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Black economists: an ‘elite clan of warrior intellectuals.’

“Once upon a time there was a little girl who wanted to know why some people had jobs and others didn’t, so she took a course in economics. The textbook said that if you went to school and did the right things, you’d get a job. But she said, `that can’t be right. I have four cousins in Chicago who finished school, who finished training programs, and who still don’t have jobs.’ So she studied some more.”


That little girl is now Dr. Cecilia Conrad. She told this story as part of her 1993 presidential address to the National Economic Association (NEA). Conrad’s story captures the visceral life experience expressed by most of the Black economists interviewed for this story. Like Conrad, they too suspected that economics had the tools to explain important questions about Black life. But as they pursued it and developed a love for it, they were continually confronted with the fact that the theories they were being taught were contradicted by their everyday experience.


Although they kept studying, the established theories never stopped contradicting their beliefs–and mainstream economists refused to change the theories, even when contradicted with hard data. Perhaps this is why so many Black men and women proudly describe earning a Ph.D. in economics as less like joining a profession than surviving a gauntlet. Surviving that gauntlet earns them induction into an elite clan of warrior intellectuals battling over the most profound issues facing Black America.


“We simply have better answers to many of the questions of poverty and racism in the post civil rights era,” notes Dr. William Spriggs, an economist for the House/Senate Joint Economic Committee. “For example, I believe that Black economists can make much more powerful arguments for the need for affirmative action than political scientists. However, we are often ignored by both white and Black policy makers.”


Many African-American academics and Ph.D.s sometimes feel isolated and frustrated. But for Black economists, several things combine to make these feelings more extreme. Dr. Margaret C. Simms, research director of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, estimates that no more than a maximum of 400, or 1.2 percent, of all Ph.D.s in economics are held by Blacks. “In 1980, there were approximately 150 in the entire country,” Simms points out. “For each of the past ten years the number of Black Ph.D.s produced has ranged from three to eleven–to possibly even none.”


There is probably no other field where the numbers of Black Ph.D.s is so low relative to the number of undergraduates who take courses in the discipline especially in light of the number of African Americans with related professional degrees such master’s of business administration or Certified Public Accountancy. In economic terms, the supply to Black Ph.D.s doesn’t seem to be keeping up with either the demand or the rewards of working in the field.


“There are so few of us, that I have actually had students come to my office just to see if I was real,” laughs Dr. Edward Montgomery, of the University of Maryland. Dr. Debra Lindsey of Howard University notes that there was seldom, if every, another Black economist at any of the government or private agencies where she worked. However, the situation became particularly acute when she worked in defense economics. “Because the information was classified, I couldn’t discuss any of it with anyone outside of the agency. So there was literally no one Black that I could bounce ideas off of.”


Like Lindsey, other Black economists often describe the consequences of their tiny numbers in personal terms. However, they are quick to point out the larger issue: The Black community, as a whole, suffers when there aren’t any Black economists at the conference table when important decisions are being made. “Black economists may not be any rarer than Black physicists” notes Dr. Rhonda Williams of the University of Maryland. “However, physicists are not running the Federal Reserve Bank or making every day decisions that will determine or even undermine the qualify of life of millions of African Americans.”


When asked what is the single largest public policy question which Black economists probably would handle differently than white ones, the most common answer concerned the tradeoffs between inflation and unemployment. “Since [the presidency of Ronald] Reagan, federal policy-makers have made price stability their major priority under the assumption that inflation hurts everyone,” notes Assistant Secretary of Labor Dr. Bernard E. Anderson. “Therefore, when we approach fuller employment, they will raise interest rates in order to `cool off’ the economy. Well, in the Black community, the social consequences of long-term unemployment are far more devastating than the problems of inflation. This is just one example of how Black folks could be much better off if there were enough Black economists to really impact public policy.”


A Shrinking Pipeline


In higher education overall, the shortage of Black Ph.D.s can often he traced to financial issues such as low pay and limited job openings. But this is probably not the case in economics. “Economists have career options that most other Black Ph.D.s would drool over,” notes Spriggs. “You can go into banking, consulting, or academia and there are lots of different types of jobs available in foundations and think tanks, as well as a variety of positions in the state, local and federal government. Unlike someone with a doctorate in anthropology or history, there are very few unemployed economists.” “We also get paid relatively well,” adds Dr. William “Sandy” Darity, Jr., former president of the NEA. “Beginning salaries for economics Ph.D.s are around $45,000 to $50,000 a year, so we don’t have the same financial problems as people with Ph.D.s in English, for example.”


