Black Economists: An `Elite Clan of Warrior Intellectuals'

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BLACK ECONOMISTS: AN `ELITE CLAN OF WARRIOR INTELLECTUALS'.

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 of 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 ever, 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. "Because the information was classified, I couldn't discuss any of it with anyone outside of the agency. So there was literally no one Black that I could bounce ideas off of."

Like Lindsey, other Black economists often describe the consequences of their tiny numbers in personal terms. However, they are quick to point out the larger issue: The Black community, as a whole, suffers when there aren't any Black economists at the conference table when important decisions are being made.

"Black economists may not be any rarer than Black physicists" notes Dr. Rhonda Williams of the University of Maryland. "However, physicists are not running the Federal Reserve Bank or making every day decisions that will determine or even undermine the qualify of life of millions of African Americans."

When asked what is the single largest public policy question which Black economists probably would handle differently than white ones, the most common answer concerned the tradeoffs between inflation and unemployment. …