By Ruffins, Paul
Black Issues in Higher Education , Vol. 13, No. 19
"Once upon a time
there was a little girl who wanted to
know why some people had jobs
and others didn't, so she took a
course in economics. The textbook
said that if you went to school and
did the right things, you'd get a job.
But she said, `that can't be right. I
have four cousins in Chicago who
finished school, who finished training
programs, and who still don't
have jobs.' So she studied some
That little girl is now Dr. Cecilia Conrad. She told
this story as part of her 1993 presidential address
to the National Economic Association (NEA).
Conrad's story captures the visceral life
experience expressed by most of the Black
economists interviewed for this story. Like
Conrad, they too suspected that economics had the
tools to explain important questions about Black
life. But as they pursued it and developed a love
for it, they were continually confronted with the
fact that the theories they were being taught were
contradicted by their everyday experience.
Although they kept studying, the established
theories never stopped contradicting their
beliefs--and mainstream economists refused to
change the theories,
even when contradicted with hard data.
Perhaps this is why so many Black men and
women proudly describe earning a Ph.D. in
economics as less like joining a profession than
surviving a gauntlet. Surviving that gauntlet earns
them induction into an elite clan of warrior
intellectuals battling over the most profound issues
facing Black America.
"We simply have better answers to many of
the questions of poverty and racism in the post
civil rights era," notes Dr. William Spriggs, an
economist for the House/Senate Joint Economic
Committee. "For example, I believe that Black
economists can make much more powerful
arguments for the need for affirmative action than
political scientists. However, we are often ignored
by both white and Black policy makers."
Many African-American academics and Ph.D.s
sometimes feel isolated and frustrated. But for
Black economists, several things combine to make
these feelings more extreme. Dr. Margaret C.
Simms, research director of the Joint Center for
Political and Economic Studies, estimates that no
more than a maximum of 400, or 1.2 percent, of all
Ph.D.s in economics are held by Blacks.
"In 1980, there were approximately 150 in the
entire country," Simms points out. "For each of
the past ten years the number of Black Ph.D.s
produced has ranged from three to eleven--to
possibly even none."
There is probably no other field where the
numbers of Black Ph.D.s is so low relative to the
number of undergraduates who take courses in the
discipline especially in light of the number of
African Americans with related professional
degrees such master's of business administration or
Certified Public Accountancy.
In economic terms, the supply
to Black Ph.D.s doesn't
seem to be keeping up with
either the demand or the
rewards of working in the
"There are so few of us,
that I have actually had students
come to my office just
to see if I was real," laughs
Dr. Edward Montgomery, of
the University of Maryland.
Dr. Debra Lindsey of
Howard University notes that
there was seldom, if every, another
Black economist at any of
the government or private agencies
where she worked. However,
the situation became
particularly acute when she
worked in defense economics. …