The question of why so few Black students go on to higher degrees in economics can only be understood in relation to the fact that the overall number of economics majors is falling. Fewer white students are going on to graduate study in economics–so few, in fact, that economists feel there is a crisis in how economics is taught and learned.


One factor that discourages undergraduates from majoring in economics is that the curriculum seems “upside down” relative to other fields. In introductory physics and chemistry courses, students typically do experiments that work in the real world and only then does the curriculum proceeds towards more uncertain ideas. In economics, “They start with what doesn’t work first,” says Spriggs, “talking about companies that operate under perfect competition and with perfect knowledge. Many students say this is ridiculous and never go on to the higher-level courses.”


A structural problem in the field is the relative absence of programs that grant master’s degrees en route to a Ph.D. This makes it harder for people to go into graduate school, get a master’s, work in the real world for a time, and then go back to complete the doctoral program. Math Use and Misuse The fact that so many Black students lack the preparation or confidence to do math above the level of calculus is a major barrier to African Americans going into many of the sciences, particularly mathematics and physics. However, it is particularly vexing in economics, where the focus seems to have become unnecessarily–and perhaps even absurdly–theoretical and mathematical. It wasn’t always this way.


In the 1950s and 1960s, much of economic theory was presented in and argued with words. Then, Dr. Paul Samuelson won the first Nobel Prize ever awarded in economics for demonstrating that many traditional economic principles could be expressed mathematically. Since the early 1970s, when his book became the standard text in the field, the trend has gone SO far that several years ago the Journal of Economic Literature published the “Report of the Commission on Graduate Education in Economics” and specifically mentioned that “Part of the problem is the misuse of mathematics.”


The report went on to say: “It appears to some first-year graduate students as if a pedagogical devotion to mathematics has left little time for economic analysis…. This is a serious problem for graduates who have chosen to study economics, a social science, in preference to mathematics, a natural science.” The commission also concluded that the focus on mathematical theory had gone so far that the students most prepared to succeed in graduate economics did not major in economics as undergraduates. They majored in engineering.


In a scathing commentary on this state of affairs, Dr. David Colander, a professor of economics at Middlebury College, notes that, “As a result, graduate schools in economics have lost their institutional bearings and their common sense. They don’t teach the knowledge that most people would say that students need to be good economists, such as a knowledge of the economic literature or a sense of how real-world institutions work. Instead, professors focus on teaching graduate students in economics high-powered mathematics, because that is what they themselves are working on.”


Because the field of economics has become so math-dominated in recent years, many of its problems are similar to those faced by mathematics departments–which lose many of their best potential doctoral students to master’s programs in engineering or Ph.D.s in more applied fields. Lindsey also notes that, “now you see economists with the same poor oral and written communication skills as mathematicians, which is a greater problem for us because economists have to translate numbers into policies–which almost always involves a lot of writing.”


As economics becomes more abstract it seems to become even less competitive with applied fields, such as business administration or accounting, even at the undergraduate level. “I have taught in Howard’s school of business and in its economics department,” Lindsey says, “and I feel that the business majors have an edge in the marketplace because their courses also cover business communication and job-finding skills.”


Dr. Bernice deGannes Scott, who chairs Spelman’s Economics department, feels that competition from the corporate sector is the greatest problem keeping her economics majors out of Ph.D. programs. “The students who take our upper-level courses are usually quite comfortable with math. But, they tend toward MBAs or corporate jobs, with an eye toward starting their own businesses,” Scott says. “Each year we have thirty-five or forty majors and it is unusual to have more than one or two, if any, choose graduate work in economics.”


An Ideological Shift


The math issue and the competition from MBA programs certainly limit the number of African Americans getting Ph.D.s. But once in the field, it is ideology that makes Black economists feel like they have no choice but to constantly engage in intellectual warfare. Although African Americans in mathematics and other natural sciences oh ten encounter the assumption that Blacks have inferior talents, their work has nothing to do with questions of race or advantage.

Conversely, a central part of the work of African-American economists deals with the question of Black economic inferiority. Similarly, Black psychologists and educators are sometimes confronted with constant controversies over IQ scores. But that is a very small issue in a very large field. Traditional physical anthropology was also extremely racist, but the kind of cranial measurements and pseudoscience used to justify its racist conclusions have long been discredited, consigned to the dustbin of history.


