven on.
Also there is a precedent for Americans investing in publicy funded infrastructure, government buildings and other things we take for granted — things that they had no choice of whether to use or not, but were once legally barred from. Hint: It’s the descendants of those actual American chattel slaves. I was expecting some response, given that loan forgiveness is a hot, controversial topic on either side of the debate. And I’ve learned that mentioning race is a good way to draw impassioned responses from activists and trolls alike.
I was not expecting all of this. Perhaps I should have. We are in a weird, dangerously polarized place in our history, perhaps more so than any time since actual chattel slavery. So I braced for — and got — some fierce, racist pushback, so much that I muted responses after an hour because I’m not a billy goat and don’t choose to live under a bridge.
Happily, what I got more of was thoughtful discourse, from the replies that added other examples of Black people not reaping the benefits of their hard-earned money. Like the GI Bill, which my grandfathers — WWII-era veterans — were not eligible for because of their race, disqualifying them from establishing generational wealth gained by white veterans and their families. Some non-parents were happy to pay school taxes to further their society’s education. The most touching comments were from people surprised they’d never considered my position, even those who disagree with loan forgiveness. It was civil discourse. I’d almost forgotten what that was like.
Of course I heard from people who thought I was asking them to fulfill an obligation as wrong as that asked of my Jim Crow-era ancestors — the involuntary taking of tax money for things that didn’t benefit them. But as I said, the difference is that my folks in Arkansas and South Carolina had no choice to participate in the spoils of their labor. They could not choose to attend the nicer schools or to swim in the public pools that were sometimes drained rather than allow them to dip as much as a toenail in the water.
That exclusion was about hate, and the cruelty was the point. It was about, as they say, playing in the faces of marginalized people knowing they couldn’t do a thing about it. But I believe that taxes for loan forgiveness truly do help the common good, help more people participate in society, and level a grossly uneven playing field.
It’s been strange to have friends text me about finding my tweet on the pages of family members of theirs I don’t know, or shared in Facebook posts. I write to reach people and make them think a little deeper, and I never know what’s going to break through. Trust me, I’ve written what I thought were sure to be popular masterpieces that fell flatter than a piece of stepped-on Play-Doh.
But my tweet made people think. It made people feel something.
And in this world where hate is so normalized and the very history I wrote about is being banned, it was striking that this reminder struck such a chord. Maybe, in the madness, we are closer than we think.
Man, I hope so.