Following Dr. Lisa Cook’s historic confirmation to the Federal Reserve Board, we must acknowledge the importance of Black economists for public policy and the economy
Earlier this year, President Biden nominated two Black economists, Dr. Lisa Cook and Dr. Philip Jefferson, to serve as members of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. On May 10, 2022, Dr. Cook was confirmed in a 51–50 party-line vote, which made her the first Black woman to sit on the Board in its 108-year history. The following day, Dr. Jefferson was confirmed on a 91–7 bipartisan vote, making him the fourth Black man to sit on the Board, but marking the first time two Black governors will serve simultaneously.
Despite this tremendous accomplishment, the nomination of Dr. Cook faced great scrutiny and criticism, with several Senate members questioning her qualifications and expertise despite her years of professional and academic experience in economic development, financial institutions and markets, economic history, and international relations. Sadly, this isn’t new for Black professionals, and specifically not for Black women.
Within the workplace and historically, Black women’s skills and contributions are often undermined, underappreciated, and devalued. These discriminatory roots have led to intersectional gender and racial inequities in the kinds of jobs Black women are hired for as well as the wages and benefits they receive. However, another glaring detail we can glean from the captious confirmation process of Dr. Cook—and the exclusion of Black women from the Federal Reserve Board’s panel for over a century—is how Black economists are broadly underrepresented and their essential view on racial economic inequality is often discounted.
The underrepresentation of Black scholars in the field of economics can be traced to the low numbers of Black students pursuing degrees in economics. In the academic year 2019–2020, there were more than 1,200 doctoral degrees awarded to students in economics. However, less than 2% of doctoral degrees were awarded to Black economics students overall and less than 1% were awarded to Black women. For undergraduate students, Black students overall accounted for 4.1% of bachelor’s degrees awarded in economics and Black women accounted for only 1.5%.
While the direct cause of the underrepresentation within economics is not known, implicit and explicit bias is at least a factor. According to the 2018–2019 American Economic Association (AEA) Climate Survey, at least 28% of respondents reported having personally been discriminated against or treated unfairly on the basis of race/ethnicity by someone in the field of economics. This can lead young scholars to leave their jobs to avoid harassment and discrimination, or because of a lack of belonging among their peers within the field.
Historical academic hiring practices within economics could also be affected by bias and lead to underrepresentation of Black economists. Economists Dr. Rhonda V. Sharpe and Dr. Greg Price have researched how the historical hiring practices of Ph.D.-granting economics departments have constrained the production of economic knowledge that can inform public policies that would reduce racial inequality and improve the living standards of Black Americans.
Representation in economics is important for a number of reasons, namely a broader understanding of the economy, its barriers, and potential solutions for making it more inclusive of a larger share of people.
A little over 100 years ago, Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander became the first Black economist after earning her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1921. Dr. Alexander was passionate about advocating for comprehensive economic inclusion and justice, but sadly, she was denied employment as an economist in the pre–Civil Rights era. The sexist and racist barriers to find work within the field forced Dr. Alexander to return to school and pursue a law degree instead, where she became the first woman to receive a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School (1927) and the first Black woman to practice law in Pennsylvania.
Despite being shut out of the economics profession, revelation of Dr. Alexander’s economic thought and her unseen life as an economist are uncovered through Dr. Nina Banks’ decades of pioneering research into archival records and reconstruction of Alexander’s speeches published in Democracy, Race, & Justice: the Speeches and Writings of Sadie T. M. Alexander. Banks’ research reveals that Dr. Alexander was dedicated to combating racial oppression and achieving racial and economic justice for the working class. Her legacy continues in the heart of hundreds of Black economists who follow her in advocating for a more just and equitable economy for all.
Today, as we reflect on the historic moment of Dr. Lisa Cook’s confirmation as the first Black woman to sit on the Federal Reserve Board, it is essential we acknowledge the importance of Black economists and their work in achieving racial economic justice and to advocate for comprehensive policy solutions that are not only urgent, but grossly overdue. Rising inflation, growing income and wealth disparities, and a relentless global pandemic that continues to challenge our economy all demand that the field of economics be open to more diverse, intersectional, and inclusive perspectives from Black economists and other underrepresented groups.
Related content: Dr. Nina Banks discusses her new book “Democracy, Race, and Justice: The Speeches and Writings of Sadie T. M. Alexander.” Watch the interview.
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