As Darity notes: “To accept the major premise of economics’s neoclassical tradition is to accept the premise that Black people are inferior–which, as you might imagine, is very difficult for African-American scholars to embrace.” To put it in plain English, the major assumption of contemporary neo-classical economics is that the free market always makes rational choices, based on value and productivity, in allocating rewards. Therefore, if you (or your group) is poor, it must be because you (or your group) are simply less valuable or less productive. For example, free-market theory holds that no employer would ever discriminate against a well-qualified Black person because it would be in that employer’s own self-interest to hire the best people. Consequently, if Black people are not getting hired, I it’s simply because they’re not as I well qualified–a rationale not endorsed by many Black economists Dr. David H. Swinton president of Benedict College, notes that, “The shift to purely mathematical models allowed mainstream economists to maintain the illusion that they were somehow being objective in their assumptions and their results.”


As a result, economics lags years behind psychology, anthropology, and even particle physics when it comes to acknowledging the subjectivity of its major observations.


Of course, most economists do I acknowledge that racism and segregation used to exist. In fact, neoclassical economics explains Black poverty in terms of pre-market discrimination: Black people were forced to go to poor schools, or were denied training opportunities, so they were unable to develop the education or human capital to be as productive in the marketplace. However, many white economists I believe that the problem was solved by desegregation. They still will not , acknowledge–and cannot explain–the post-market discrimination described by Conrad’s observation that her cousins had education and training but still couldn’t find a job. As a result of the disparity between what they see and what they are taught, Black economists tend to do a disproportionate amount of work on discrimination and inequality They also have been particularly severe critics of the idea that the free market is either rational or operates with “perfect knowledge.”


“As a result,” says Darity, “our work is often outside of the mainstream tradition–which makes it much harder to get published.” And indeed, a disproportionate number of the articles published by Black economists have appeared in such alternative venues as The Review of Black Political Economy, Focus, the Magazine of the Joint Center for Political Studies, Black Enterprise magazine, and The Urban League’s annual report on The State of Black America. One reason why contemporary economics is so conservative is because the same issues that bedevil the teaching of economics become even more intense in the practice of economics.


The Loss of History


Neo-classical, free-market economics is not the only tradition in the field. There are also Marxist economists, Keynesian economics (which dominated the U.S. in the early and mid-1960s), and an even more conservative anarcho-libertarian tradition that hold that no government is necessary at all. However, as fewer graduate departments require students to study economic history, these other traditions are being forgotten.


This loss of historical insight is particularly troublesome in 1996. While the free market seems to be doing so well, many problems–such as pollution, increased homelessness, and an increasing gap between rich and poor–remain to be solved.


Yet never before has free market ideology faced so few challengers. In 1929, the Great Depression dealt free-market theorists a major blow. During the prosperity of post World War II era, the presence of strong unions ensured that the voice of pro-labor economists was heard. In the late 1970s the economy was confronted with “stagflation.” Since many existing models held that it was impossible to have both inflation and stagnation at the same time, economists had to confront the imperfections of their theories. In addition, the quasi-socialist, high-tax economies of Western Europe were delivering a standard of living equal to or higher than the United States.


However, in more recent years, the free market has seemed to triumph — particularly in the U.S. which, unlike Europe, gives little weight to the structural issues of social class or inherited wealth. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is at an all-time high and many formerly socialist and Communist economies are adopting free-market “reforms.”


Consequently, most free-market theorists have few incentives to doubt their formulas–even if they are often contradicted by the real world. Dr. Rhonda M. Williams believes that another reason free-market theorists are so ascendant is because they have been supported by a growing number of well-funded, conservative think tanks–such as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Heritage Foundation — whose ideological agenda is even less affected by real world data than university economics departments.


Both Spriggs and Anderson feel that the best example of this was the controversy surrounding the battle to raise the minimum wage. The battle was particularly bitter because one of the major arguments that business lobbyists and conservative Black economists, such as Dr. Walter E. Williams of George Mason University, made was that free-market theory predicted that raising the minimum wage would exacerbate the unemployment problem among Black youths who had few skills. However, well-established historical records show that raising the minimum wage does not result in greater unemployment.


The minimum wage issue clearly demonstrates the ideological divide involved in answering the question of why are Blacks so poor. For liberals, the answer is that there is something wrong with the marketplace. Consequently they tend to focus on the “good” Black people who are not getting what they deserve. Anderson says that raising the minimum wage didn’t decrease the employment of Black youth because their wages already lagged behind their productivity.


Few, if any, conservative Black economists–such as Walter Williams, Dr. Glenn Loury, or Dr. Thomas Sowell — would deny the existence of racism. Nevertheless Williams argues that a higher wage would make “unproductive” Black youth even less competitive in the labor market. “We just don’t feel that racism explains most of the variance in Black people’s greater poverty compared to flawed choices such as out-of-wedlock births, dropping out of school, or excusing the personal and management failures of Black leaders,” explains Walter Williams.


