By Alison Buckholtz
Dania Francis remembers the moment, back in a high school “Introduction to Economics” class, when she decided to become an economist. “I’m math-oriented, and economics seemed like a way to address social issues using logical approaches,” she said. “It really appealed to me.”
But she ran into obstacles in part because her graduate economics department wasn’t particularly diverse. She had trouble finding African-American peers and faculty members, or mentors who were interested in exploring issues rooted in race—like the role of intergenerational wealth transfer on health disparities among minorities. It was so discouraging that she left a PhD program at Harvard University after her Master’s degree. Mentors later convinced her to return to her studies and pursue a career in academia.
Now an assistant professor of economics at UMass Boston, Francis has joined with other Black women economists to ease the way for the next generation. As a mentor to members of the Sadie Collective—an organization created to address what it calls the “pathway and pipeline problem” for Black women in economics, finance, data science, and public policy—she and others aim not just to navigate the system, but to change it.
By opening up the profession to African-American women and people of color whose research interests reflect a variety of economic experiences, she said, policymakers and development professionals can craft strategies that lessen inequity and better serve societies across the globe.
“A Universal Problem”
A 2019 survey by the American Economic Association found that only 3 percent of professionals in economics identified as Black (compared with 13 percent of the U.S. population) and almost half (47 percent) of Black respondents reported experiences of discrimination in economics. Only 45 percent of all survey respondents (regardless of race) believed that economists who are not White are respected in the field.
The trickle-down consequences of the exclusion of economists of color affect public policy: The economic impact of race remains unexamined, and the hardest-hit groups continue to suffer, according to the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. This can be tied to research that shows that economic policymakers’ life experiences affect the theories they examine and elevate. As Bucknell University economist Nina Banks has pointed out, incorporating the perspectives and lived experiences of different communities ensures that the findings of economics research are accurate and reflective of workers’ realities.
This is true across the globe. “Diversity in economics is a universal problem, not just an American problem,” said George-Ann Ryan, Chief Financial Officer of the Sadie Collective, who is researching the ramifications of a non-diverse workforce on international development priorities. She said it’s especially incumbent upon development organizations to recruit economists and other professionals from the countries that they serve because it “can improve the economic policy development landscape and help a country develop in a more sustainable way.”
She has seen this play out in Antigua, where she was raised. “Understanding the balance of power” is critical to achieving development objectives in Caribbean countries, she said. “You can’t just start off giving people microloans to start a business, which might be the standard approach elsewhere. In a Caribbean country you need to start by looking into customs and law enforcement, duties and tariffs; you can’t take a scaled down version of an economic theory that might work somewhere else.”
Honoring a Pioneer
Ryan and others became involved with the Sadie Collective to honor and deepen the legacy of the first African-American to receive a PhD in economics: Sadie T.M. Alexander (January 2, 1898 – November 1, 1989), who earned her doctorate in 1921.
Sadie T.M. Alexander—the first African-American economist—received her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 1921. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
For Alexander, the barriers to entry were so insurmountable that she was never able to practice in her field. Once she realized she would not find a job in economics, she became a lawyer and was the first African-American woman to practice law in Pennsylvania. Nina Banks, who is the preeminent expert on Alexander’s life and career, argues that Alexander never really gave up economics and links Alexander's advocacy of Black people’s political rights to the pursuit of economic justice for working class Americans.
The Sadie Collective has become a prominent voice in the conversation about racial equality that has made headlines since the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and awareness of the disproportionate number of African-American deaths and job losses due to COVID-19. In this atmosphere of heightened global awareness about racial inequality, the group has helped create a platform for Black economists to speak out. Its “Open Letter to Economic Institutions In The Face of #BlackLives Matter” suggests specific actions to counter systemic racism in the economics community. The letter calls on economics institutions and universities to commit to address the racial inequities experienced by Black people by making a concerted effort to recruit, sustain, and retain Black students in Economics and related fields, among many other specific actions.
For established economists, it’s important “to challenge the assumptions we make as economists, especially with regard to race and discrimination,” Francis said. “We should question basic, underlying ‘truths’ we think are objective. Because even if we expand the pipeline and attract women and under-represented minorities into economics, we need to make a space to welcome their ideas as well.”
Published in July 2020