Do black economists matter?: The media erasure of black economic voices hurts the hardest-hit communities by the pandemic and society at large

The voices of black economists have been largely absent from the recent media coronavirus coverage. Over the past month, for example, The New York Times, which has become one of the primary sources for economic insights about the pandemic, published 29 articles between opinion editorials and The Upshot mentioning the words “economist” and “coronavirus” between March 9 and April 9. Out of the 29 articles listed, just one was authored by a black journalist, and only three addressed the racial inequities with respect to COVID-19. Given the high demand for economists’ insights, between the opinion page and The Upshot, 42 economists were either cited or co-authoring a piece. Among the 42, not a single black economist was cited or was a contributor to an article despite the fact that some are addressing mobile payments to workers, solutions to the widening racial-wealth gap, and the pandemic’s impact on marginalized communities.

Black economists have long been ignored by the economics profession and media. Sadie T.M. Alexander, the first African American economist, could not practice after she earned a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1921 because of racism and sexism. And recently, the American Economic Association began addressing its race problem beginning with a professional climate survey that showed a 56-percentage-point-difference between blacks and non-blacks with respect to feeling that race was respected in the profession and nearly half of black respondents cited that they felt discriminated against because of race. One respondent went so far as to share that they would not recommend their black children go into economics and that they made a mistake in choosing the field.

This is not the first crisis in which black economists have been ignored by their colleagues and the media. Before the 2008 financial downturn, black communities were experiencing early signs of waning unemployment and housing market devastation with respect to subprime loans and predatory lenders. William Spriggs, an economist at Howard University, told Quartz that underrepresented minority economists noticed these trends early on but their notes of alarm were barely amplified and were, quite frankly, ignored. Janet Yellen, former Chair of the Federal Reserve Board has since gone on record to recognize how the lack of diversity at the Board contributed to the severity of the crisis and the ineffectual nature of responses to it. The problem hasn’t gotten better, however. The Federal Reserve Board has hired only one black woman out of its team of 406 economists, which is why there was a slew of coverage about its lack of diversity in 2019.

Silencing black voices in the economics discourse surrounding COVID-19 is concerning for at least two reasons:

  1. It shows that we haven’t learned our lessons from the Great Recession.
  2. It ignores the voices of those most familiar with the communities that have and will always bear the greatest burden during crises due to structural inequities.

COVID-19 is a new crisis but the way in which it ravages our economic and public health systems are key signalers of the deficiencies in how we have handled the economy and our society’s preexisting conditions. The compound nature of its effects means that we cannot afford to minimize the contributions of black and brown economists who bring to light how the global pandemic disproportionately impacts their communities.

The pandemic has already resulted in mind-boggling job losses. Between March 15 and April 4, unemployment insurance claims climbed to 16.8 million, which is a 2,500% increase over the pre-virus period. Economists Elise Gould and Heidi Shierholz compare the loss to the entire adult population of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota filing for claims at the same time. Trevon Logan, an economics professor and associate dean at The Ohio State University, shared that the projected unemployment rate for the nation could be more than double in black communities because of structural unemployment.

In 2019, at nearly every educational level, black workers were twice as likely to be unemployed. Historically, on average, the black unemployment rate changes by 1.7 percentage points for every 1-percentage-point change of the national unemployment rate. According to the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank’s “back of the envelope projection,” the national unemployment rate could climb to as high as 32%. Given well-documented and persistent patterns of racial inequality in employment, the black unemployment rate could reach unimaginable heights.

Figure A

Black workers are more likely to be unemployed than white workers at every education level: Unemployment rates by race and education, 2019

Education Black White, non-Hispanic
All 6.1% 3.0%
Less than high school 14.7% 8.3% 
High school 8.3% 3.9% 
Some college 4.9% 2.9% 
College 3.4% 2.2% 
Advanced 2.3% 1.7%
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Notes: Estimates are based on a 12-month average (January 2019–December 2019). “Black” includes blacks of Hispanic ethnicity. Whites are non-Hispanic.

Source: EPI analysis of Current Population Survey basic monthly microdata from the U.S. Census Bureau; updated with Jan.–Dec. 2019 data from Black Workers Endure Persistent Racial Disparities in Employment Outcomes (EPI, 2019)

EPI analysis of Current Population Survey basic monthly microdata from the U.S. Census Bureau. Updated with Jan.–Dec. 2019 data from Figure A in Jhacova Williams and Valerie Wilson, Black Workers Endure Persistent Racial Disparities in Employment Outcomes, Economic Policy Institute, August 2019.

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The Pew Research Center also finds that the majority of jobs that are being lost amid the crisis are concentrated in the service sector, in which, in 2018, blacks or African Americans and Latinos were overrepresented. Ironically, certain service workers, e.g., grocery store cashiers, are now considered “essential” even though two months ago they were considered unskilled and, to some, unworthy of a living wage, health care, and/or financial security. These same weaknesses in our labor market are exactly why workers in those essential jobs are at most risk for contracting the virus and experiencing worse health and economic outcomes.

Moreover, COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting black Americans who historically have had more negative experiences with the health care system and are at more risk for preexisting health conditions such as hypertension and type II diabetes. My home state of Maryland recently published the race breakdown of coronavirus and black people topped deaths and cases. Other states have shared similar findings. These kinds of data offer a unique opportunity to black economists who want to and need to provide economic context to how the pandemic is shaping their communities.

How we get through this crisis will rely heavily upon how data is collected, translated, and used to make recommendations to policymakers and stakeholders. That said, it is absolutely essential that the voices contributing to the discussion are representative of those who will be disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Achieving that balance is easier said than done given that economics is facing its own reckoning with respect to race and gender, but media outlets can begin by amplifying the black economists who are attempting to engage in the space and seeking out their perspectives.

The bottom line is that black economists matter, especially right now during this globally defining moment. Ignoring, undermining, or silencing them helps no one, regardless of race or ethnicity. And if history repeats any version of itself—which it will—the economic and political reality that black communities face will be indicative of what is to come for the nation.