Home Black History 19 Black economists to celebrate and know, this Juneteenth and beyond

19 Black economists to celebrate and know, this Juneteenth and beyond

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By Fanta Traore

First Published June 19 2020

As the world grapples with uprooting systemic racism—a conversation catapulted into collective consciousness by the death of George Floyd—it is imperative that Black economists become household names. Their work will move us through the current moment to enable a long-lasting future that upends the oppression in the Black community that subsequently harms the economic system at large.

Economics—a discipline whose core focus is exploring who gets what, where, when, and why—is of great interest to Black people, who too often find themselves on the wrong side of America’s divides in wealth and income. But they’ve faced barriers in matriculating into the profession, as Lisa Cook and Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman noted in their recent New York Times article, “It Was a Mistake for Me to Choose This Field.” The most recent data, from 2017, show that only 3.2% of doctoral degrees in economics are awarded to Black people each year. More than 52% of Black economists experience racism and/or discrimination, according to a 2019 report by the American Economic Association, and less than half of 1% of all top economics papers across a 30-year period explicitly address race/ethnicity.

Nearly 100 years have passed, and not much has changed since America’s first Black economist, Sadie T.M. Alexander, obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1921. She aimed to champion economic inclusion and justice, despite being denied the ability to practice as an economist in the pre–Civil Rights era. Even though she was deliberately excluded from the profession, she continued to use her economic expertise to recommend better policies for the working class such as the federal jobs guarantee, a concept embraced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that has been a foundational concept in progressive politics ever since. 

Scholars Julianne Malveaux and Nina Banks have been committed to unearthing Alexander’s legacy through her speeches. Her passion for using economics to serve marginalized voices through policy is a common thread that connects the earliest work of Black economists as well as current scholars in the field. Phyllis Ann Wallace, the first woman to receive a doctorate of economics at Yale University, focused on racial, as well as gender discrimination in the workplace. Abram Lincoln Harris, who published major economic studies in the 1920s and 1930s, made it a point to focus on “class analysis, black economic life, and labor to illustrate the structural inadequacies of race and racial ideologies.” 

To turn the tide against blatant exclusion in their field, today’s Black economists have been keen on supporting pipeline efforts through a variety of organizations including  The National Economic Association, the American Economic Association, the Committee on the Status of Minority Groups in the Economics Profession (CSMGEP), the Women’s Institute for Science, Equity and Race, and the Sadie Collective

The list presented here, on Juneteenth, serves as a means to center and celebrate the work of Black economic experts across various specializations—both emerging and well-established. Their research and policy analysis should inform public discourse not only on how to improve the Black community’s reality, but in turn to make policy that is better for everyone. Please note: This list is certainly not exhaustive.

Each economist’s name is followed by their main area of specialization, in parentheses. Dania Francis (Education) is a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston whose work spans from the implications of educational outcomes for Black female students based on perceptions of Black girls in the classroom to economic reparations for African Americans. Her research interests include labor economics, public finance, economics of education, and stratification economics.

Peter Q. Blair(Education and the Future of Work) is on the faculty of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, where he codirects the Project on Workforce. He serves as a faculty research fellow of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and the principal investigator of the BE-Lab, a research group with partners from Harvard University, Clemson University, and the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. His group’s research focuses on the link between the future of work and the future of education, labor market discrimination, occupational licensing, and residential segregation.

Jhacova Williams (Race and Inequality) is an economist for the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy (PREE). In this capacity, she explores the role of structural racism in shaping racial economic disparities in labor markets, housing, criminal justice, higher education, and other areas that have a direct impact on economic outcomes. Williams’s research has focused on Southern culture and the extent to which historical events continue to impact the political behavior and economic outcomes of Southern Blacks.

Kristen Broady (Race and Inequality) is the dean of the College of Business and Barron Hilton Endowed Professor of Financial Economics at Dillard University. She is also the proprietor of KBroad Consulting. Her most recent publications include “Passing and the Costs and Benefits of Appropriating Blackness,” “Dreaming and Doing at Georgia HBCUs: Continued Relevancy in Post Racial America,” and “Race and Jobs at High Risk to Automation.”

William Darity Jr. (Race and Inequality) is the Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African and African American Studies, and Economics and the director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. He has served as chair of the Department of African and African American Studies and was the founding director of the Research Network on Racial and Ethnic Inequality at Duke. With well over 300 publications, Darity launched the subfield of stratification economics in 2005. Darity’s research focuses on inequality by race, class, and ethnicity, schooling and the racial achievement gap, North-South theories of trade and development, skin shade and labor market outcomes, the economics of reparations, the Atlantic slave trade and the Industrial Revolution, the history of economics, and the social psychological effects of exposure to unemployment. His most recent book, coauthored with A. Kirsten Mullen, is From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century.

Darrick Hamilton (Race and Inequality), one of the country’s leading economists examining racial disparity, will serve as the founding director of the newly created Institute for the Study of Race, Stratification, and Political Economy at The New School. His research spans the gamut from stratification economics through economic and social policy, race, ethnicity, and colorism, education, health, labor, asset and debt markets, and family formation. His TED Talk, with over 1.5 million views, incited much conversation during the past presidential election season about how to end inequality in America.

Trevon Logan (Economic History) is the Hazel C. Youngberg Trustees Distinguished Professor in the Department of Economics at The Ohio State University. As the youngest president of the National Economic Association to date, he specializes in economic history and applied demography. He obtained his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of California at Berkeley.

Willene Johnson(International Economics) is president of Komaza Inc., a consulting firm that offers instruction and advice on economic and financial development, including microfinance, security sector resource management, and the role of economics in conflict management. Johnson has worked extensively in Africa, where she was first a volunteer teacher and more recently the U.S. executive director at the African Development Bank. She worked for 20 years in the Federal Reserve System, where her assignments included both research and operational responsibilities in international financial markets.

Peter Blair Henry(International Economics) is a former dean of New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business, where he is now the William R. Berkley Professor of Economics and Business. He’s the author of Turnaround: Third World Lessons for First World Growth. His research interests include international finance, emerging markets, international economic policy, globalization and trade, and macroeconomics.

Susan Collins(International Economics) is the interim provost at the University of Michigan. She joined the Michigan faculty in 2007, serving as the Joan and Sanford Weill Dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy until 2017. Before coming to Michigan, she was on the economics faculty at Georgetown University and Harvard University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution (where she retains a nonresident affiliation). She is an international economist whose research interests center on understanding and fostering economic growth in industrial, emerging market, and developing countries.

Sandile Hlatshwayo(International Economics) has research interests in the areas of international trade, international finance, and macroeconomics. She is an economist at the International Monetary Fund, where she helps identify and evaluate global risks through predictive modeling, text-based analytics, and strategic foresight tools (e.g., scenario planning). She also sits on the board of Black Professionals in International Affairs and serves as an inaugural member of the American Economic Association’s Committee on the Status of LGBTQ+ Individuals in the Economics Profession.

Ebonya Washington(Public Finance), a professor at Yale University, specializes in political economy. Her work explores the formation of political attitudes and how marginalized populations use the political system to attain economic needs. In a recent paper she turns her lens on her own profession, asking what economists can do to increase racial and ethnic diversity in their ranks.

Damon Jones(Household Finance and Public Finance) is an associate professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. He conducts research at the intersection of three fields—public finance, household finance, and behavioral economics—and focuses on topics of inequality. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (2009–10) and is a Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Julianne Malveaux(Public Finance) has long been recognized for her progressive and insightful observations. As a labor economist, Malveaux has been described by Cornel West as “the most iconoclastic public intellectual in the country.” Her contributions to the public dialogue on issues such as race, culture, gender, and their economic impacts are shaping public opinion in 21st-century America. She was the 15th president of the historically Black all-women’s school Bennett College. Her notable works include writings on race, class, and Black women’s economics.

William Spriggs(Labor Economics) is the former assistant secretary for the Office of Policy at the U.S. Department of Labor. He currently serves as the chief economist to the AFL-CIO and has been professor of economics at Howard University since 2005. Spriggs’s economic expertise lies in workforce issues, labor, tax, and public policy. Prior to his position at AFL-CIO, he led economic policy development at several think tanks such as the Economic Policy Institute and the National Urban League. He has also held roles at the Department of Commerce, the Small Business Administration, and the Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress.

Ellora Derenoncourt (Labor Economics) is an economist with research interests in labor economics, economic history, and inequality. She is currently a postdoctoral research associate in the Industrial Relations Section of the Department of Economics at Princeton University. In July 2020, she will join the University of California at Berkeley as an assistant professor in the Department of Economics and the Goldman School of Public Policy.

Michelle Holder(Labor Economics) is an assistant professor of Economics at John Jay College, City University of New York. Prior to joining the John Jay faculty, she worked as an economist for a decade in both the nonprofit and government sectors. Her research focuses on blacks and women in the American labor market, and her economic policy reports have been covered by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Amsterdam News, and El Diario. Her first book, African American Men and the Labor Market During the Great Recession, was released in 2017.

Valerie Wilson(Labor Economics) is the director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy (PREE), a nationally recognized source for expert reports and policy analyses on the economic condition of America’s people of color. Prior to joining EPI, Wilson was an economist and vice president of research at the National Urban League Washington Bureau. She has written extensively on various issues impacting economic inequality in the United States—including employment and training, income and wealth disparities, access to higher education, and social insurance.

Lisa Cook (Macroeconomics) is a professor in the Department of Economics and in International Relations at Michigan State University. Among her current research interests are economic growth and development, financial institutions and markets, innovation, and economic history. She was a National Fellow at Stanford University and served in the White House as a senior economist at the Council of Economic Advisers under President Obama. She also served as president of the National Economic Association and is currently director of the American Economic Association Summer Program.