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Picture: 123RF/POP NUKOONRAT
Picture: 123RF/POP NUKOONRAT

This weekend’s Juneteenth holiday, which commemorates the day in 1865 when enslaved Black people in Texas learnt of their freedom, should also present America with a challenge: How to address the deep economic disparities that, more than 150 years later, still divide the nation by race?

One part of the solution: Get more Black people involved in crafting economic policy.

As supply-chain disruptions make essential goods scarce and inflation renders them more expensive, and as the Federal Reserve responds by hitting the economic brakes, Black Americans yet again stand to bear the brunt of the suffering. At 6.2%, their unemployment rate remains almost double that of their White counterparts and more than twice that of Asians. With lower incomes and less savings, they're much more likely to experience financial and food insecurity.

A lack of role models

Such inequities persist partly because the people in power are too detached from the everyday challenges of marginalised populations. Top economic policymakers at the Fed and the White House have long been far more White (and male) than the broader US population. To his credit, President Joe Biden has sought to correct this, with the appointment of Cecilia Rouse to the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), and of Lisa Cook and Philip Jefferson to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.

Further progress, however, faces a big obstacle: a lack of Black people employed and trained as economists. In 2020, only 1.2% and 0.4% of all economics doctorates were conferred upon Black men and women, respectively, even though they comprised 5.6% and 6.2% of the US population. This shortage not only confounds efforts to diversify the top ranks of economic policymakers, but also ensures a lack of role models for people aspiring to any of the positions that economics PhDs tend to fill.

Diversity can’t be mandated. Progress will require myriad individuals in positions of power to change the way they think and operate — to move intentionally toward achieving greater equity.
Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe is the founder and president of the Women’s Institute for Science, Equity and Race

To address racial inequities, America must do more to develop a cadre of future Black policymakers. Consider, for example, another event happening this Juneteenth weekend: the American Economic Association (AEA) Summer Mentoring Pipeline Conference, which for more than 20 years has been the most extensive networking and professional development workshop for Asian American, Black American, Hispanic American and Indigenous American students who aspire to become PhD economists. The conference provides participants an opportunity to present their research and get advice about navigating the job market and graduate school. It’s the place to meet the next generation of underrepresented economists. 

The conference is being held alongside the AEA’s Summer Minority Training Programme, which is happening for the first time on the campus of a historically Black college, Howard University. The location is significant for many reasons. For one, it illuminates a clear path forward for participants: Howard, the only HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) with a doctoral programme in economics, is the country’s number one producer of Black economics PhDs. Also, it puts them in direct contact with accomplished mentors such as Dr Omari Swinton, an alumnus of the AEA summer programme who now chairs Howard’s economics department.

The programme at Howard also includes innovations aimed at addressing two barriers to entering the profession: understanding what economists do and what’s required to become one. Participants will gain hands-on experience at federal agencies — such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)— and other institutions — such as private consulting firms — to expose them to potential careers beyond academia. And they’ll have access to as much as three years of structured mentoring, advising and funding for Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) test prep and math courses (through a programme that I direct).

Alumni of the summer programme, which began in 1974, are visible throughout the profession: They account for an estimated one in five economists from underrepresented groups. This strongly suggests that expanding beyond the current 40 participants per year would be one effective way to produce more PhDs. To that end, philanthropic foundations could contribute to an endowment, and banks and companies could get more involved in providing mentoring and learning experiences to participants.

Beyond that, there’s a lot that the profession can and should do. For example:

  • Clarify what’s meant by diversity — in educational programmes, at think-tanks, in the private sector and at government institutions such as the Fed. The aim should be to include more people from groups that have been marginalised in the US, rather than simply to include more people who aren’t White males of European descent.
  • Hold managers accountable for progress towards greater diversity. In academia, don’t give credit for “poaching” from other departments.
  • Provide all students with timely information on what it takes to earn an economics doctorate, as a standard part of undergraduate advising. Often, students learn of the math requirements — which typically entail a double major — when it’s already too late.  
  • Be good mentors by providing the advice and opportunities you wish someone had provided for you. Show young scholars what they need to be successful, rather than leaving them to figure it out on their own. Volunteer for programmes such as the CeMENT Workshop, the Diversity Initiative for Tenure in Economics (DITE) and the Pipeline Mentoring Programme.

Diversity can’t be mandated. Progress will require myriad individuals in positions of power to change the way they think and operate — to move intentionally towards achieving greater equity. With concerted effort, on future Juneteenths we’ll be able to celebrate an economics profession that looks more like the people whose lives it purports to improve.

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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