Unused Talent


What conservative and liberal Black economists seem to have in common is that neither group seems to be getting everything it wants. The liberals (or progressives, as they sometimes call themselves) tend to feel that the profession devalues their contributions and that the major journals shut them out. The conservatives feel that they have been shunned by the Black political establishment for refusing to hew to the liberal orthodoxy.


Like Clarence Thomas, Loury and Sowell have experienced the personal attacks of being labeled an Uncle Tom. And although some conservative Black economists have been embraced by free-market institutions such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, even those relationships may prove to be difficult.


Loury resigned from the AEI after it embraced the works of Dinesh D’Souza, author of The End of Racism. In a widely-published editorial, Loury complained that it was difficult for a conservative Black economist to find a home anywhere.


Although Black liberal economists may feel ideologically in tune with the Black political establishment, as a whole, they have not been asked to participate in many important Black political gatherings. In a 1994 presidential address to the NEA, Dr. James B. Stewart bemoaned the fact that then National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Executive Director Ben Chavis never responded to the NEA’s offer to help in formulating economic strategies during Chavis’s African-American Summit. Stewart also noted that Hugh Price of the Urban League also turned down a similar offer.


“These experiences were problematic principally because the primary theme of the leadership summits has been `economic empowerment,”‘ Stewart said in his speech. It is also interesting to note that in recent years, the most widely discussed book on Black economics — Dr. William Julius Wilson’s When Work Disappears — was written by a sociologist, not an economist. Given their isolation, the real question may not be why there are so few Black economists but why there are any at all.


“Sometimes,” Rhonda Williams sighs, “I think that there are some of us who stay in economics just because we’re stubborn and don’t want to say, `I gave up.’ We want our students and co-workers to know that we kept fighting the good fight and we didn’t simply roll over and say, `Yes the free market is absolutely right, Black people are just inferior.”‘


This hardly seems like the type of message that would encourage Black graduate students to come into the field. But, there are also African-American economists, like Dr. Alvin Headen of North Carolina State University, who maintain that things are not nearly so bleak or polarized as some of his colleagues believe.


“Of course economists acknowledge subjectivity,” Headen says bluntly. “That’s why people can make generalizations that the University of Chicago program is relatively conservative and those at MIT or Berkeley tend to be more liberal or radical. And the field is not completely conservative. That’s why there are Marxist economists who have been tenured at major institutions.


“Whenever Black intellectuals work on Black issues, things will always be ideologically charged,” he continues. “But the Black economists who constantly fight don’t do it because they’re economists but because they enjoy fighting over ideas. “A lot of the Black folks who are out there fighting every day don’t have any choice in the matter,” Headen says, then laughingly adds “The beautiful part about having a Ph.D. in economics is that we have choices of what to fight over.”



Milestones 1966


Andrew Brimmer become first African-American appointed to the Federal Reserve Board.


1968 A. Philip Randolph issue this “Freedom Budget” calling for greater federal spending on education, housing, and job training.


1969 Mainstream Protestant churches give Bob Brown a $55,000 grant to found the Black Economic Research Center.


1969 Jim Foreman, formerly of Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, publishes The Black Manifesto.


1969 National Economic Association grows out of the Caucus of Black Economists at the New York meeting of the American Economic Association.


1970 Review of Black Political Economy is established.


1972-73 American Economic Association establishes a committee to increase the number of minorities in economics.


1973 Caucus of Black Economists establishes the Samuel Z. Westerfield Distinguished Service Award.


1974 Howard University becomes the first historically Black university to offer a Ph.D. in economics.


1979 Arthur Lewis becomes first Black person to win a Nobel Prize in Economics.


1980 Black Economic Research Center folds.


1981 The Congressional Black Caucus publishes the first alternative budget for fiscal year 1982.


1981 Congressman Parren Mitchell (D-Md) institutes minority set-asides on federal government contracts.


1982 Earl G. Graves Jr. develops Black Enterprise’s Board of Economic Advisors.


1983 Arthur Lewis becomes the first Black president of the American Economic Association.


1983 Thomas Sowell publishes The Economic and Politics of Race.


1987 Reginald Lewis buys Beatrice Foods and becomes the first African-American to own a Fortune 500 company.


1990 The Joint Center for Political Studies changes its name to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies


1993 Ron Brown becomes first African-American Secretary of Commerce.


1996 William “Sandy” Darity becomes first African-American president of The Southern Economic Association.


COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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