Black Excellence in Economics

This week’s post is brought to you by Alex Dreussi, a current 2L at University of Montana law school. Alex participates widely in school organizations and donates his time to many important causes. Some of his current roles include: Treasurer of NALSA, Sustainability Coordinator for SBA, 2L Rep for MBLSA, SALDF, and OUTlaws. He also serves on the ACLU of Montana Board of Directors as the Law School Representative. In addition, Alex is a current student of the Masters of Public Administration Program.

As with most professions, the field of economics has a problematically low rate of racial representation, specifically when it comes to Black economists. This is hardly considered a contentious claim—the American Economic Association (AEA) itself addressed the issue in a statement this past June. Introspection after the murder of George Floyd led the Association to announce, “We have learned that our professional climate is a hostile one for Black economists.” This is starkly illustrated in a 2019 AEA survey of practitioners in the field, with only 3% of responding economists self-identifying as Black. This is compared to 79% identifying as white. Contrast this with the 2019 U.S. Census Bureau data, which shows 13.4% of the population identifying as Black and 60.4% identifying as non-Hispanic white. This lack of representation manifests in areas such as hiring at the Federal Reserve Bank: the San Francisco branch of the Fed did not hire its first Black research assistant until 2018. In 2019, the Brookings Institute estimated 2% of full-time college and university economics faculty identify as Black—this statistic has remained unchanged for the past decade.The Brookings Institute estimated in 2019 that 2% of full-time college and university economics faculty identify as Black—which they note has remained unchanged for the past decade.

This racial disparity is a problem for reasons beyond basic representation in the field of economics. A March 2019 letter from AEA leadership explains further that “[e]xcluding or marginalizing people based on their gender, race, or other personal characteristics is not only deeply unfair to those who are excluded, it damages the field as a whole by limiting the diversity of perspectives and dissuading talented people from becoming economists.” This loss, while particularly disenfranchising to the voices suppressed by exclusion, affects our common base of knowledge—we all suffer the results of a limited perspective. What society misses out on when the narrative is white only is demonstrated through the work of Black economists.

As the first Black woman to graduate with a doctoral degree in economics, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander exemplifies Black excellence in economics. Dr. Alexander is a pioneer in the field as only the second Black woman to graduate with a Ph.D in the United States. She went on to study law, becoming the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, as well as the first to be admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar. She attributed her success to her determination, commonly quoted as saying, “I knew well that the only way I could get that door open was to knock it down; because I knocked all of them down.” But what might the world look like were we not to require such Herculean efforts?

More recently, a powerful and innovative voice in the field of economics is Dr. Nina Banks, an associate professor of economics at Bucknell University. Her recent article tracing the economic value of community organizing led by Black and brown women argues their work is undervalued and not counted as part of the economy. As the New York Times notes in its story on Dr. Banks’s most recent work, “Her goal is to develop a theory ‘to elevate the community’ as a site of production that deserves as much scrutiny as other work.” Diversifying the field of economics would allow for similar groundbreaking and thoughtful work to be done. Dr. Banks explains that much of the community organization is in response to a lack of both public and private sector resources, necessitating unpaid labor from Black women and other women of color.

Dr. Lisa Cook, a Black economist and Professor of Economics and International Relations at Michigan State University, researches the effect of white supremacy on Black inventors. As she explains to NPR in her Planet Money podcast, after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, freed slaves were able to start patenting their inventions. Dr. Cook notes the rise in racial violence in 1870 began to affect this economic activity, leading to less patents issued to Black inventors—a nearly 15% decrease between 1882 and 1940. Dr. Cook’s 2014 journal article entitled “Violence and Economic Activity: Evidence from African American Patents, 1870-1940” finds that this led to 1,000 “missing” patents from Black inventors, compared to the 726 actually obtained. Jim Crow laws legitimated segregation, stifling social networks for inventors and decreasing institutional access. Plessy v. Ferguson and the resulting white-only areas prevented Black inventors from meeting with white patent lawyers. Dr. Cook hypothesizes that racialized violence suppressed Black patent activity. The economic effect, as she notes in her Planet Money interview, is equivalent to the GDP of a mid-sized European country at the time.

The few Black voices present in economics speak to the devastating effects of a society rife with inherent racism and the effects of segregation. The reduced value in Black owned intellectual, as well as real, property that Dr. Cook speaks to lingers to this day. Dr. Banks attributes the need for unpaid community organizing as rising directly from a lack of investment in communities from the public and private sector. With lack of financial investment comes a resulting lack in property value and job opportunities. Economic output suffers when such white supremacist forces are targeted at a community.

By failing to fund these organizers and provide necessary resources, society continues to impoverish and oppress these communities. This lack of investment and resulting lowered economic output lead to devastating realities, such as food deserts, inadequate housing, lack of healthcare, and fewer employment and education opportunities. The American police system is not equipped to deal with these situations. People in these neglected communities are met with racial profiling and excessive, ill-equipped police force. This fundamental misunderstanding contributes to the overrepresentation of Black people in the criminal system. A direct juxtaposition to their underrepresentation in the field of economics. A lack of diversity of voices supporting the story of representation in economic theories contributes to BIPOC populations bearing the brunt of these failures of majority-white institutions.

The field of economics is not alone in suffering from a lack of Black representation, but it is one of the more pronounced. When this issue was raised in Congress, then Fed chair Alan Greenspan assured lawmakers the Fed was working to further diversity—in 1993. And lest we smirk too much at the lack of Black representation in economics, we can look to statistics in the field of law. The 2020 ABA Profile of the Legal Profession Report states only 5% of lawyers identify as Black, with 77% of the profession identifying as white. 

Diversifying every field betters society. More representation improves the discourse. We’ve got some work to do.

– A. Dreussi

One thought on “Black Excellence in Economics

  1. “But what might the world look like were we not to require such Herculean efforts?”

    This really hit home for me. It made me realized how natural it seems to me to see marginalized folks burning the candle at both ends- this is just what is expected, especially of people of color. Yet white people are allowed to excel with only a modest investment of time and effort.

    Thank you for this food for thought, Alex.


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