Economics’ racial reckoning: A discipline that studies inequality confronts its own
Economics has been a hostile environment for minorities. It is now high time for it to address its systemic biases and pave the way for a more equitable future, within the profession and beyond.
There are events in history that cause us to disrupt our lives and thinking by rightly pushing us to pause and reflect. In 2018, the economics profession was spurred into action to evaluate its missing female economists and the hostile environment experienced by women and minorities after substantial sexual assault allegations against one of its top economists. Now with the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among the many countless known and unknown others, the profession has been shaken into addressing the racism and biases entrenched in our institutions and consciences.
Inequalities have long manifested themselves in the social and economic systems that underpin people’s lives and it would be amiss to deny how starkly visible they have been. In an open letter, Howard economist William Spriggs points out modern economics’ earlier problematic position on the issues of race which supported the eugenics movements whose strains often reflect in the way economists theorise today. He notes the error in economic modelling which assumes racial differences as natural, a bias that provides a “built-in excuse for disparities that cannot be solved”.
The present pandemic has been hailed as the “great leveller” to which everybody is vulnerable. Yet, it has shown in glaring clarity the disparities entrenched within our social fabric that really determine how much the virus affects us - in terms of the treatment and the care that we receive, the continuation of our employment and education, the security and support that we are able to access.
In May this year, the UK’s Office of National Statistics released a report on COVID-19 related deaths by ethnic groups, revealing that Black people were four times more likely to die from the virus than their white counterparts. Intuitively, health and economic differences could have exacerbated the risk and yet, in spite of accounting for some of these pre-existing differences, Black people still remained almost twice as likely to die from COVID-19. Moreover, as per the latest figures from across the Atlantic, in the US, racial health disparities result in Black people being 3.7 times (Latinx 2.5 times, Asians 1.4 times) more likely to die in age-adjusted terms. And as global inequality interacts with systemic racism, it can mean harsher consequences for the developing world which are strapped for medical and financial resources, and institutional infrastructure to respond to the crisis.
Discrimination in the economics profession
Economists are acutely aware of and have long studied the interlinkages of social, political, and economic capital and how they can determine the opportunities one gets. Ironically, and perhaps to some extent shamefully, the top five journals of economics have only published 29 out of 7567 papers that specifically dealt with questions of race or ethnicity over the years between 1990 and 2018. In a recent Twitter thread, Trevon Logan of Ohio University, a Black economist, shared the difficulties he faced in publishing (a paper on racial naming patterns among Blacks) that led to his grave realisation that the priorities he attached to the research of Black people were not shared by the profession.
"A survey conducted by the American Economic Association in 2019 found 47% of Black economists have reported facing discrimination and unfair treatment in the profession on the basis of their race, in comparison to 24% of Asians, 16% of Latinx, and 4% of white survey respondents."
Logan is not alone. A survey conducted by the American Economic Association in 2019 found 47% of Black economists have reported facing discrimination and unfair treatment in the profession on the basis of their race, in comparison to 24% of Asians, 16% of Latinx, and 4% of white survey respondents. The survey also finds that 26% of the Black respondents (24% of Latinx respondents, and 19% of Asian respondents, compared to 15% of white respondents) felt they had been unfairly judged for promotions and 56% of them reported having had a sense of social exclusion within the profession; 52% of Asians and 50% of Latinx reported that feeling as well. This survey data suggests that the statistics are similar among students of economics. The trends exacerbate further when a gendered perspective is factored in. In 2017, of all the degrees in economics that were awarded, only 0.6% of doctorates and 2% of the bachelor’s degrees were received by Black women.
Elitist and clubby with apparent tolerance towards disrespectful conduct
Our systems perpetuate inequalities through cycles that are hard to break. One of the reasons, as discussed by Harvard economist Dani Rodrik, why the economics profession has led to the creation of a hostile environment and the marginalisation of minorities is its elitist and clubby nature. To make it as an economist, it is for the most part essential to publish, and to publish in the “top five” economics journals. However, publishing in the top five is not simply a matter of having an interesting research question and answering it rigorously. It entails collaboration, as research efforts often do, and the network within which one gets to form intellectual partnerships is largely and rather permanently determined by the institution from where one does their PhD.
Another reason noted by Rodrik is economics’ apparent tolerance towards open and continuous disrespectful conduct of the “elite” members of the profession, i.e. those who publish in the top journals. The profession so far has permitted a certain impunity to exclude and make others uncomfortable. The most recent (and one of many), is the case of a University of Chicago faculty member who had been under investigation for having made discriminatory comments on numerous counts and has now been reinstated in his role as the editor of the Journal of Political Economy, one of the “top five”.
Paving the way for a more equitable future
It is imperative that the economics profession reflects and effectively addresses the systemic inequalities within which it has operated. Researchers, in addition to their training, rely on their lived experiences and insights which enrich not just the questions they ask but also how they answer them. By making economics a more accessible and open space to engage in, the discipline can benefit from the diversity of perspectives and rethink its traditional notions. One of the ways in which this can be achieved is by diversifying what and who is funded. Oftentimes lack of funding can impede research before it even starts. The IGC and other organisations that fund economic research must evaluate the inequities in their research commissioning processes and enact necessary organisational changes that push research questions to diversify and support researchers from minority groups in applying and receiving funding. The IGC is currently looking at concrete ways to do this, but recognises that funding is just one area, among many, where the organisation has a role and responsibility to address inequalities. Through this organisations will not only contribute in enriching the field of economics but also help better inform policy design, in which economists play a key role, and pave the way for a more equitable future.
"The IGC and other organisations that fund economic research must evaluate the inequities in their research commissioning processes and enact necessary organisational changes that push research questions to diversify and support researchers from minority groups in applying and receiving funding."
It has been nearly 100 years since Sadie Alexander became the first Black person to earn a doctorate in economics. While she was pushed to quit the discipline on account of discrimination, there have been other Black economists who have persevered and are now using their economic expertise to contribute to better policy designs that can help us overcome systemic racism. Organisations such as The Sadie Collective and National Economic Association have come up as well to encourage and nurture economists from minority backgrounds. The profession should contribute to their efforts and collaborate with them to bring more minds within its fold. Moreover, these efforts should be made regardless of the spillover benefits of enabling a plurality of perspectives and to more simply share the sheer joy of engaging in economics.
Economics has produced plenty of literature on inequality and discrimination. It is now time for this discipline to internalise the learnings it has published in its journals and recommended to policymakers, and confront its own racial reckoning.
Editor's note: The author would like to thank Emilie Yam, Jamie Green, Veronica Masubo, Rania Nasir, and Sarah Logan for their valuable insights in the writing of this article.