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 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.
White people, for example, are much more likely to commit suicide than black people, Latinos, or Asian Americans (although Native Americans are the group with the highest suicide rate). Non-Hispanic white people also have a higher rate of opioid-related deaths than Latinos or African Americans.
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.”
That explanation of the ACLU’s stance on student loans conflates state action with private action, assumes that “pay disparities” result from “job discrimination,” and posits that the lingering effects of state-supported racism explain most, if not all, educational and economic disparities between black people and white people. These are all highly contentious issues on which Americans of different ideologies and political preferences strongly disagree. While an organization that consistently defends civil liberties cannot avoid controversy, opening this can of worms detracts from that central goal, needlessly alienating potential allies.
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.
The organization is already descending this slippery slope. Its “racial justice” page highlights three facts “you need to know”:
1. “Black students are suspended and expelled from school three times more often than white students are.”
2. “The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Latino households.”
3. “Seven in ten blacks said they are treated less fairly than whites are in their dealings with police.”
One of these things is not like the others. While both policing and public schools’ disciplinary practices raise legitimate civil liberties concerns, that is not true of the wealth disparity that the ACLU thinks the government should address in the name of racial justice.
To give you a sense of how far afield that cause takes the ACLU from the defense of constitutional rights, the organization argues that “broadband access for all” is a racial justice issue because “people without broadband access are disproportionately Black, Latinx, Indigenous, rural, or low-income.” The organization therefore supports the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, which would “invest $94 billion to build high-speed broadband infrastructure in underserved communities and ensure that the resulting internet service is affordable.”
The ACLU describes the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which it urged the Supreme Court to uphold, as “a great civil rights law” because it “bars certain forms of discrimination,” “begins to address effects of longstanding discrimination,” and “enables the freedoms other civil rights laws aim to protect.” The ACLU argues that “it is not possible to fully participate in the economic, social, and civic life of our nation without stable health coverage.”
That position conflates negative rights, such as the right to express your opinions without being punished by the government or the right to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures, with positive rights—in this case, the purported right to government-subsidized health care. That conflation opens the door to demanding all sorts of taxpayer-funded subsidies as essential to the exercise of civil liberties. If “stable health care” is a prerequisite for fully participating in “the economic, social, and civic life of our nation,” so is stable housing, stable employment, and a stable supply of food, clothing, and transportation. Such reasoning expands the ACLU’s mission to include pretty much any domestic policy issue.
The ACLU’s promotion of a broad progressive agenda is not just a divisive distraction. It is an invitation to expanded government power that undermines individual freedom. In defending the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that every American obtain government-approved health coverage, for example, the ACLU counterintuitively argued that the mandate protected “personal liberty.”
Or consider gun control. It is bad enough that the ACLU has no interest in defending the constitutional right to armed self-defense, which it says does not exist. It is worse that the organization supports New York’s virtual ban on carrying firearms for self-defense, arguing that “restrictions on guns in public spaces are appropriate to make public spaces safe for democratic participation, including First Amendment activity such as assembly, association, and speech.”
It would be worse still if the ACLU decided to support gun control more generally, on the theory that firearm restrictions address a problem that disproportionately harms African Americans, as the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund argues. The idea that gun control promotes racial justice perversely invites policies and practices that not only violate civil liberties but also disproportionately harm racial minorities, as illustrated by New York’s severe restrictions on the right to bear arms, the NYPD’s “stop, question, and frisk” program, and last year’s felon-in-possession crackdown in Washington, D.C.
While the ACLU has never been keen on the Second Amendment, it has a long, admirable history of defending the First Amendment, even when that meant helping people with odious views. But that commitment is now open to question (and has been for some time) because it conflicts with the preferences of people who think the ACLU should prioritize progressive causes rather than civil liberties.
That is what the ACLU did after Kyle Rittenhouse successfully argued that he acted in self-defense when he shot three people, two fatally, during an August 2020 protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. When a jury acquitted Rittenhouse of all charges last month, the ACLU complained that he “was not held responsible for his actions” and irrelevantly decried “the impact that violence in defense of white supremacy has on the Black and Brown communities.” Thus did an organization that is supposedly dedicated to defending the rights of criminal defendants abandon that cause, bowing to political correctness by implying that the law and the evidence did not matter. So much for due process, trial by jury, the presumption of innocence, and proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
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.