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Studies Highlight Shortage of Black Economists

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(By Sara Weissman for Diverse Issues in Higher Education) As universities grow more diverse, economics departments continue to lag behind, especially when it comes to training and hiring Black economists.

Black undergraduates are less likely to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in economics compared to their White counterparts, according to a 2019 report in the Journal of Economic Education by Swarthmore College’s Dr. Amanda Bayer, Franklin and Betty Barr Professor of Economics and David W. Wilcox, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for Economics, titled, “The unequal distribution of economic education: A report on the race, ethnicity, and gender of economics majors at U.S. colleges and universities.”

In a 2018 National Economic Association address, Dr. Rhonda V. Sharpe — founder and president of the Women’s Institute for Science, Equity and Race — pointed out that the number of Black women graduating with bachelor’s degrees in economics stayed stagnant from 1996 to 2015, only increasing by about 1%. For Black men, the number of economics undergraduate degrees jumped by 47%.

Yet, despite gains for Black men, most Ph.D.-granting economics departments have no Black faculty. Sharpe’s research with University of New Orleans Economics Professor Gregory N. Price reveals that, across 127 economics departments, the number of Black economists hired, 47, didn’t change from 1996 to 2015.

“In general, the track record of all (colleges and universities) in the USA that confer doctorates in economics is vulgar,” they write, “as over the past 51 years, and perhaps even longer, the typical Ph.D.-granting economics department has had no Black Americans on its faculty.”

The scant faculty who are hired often wrestle with the climate of their departments. A survey by the American Economic Association found that only about 17% of Black economists felt people of their race were “respected in the field” compared to 82% of White economists.

The problem: A leaky pipeline

Black economists report barriers throughout the pipeline to academic positions.

For one thing, economics curricula suffer from a lack of cultural relevance, says Dr. Nina Banks, an associate professor of economics at Bucknell University and a member of the board of directors for the National Economic Association.

She finds that today’s economics curricula give little attention to communities of color, and when they do, courses present them as a “problem,” portraying them as making poor economic decisions or as less productive. Meanwhile, Black students studying economics are often interested in learning about economic development for their communities, so neglecting these topics — or handling them haphazardly — leads students to drift off to other disciplines, like sociology or public policy, that more readily address racial discrimination and disparities.

Economics textbooks aren’t much better, pointed out Dr. Gary A. Hoover, executive director of the Murphy Institute and a professor of economics at Tulane University. He’s also the founding editor of the Journal of Economics, Race and Policy.

When textbooks highlight a scholar in the field, that economist is usually “an old White guy,” Hoover says. “He might even be a dead, old White guy. You’ve got to show these folks there’s a place for them in this profession.”

Banks thinks a lack of diverse perspectives in class content is “the biggest factor” in losing Black students.

“If you go into a class and the material doesn’t speak to your lived experience, then it’s not going to be attractive,” she says. “And worse, if the material denigrates the lived experience of people within their community, then it’s very much a turnoff.”

That was her experience as an economics student. She wants her students’ economics education to be more inclusive.

“It’s the reason why I decided to become an economist, because I thought I could have a role in challenging those problematic assumptions,” she says. “The economics curriculum hasn’t changed a whole lot in … many decades.” Continue reading here.

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