Whenever someone questions the identity of President Obama, whether from the right — what is now infamously known as birtherism — or from the left — where some Black thinkers think it is prudent to challenge the president’s racial authenticity — the media makes sure that it becomes news. Nationally syndicated columnists will line up to proffer point-to-point responses to the latest identity dustup.
I suppose these kinds of discourses are “par for the course” of America’s first Black president. In fact, we may all be complicit in these identity-driven politics of distraction. Here in America, we are obsessed with the trappings of visual identity — race, gender, etc. Yet while we debate/discuss this president’s Blackness all over again, an issue of single importance, both to this president and to all Americans, is on the table right now.
On July 1, the interest rates on subsidized federal Stafford loans will double for more than seven million Americans, which include 1.5 million African-American students. Obama has been speaking about this publicly in a variety of attempts to persuade lawmakers of the critical significance of this looming deadline. More recently, Vice President Joe Biden met with university officials from 10 different institutions in order to institute more transparent policies with respect to tuition costs and borrowing.
For so many reasons this is an issue critical to America’s future. Access to an affordable post-secondary education is the key to harvesting the “green economy,” for developing a labor force that reflects the centrality of the STEM disciplines in the future of the world’s workforce; it is the foundation through which we will sustain our economy and our democracy into the future.
This also just so happens to be one of those national issues that has a measurably disproportionate impact on communities of color, especially the Black community. For generations now, access to higher education has been the single most important factor in the development of the Black middle class. For a variety of historical reasons — centuries of slavery, systemic discrimination and lack of access and/or equal opportunity — Black people have not had unfettered pathways to educational edification. This is a fact reflected directly in income and wealth disparities along racial lines.
One of the greatest deterrents to the pursuit of higher education is the perception of whether or not that pursuit is actually affordable.
If loan interest rates are allowed to double, the specter of unaffordability will overshadow the aspirations of millions of young Americans. The numbers speak for themselves, but what’s lost here are the subtle effects this will have on the millions more who aspire to higher education as the only means to enhance their station in life, to join the ranks of America’s shrinking middle class.
By every study or metric that we have available to us, this issue is vital to Americans — especially Blacks. If higher education is unaffordable, then our economy stands little chance of adapting to 21st-century standards/requirements for work. But the specter of unaffordability deters poor folk and people of color from even considering the most effective way to enter into the American middle class.
So while birthers continue to question the president’s American-ness and the Black intelligentsia continues to debate the president’s Blackness, one of the most important Black American issues is on deck — higher education. And this issue demands we turn our attention to it.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
James Braxton Peterson is the director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University. Peterson writes regularly on race, politics and popular culture. Follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson.
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