Black Economists: An 'Elite Clan of Warrior Intellectuals.'

Article excerpt

"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

more."

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

field.

"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. …