The Problem of Colored Lines: Student Debt and Racial Disparities

Title wall of The Problem of Colored Lines exhibition with reproductions of W.E.B. Du Bois charts

Inspired by the charts and maps created by sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois that depict wealth disparities between Blacks and whites, The Dignity + Debt Network and the VizE Lab for Ethnographic Data Visualization at Princeton University visualize the color lines and the social complexities within the urgent issue of student loan debt in this new exhibition.

On display in the Donald E. Stokes Library, “The Problem of Colored Lines: Student Debt and Racial Disparities” exhibition was created by Jeffrey Himpele, Director of the VizE Lab for Ethnographic Data Visualization (Department of Anthropology), and Fred Wherry, Director of the Dignity and Debt Network (Department of Sociology). Taken together, the series depict wider webs of structures and values embedded in the uneven circumstances with which college students and families take on educational debt, and the ability of graduates to repay them, and the effect on their sense of mastery and self-esteem. These charts reveal how our human values can guide meaningful policies and practices for financial and educational inclusion.

In this exhibition, Himpele and Wherry adopt Du Bois’s style to visualize some of the current research that shows how “color lines” organize student loan debt. Drawing from cited data on the social inequalities of student loan debt, a number of Du Bois charts are used as models for representing disparities in educational debt. “These charts adopt a contemporary, digital version of Du Bois’s bold style with its particular palette and inventive geometries,” said Himpele. The Du Boisian chart style is intended to engage and draw viewers into making sense of the bold colors and shapes and the visually striking lines that reflect the color lines of today’s disparities in educational debt. 

W.E.B. Du Bois-style chart showing effects of student debt cancellation

One of the charts on display. Photographer: Brandon Johnson, Princeton University Library

The burden of student loan debt affects the lives of many in the United States, but this burden is not evenly distributed. “If Du Bois were working today on the urgent issue of student loan indebtedness, he would find that, in the phrase he used, “the problem of the color line” endures across the globe, and that other social cleavages define how debts are arranged and affect how groups of people are allowed to carry it with dignity,” said Wherry. 

The issue of student loan debt is a pressing one, with the Supreme Court anticipated to make a judgment soon regarding President Biden’s proposals for debt cancellation. This exhibit can help those who want to understand the wider social ramifications of student loan debt and the ways that disparities in student loan debt reflect deep-seated racial categories and histories of exclusion.

The exhibition can be viewed during regular Stokes Library hours. The charts can also be seen online at the Dignity and Debt website
Related: Learn about the creation of the Du Boisian Visualization Toolkit. Explore the Du Boisian Style Guide at github from AJ Starks.

Exhibition development team: Jeffrey Himpele (curator), Fred Wherry (curator), Ofira Schwartz-Soicher (exhibition developer), Barbara Valenza (exhibition graphic design), Stephanie Wiener (exhibition project manager)

Published May 18, 2023.

Media contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications