Home / Opinion / Columns /  Why America needs a lot more African-American economists
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The US holiday of Juneteenth, which commemorates the day in 1865 when enslaved African-Americans in Texas learnt of their freedom, 19 June, should have made America consider a challenge: How to address the deep economic disparities that still divide the US by race? One part of the solution: Get more African-Americans involved in crafting economic policy.

As supply-chain disruptions make essential goods scarce and inflation renders them more expensive, and as the Federal Reserve responds by hitting the economic brakes, African-Americans yet again stand to bear the brunt of the suffering. At 6.2%, their unemployment rate remains almost double that of their Caucasian counterparts and more than twice that of Asians. With lower incomes and less savings, they’re much more likely to experience financial and food insecurity. Such inequities persist partly because those in power are too detached from the challenges of marginalized folks. Top policymakers at the Fed and White House have long been far more Caucasian (and male) than the broader US population. To his credit, President Joe Biden has sought to correct this, with the appointment of Cecilia Rouse to the Council of Economic Advisers and of Lisa Cook and Philip Jefferson to the Fed’s Board of Governors.

Further progress faces a big obstacle: a lack of African-Americans employed and trained as economists. In 2020, only 1.2% and 0.4% of all economics doctorates were conferred upon African-American men and women, respectively, even though they comprised 5.6% and 6.2% of the US. This shortage not only confounds efforts to diversify the top ranks of economic policymakers, but also means few role models for people aspiring to any of the positions that economics PhDs tend to fill.

To address racial inequities, America must do more to develop a cadre of future African-American policymakers. Consider, for example, the American Economic Association Summer Mentoring Pipeline Conference on the Juneteenth weekend, which for more than 20 years has been an important workshop for Asian, Hispanic, African and Indigenous American students who aspire to be economists. The conference provides participants an opportunity to present their research and get advice on navigating the job market. It’s also the place to meet the next generation of underrepresented economists.

The conference was held alongside the AEA’s Summer Minority Training Program, which took place for the first time on the campus of a historically African-American college, Howard University. The location was significant for many reasons. For one, it offered a clear path forward for participants: Howard is America’s top producer of African-American economics PhDs. Also, it put them in contact with accomplished mentors such as Omari Swinton, an alumnus of the AEA summer programme who now chairs Howard’s economics department. The programme also includes innovations aimed at addressing two barriers to the profession: understanding what economists do and what’s required to become one. Participants gain hands-on experience at federal agencies and other institutions such as private consulting firms. Alumni of the programme are visible across the profession. Indeed, they account for an estimated one in five economists from underrepresented groups.

Yet, there’s a lot that the profession can and should do. For example:

First, clarify what’s meant by diversity: In educational programmes, at think-tanks, in the private sector and at government institutions such as the Fed, the aim should be to include more people from groups that have been marginalized in the US, rather than simply to include more people who aren’t Caucasian males of European descent.

Hold managers accountable for progress towards greater diversity: In academia, don’t give credit for ‘poaching’ such folks from other departments.

Provide students with timely information on what it takes to earn an economics doctorate, as a standard part of undergraduate advice: Often, students learn of math requirements—which typically entail a double major—when it’s already too late. Be good mentors by providing the advice and opportunities you wish someone had given you. Show young scholars what they need to be successful, rather than leaving them to figure it out. Volunteer for programmes such as the CeMENT Workshop, the Diversity Initiative for Tenure in Economics and the Pipeline Mentoring Programme.

Diversity can’t be mandated. Progress will require myriad individuals in positions of power to change the way they think and operate—to move intentionally toward achieving greater equity. With concerted effort, on future Juneteenths, the US will be able to celebrate an economics profession that looks more like the people whose lives it purports to improve.

Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe is the founder and president of the Women’s Institute for Science, Equity and Race, and co-editor of the Review of Black Political Economy.

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