The graduating class at Morehouse College had anticipated entering the work force saddled by student loan debt. But by the end of billionaire Robert Smith's commencement speech, the students were debt free.
Smith’s decision to eliminate the graduating class's student debt struck a powerful chord — student loans are a major contributing factor to the racial wealth gap.
During his commencement speech, Smith spoke of being community made.
"Earning a college degree is one of the most impressive and greatest accomplishments of life. But success has many parents. And as hard as each of you has worked and achieved today, you have had a lot of help along the way. We are all the product of a community, a village, a team," Smith said during the speech.
In an interview with Boston Public Radio on Monday, Reverends Irene Monroe and Emmett G. Price examined the effects of Smith's act of philanthropy: While it uplifts the Class of 2019, should it be seen as a model for student loan forgiveness?
"It gets away from this notion of Horatio Alger, that I'll just pull myself up from the boot straps, but also his commencement speech is so grounded in the ethos of black uplift, the whole idea of it takes a village. He's talking about that, the whole notion of you stand on one shoulder, and the whole notion of paying forward, so it was a beautiful moment," Monroe said.
But Monroe noted she is critical of the implications of his actions.
"It's more predicated on luck than about a system that's in place that helps children, if they do take out loans, they're not saddled with this all their lives ... When you depend on the philanthropy of billionaires, it makes a lazy government disserve all the people," she said.
Price countered that black Americans should not sit idle and wait for the government to correct centuries of policies that have held black Americans back.
"But while we challenge the government to be better for everybody, somebody has to come up with a stimulus plan," said Price. "For all these young men graduating debt-free from Morehouse, there's a small corrective that if they take the spirit of Robert Smith and expand that and pay it forward, you have hope."
Reverend Irene Monroe is a syndicated religion columnist and the Boston voice for Detour’s African American Heritage Trail, a Visiting Researcher in the Religion and Conflict Transformation Program at Boston University School of Theology.
Emmett G. Price III is Professor of Worship, Church & Culture and Founding Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of the Black Christian Experience at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
During their interview with Boston Public Radio, Monroe and Price also discussed where various 2020 presidential candidates stand on reparations for slavery.