The American Civil Liberties Union last week applauded President Joe Biden’s plan to forgive student loan debt, which it describes as “a racial justice issue.” This confusing stance sums up how far the venerable organization has strayed from the mission reflected in its name.
Under Biden’s new policy, borrowers earning up to $125,000 a year will be eligible for $10,000 in debt relief, or double that amount if they qualify for Pell grants in as students. The estimated 43 million beneficiaries include many wealthy people who could easily afford to repay their loans, while the cost, expected to be at least $300 billion, will be borne by taxpayers, including Americans of means. relatively modest.
Some of the people footing the bill have never been to college, while others have struggled to make it without borrowing money or have already paid off their loans. But in the ACLU’s view, this seemingly unfair redistribution of resources is what racial justice demands.
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“This burden of debt falls heaviest on Black Americans – especially Black women,” the ACLU says. “Cancelling student debt will help provide financial stability and mobility for people of color — especially black Americans — who are disproportionately burdened with student debt while providing immediate financial relief and peace of mind to millions of Americans.”
Whatever you think of this argument, it has nothing to do with protecting civil liberties. The 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection under the law, but it does not promise to eradicate racial disparities in educational or economic achievement.
However, according to the ACLU, these disparities are the result of “centuries of structural inequality and racism”. The federal government therefore has a duty to ensure equal outcomes, which requires far-reaching interventions, including social welfare programs, spending on education, job training, affirmative action, public housing, tax credits and state-subsidized health care.
To give you an idea of how remote this cause is from standing up for constitutional rights, the organization argues that “broadband access for all” is a matter of racial justice because people without broadband access “are disproportionately black, Latina, indigenous, rural or low-income. 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 is not possible to fully participate in the economic, social and civic life of our nation without stable health coverage.
If “stable health coverage” is a prerequisite for full participation in “the economic, social and civic life of our nation”, so are stable housing, stable employment and a stable supply of food, clothing and transportation. Such reasoning expands the ACLU’s mission to include just about any domestic policy issue.
The ACLU’s embrace of a broad progressive agenda alienates potential allies who may not necessarily agree with that agenda but support vigorous advocacy for civil liberties. It also weakens the ACLU’s commitment to the goals that once defined the organization, including advocacy for First Amendment rights.
According to an internal staff memo that was leaked in 2018, ACLU attorneys who plan to defend a potential client’s right to express opinions they find repugnant — the kind of function the organization has proudly served for most of its history – should consider how this might conflict with the “other values” supported by the ACLU. “Speech that denigrates (marginalized) groups can inflict serious harm,” the memo warns, “and will often hinder progress towards equality.”
A case the Supreme Court will hear in its next term further illustrates how the ACLU has gone astray. The organization argues that a Colorado woman who has religious objections to same-sex marriage should nonetheless be forced to apply her artistic talents in designing websites for same-sex marriages, notwithstanding First Amendment restrictions on coerced speech.
A consistent defense of civil liberties is the ACLU’s raison d’être. But as the organization becomes increasingly indistinguishable from a myriad of progressive advocacy groups, it is sacrificing the principles that have made its work worthy of broad support.
Jacob Sullum is editor of Reason magazine. Syndicated by Creators.com.