Transcript, Web links and Credits below.
Could you imagine being at your college graduation and the commencement speaker announces that they are going to pay off the student loan debt of every graduating senior? Well that’s just what happened at my alma mater — Morehouse College — this weekend when the richest Black man in America shocked the audience and did just that.
I want to unpack and explain the power of what he did, but then we’ll pivot to the plans that several politicians have released to actually do the same thing for everybody with student loans. It’s an idea that I think we should all get behind and I’ll tell you why.
And I’ll close today with my quick thoughts on Grady Wayne Wilkes. You’ll see his story on the national news, but this morning he shot and injured two police officers and killed another. Of course, he was taken in alive.
Let’s dig in.
This is Shaun King and you are listening to (The Breakdown)!
On this past Sunday, Robert F. Smith, one of the most successful investors in the world and the richest Black man in America, was the commencement speaker at Morehouse College. Now if you didn’t already know, I’m a proud graduate of Morehouse — and my time there as a student and as a leader changed my life. It’s literally the only university for Black men in the entire world. We brag because brilliant Black men like Martin Luther King and Spike Lee graduated from Morehouse, but it has produced thousands of Black teachers and doctors and lawyers and businessmen and activists and leaders that now do good work all over the world. There’s no place like it.
As a student there, you could go years and years without experiencing racism. It’s an incubator — a cocoon that allows you to grow. It’s free of police brutality and the systems and structures of mass incarceration. It’s not perfect, but it was a refuge for me and has been a refuge for tens of thousands of other young Black men since 1867. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, I don’t know if you’d even know me now had I not attended there. It’s where I became a leader, where I became a speaker, where my painful wounds from my childhood began to heal.
I was just excited for students to be able to hear from Robert F. Smith. Quietly, he’s one of the most generous men in the country — and he cares deeply about civil rights and human rights and justice. He’s told me so himself, but I know what he does behind the scenes. And so I was excited that students would get to hear from him. I was excited that he’d be receiving an honorary degree from the college. But it’s this moment, where he announces that his family foundation is going to pay off all of the student loan debt of every graduating senior, that I want to play for you right now.
Nobody in the audience, including the college President and staff, had any idea this moment was coming.
Here it is:
And just like that, he canceled $40 million in student loan debt for those graduates of Morehouse College. He changed their lives forever. They will walk into what’s next with little to no debt.
And I had a chance to talk with Robert yesterday and he said what he wants to measure and prove is how having no student loan debt impacts these students, and their outcomes, and their performance, not just up against other Morehouse students, but just in society in general.
And that’s a perfect place for me to break down the student loan crisis in this country.
(Break it down DJ mix)
Right now, Americans have over $1.6 trillion dollars in student loan debt. That number is about a year old and some say we’re about to cross $2 trillion dollars in student loan debt. That’s more than any nation in the world. In fact, dozens of developed countries around the world don’t even have student loans because college is paid for by the government. Hundreds of thousands of borrowers currently have payments that are past due. Estimates are that 10 million American student loan borrowers are currently in default. And as a result they can’t buy a home and even struggle to rent one because of the impact it has on your credit.
Just 15 years ago the number was $400 billion. Right now we’re at nearly $2 trillion dollars in national student loan debt. It’s quadrupled in just 15 years. I’m too embarrassed to even say out loud how much student loan debt my wife and I have. It’s outrageous.
And of course, student loan debt impacts students of color as well as students who come from low income and even middle income families the most. 90% of African American students require student loans to attend college — frequently taking out the entire amount of tuition, room, and board to attend. For white students, that number plummets to 58% that even require student loans to attend college. And even that 58% is taking out a drastically smaller amount of loans than their Black peers.
So when Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders announced massive plans to make public education completely tuition free and to tax the super-rich to eliminate the majority of student loan debt, I’m paying attention — not just because that includes me, but because it includes the majority of you listening right now.
Eliminating and forgiving student loan debt is not a Black idea, it’s not reparations, but it helps Black and Latinx students and graduates more than it does anybody else. And it’s these types of smart plans that we need to support. [See also presidential candidate Wayne Messam’s plan detailed in a recent interview featured on The North Star.]
Not just presidential candidates, but we need to begin demanding that corporations have student loan forgiveness programs for their employees. States need to have student loan forgiveness programs for people who pledge to stay and work in that state. We need a student loan forgiveness bonanza in this nation because it’s going to take every bit of that — plus a massive federal plan to reverse the trend. It’s absolutely out of control.
Speaking of out of control, let me close with one final story for the day.
Early this morning a young white man named Grady Wayne Wilkes shot three police officers in Alabama. One of them died. The other two are in serious condition. And then he got away. Police were originally called to his house for a domestic disturbance.
And on social media I posted his mugshot. First to shine a light on the fact that almost all American police who are shot and killed are shot and killed by white men — just like most mass shootings and most school shootings and most domestic terrorist attacks — yet conservatives want us to think that it’s Black men killing the police and Muslims leading all of the school shootings and terrorist attacks. It’s a form of deflection.
But after I posted his mugshot, hundreds of people immediately commented that it was only a matter of time before Grady Wayne Wilkes was taken alive. And sure enough, a few hours later, armed and dangerous, having just shot 3 cops and killed one, police took him in alive.
And I’ll close today with an important thought that I have to share. For years I thought police needed more training on how not to use lethal force, but what we see over and over and over again is that they know how to arrest people without using lethal force. They do it with heavily armed white men who just murdered people a few times per week. What we see is that police simply pick and choose who to use this training with. They pick and choose who to have restraint with. And what we know is that they seem to be picking right down racial lines.
And I’m not asking for you to shoot and kill Grady Wayne Wilkes — arrest that man and give him justice. What we’re asking for is for you to treat people of color like you treat your armed white mass murderers.
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