Why We Need More Black Women in Economics

Keri Leigh Merritt SAVE THIS
Attendees at the 2019 Sadie T.M. Alexander Conference for Economics & Related Fields (courtesy of The Sadie Collective).

On the 154th anniversary of Juneteenth, the issue of economic reparations for American descendants of slavery took center stage on Capitol Hill. While the Representatives mostly excluded academics from the hearing, Julianne Malveaux, a Black economist, presented the scholarly evidence of the day, using numbers and data to convincingly argue in favor of HR-40, a bill to establish a commission to study reparations. Black economists like Malveaux have the power to affect real policy change on reparations, but also can influence a wider range of pressing issues — from the worsening racial wealth gap, income inequality, and under-representation in banking and on the Federal Reserve Board to challenges with gentrification and generational wealth. Black economists are essential to a successful program of Black economic empowerment.

The historic and deliberate exclusion of African Americans from economics has undoubtedly hindered the quest to diminish wealth inequality in the United States. And given the historic double-oppression of Black women through both race and gender, their representation within economics is essential to Black progress. If we truly want to discuss racial justice, we desperately need to address and correct this disparity.

Recruiting and training more Black economists in policy matters – especially Black women economists – is an essential piece of any reparations answer. It should be one of the first actions taken in the pursuit of economic equity in America.

As Trevon Logan, Professor and North Hall Chair in Economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told The North Star, the underrepresentation of Black economists is “a deep problem,” because these scholars “are heavily involved in the policy space, and yet we do not have all of the voices that we need at the table to think through the implications of the work that we are doing.” “The lack of economists from underrepresented groups, and Black women in particular,” he continued, “is a large and glaring blind spot for the discipline.”

According to the 2018 Report of the Committee on the Status of Minority Groups in the Economics Profession, efforts to attract more minority students in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) have made notable gains. However, math and economics still lag behind the other disciplines. The most significant difference could be seen in doctorates awarded: minorities comprised 13.2 percent of STEM PhDs, but only 7.4 percent of economics PhDs. This difference is partially attributable to the fact that historically, the field of economics has been overwhelmingly white and male. They are also related to racism, which have arisen simultaneously with sexism. This disparity is demonstrated at the upper echelons of government service with only two African Americans–Raphael Bostic and Andrew Brimmer–who have served on the Federal Reserve Board.

Out of underrepresented minority students in these fields, Black women often fared the worst.

Even in areas like undergraduate math, numbers of Black women majors have declined from a high of 4.5 percent in 1997 to just 2.35 percent by 2014. The reasons for this decline include HBCUs shutting economics departments in their efforts to cut spending, the persuasion of Black women who show a propensity for math to obtain business degrees, and a lack of minority recruitment by economists. Racism is the most persuasive explanation: departments, as well as universities, generally refuse to disrupt the status quo, especially over issues that might disrupt the balance of power. Still, the situation has gotten so dire that less than 1 percent of economics PhDs awarded between 2016-17 went to Black women.

But there is hope. Recently a group of brilliant, driven, young Black women formed The Sadie Collective, an organization that “seeks to be an answer to the dismal representation of Black women in the quantitatively demanding fields such as public policy, economics, data analytics, and finance.”

The organization’s name honors Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, the first African American woman to receive a PhD in economics. Alexander lived an incredible life, breaking boundaries and helping to erode the injustices of Jim Crow. Born in 1898, she was the second Black woman in America to earn a doctorate and the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania’s law school. She headed Philadelphia’s Commission on Human Rights, and was appointed by President Harry Truman to the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. She was also named chairwoman of the White House Conference on Aging by President Jimmy Carter. Alexander’s life and accomplishments is an inspiration for her successors.

Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, the CEO and co-founder of Sadie Collective, is an impressive young woman who will be a Research Scholar in economics at Harvard University this fall. Born in Ghana, Opoku-Agyeman’s parents immigrated to the Baltimore area when she was an infant. Growing up, she remembers her interest in economics starting with talks about Ghana and politics with her father, an epidemiologist. Had he been given the chance, Opoku-Agyeman conjectured in an interview with The North Star, her father might have gone into economic development himself.

But it was Opoku-Agyeman’s older brother who sparked her interest in American politics and policy. “Mostly through watching The Daily Show,” she explained. Although she started out in college at the University of Maryland Baltimore County studying business and then biology, she switched to her true calling–math. As part of the prestigious Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which seeks to diversify the leaders of STEM fields, Opoku-Agyeman became more interested in economics, especially how research informs policy.

After an isolating experience as a research assistant at the University of Chicago, Opoku-Agyeman knew that something had to change within the profession, or soon there would be no Black women economists in the U.S. She originally connected with her co-founder, Fanta Traore, through LinkedIn. Traore, a Research Assistant at the Federal Reserve Board, now serves as the COO of The Sadie Collective. The pair dreamed up the idea for the organization while at an American Economic Association meeting, where the scarcity of Black economists is painfully obvious.

Traore and Opoku-Agyeman decided there needed to be a conference exclusively for Black women in economics. After a few months of planning, they officially debuted The Sadie Collective and worked to get larger, well-funded institutions involved in their initiative. Opoku-Agyeman says that they use the National Society of Black Engineers as a model, with local/regional chapters, conferences, and – most importantly – a sustained concentration on recruiting.

The Sadie Collective recently hosted the first Sadie T.M. Alexander Conference for Economics & Related Fields at Mathematica’s Washington, DC office, making “national headlines as the first conference for Black women in economics and related fields.” Not only did the group arrange to have the conference fully funded by outside organizations, but they attracted over 100 attendees and 13 career recruiters. The conference included an impressive list of speakers such as Willene A. Johnson, formerly the Executive Director of the African Development Bank and long-time vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The family members of the organization’s namesake were also in attendance, including Alexander’s daughter, Rae Alexander-Minter.

Opoku-Agyeman said that the conference exceeded their expectations, and, quite astonishingly, The Sadie Collective “didn’t have to spend a dime of our own money.” It was thrilling, she admitted, having both prominent Black scholars and businesswomen meeting and forming mentorships with both graduate and undergraduate women. Opoku-Agyeman praised the sense of camaraderie and “sisterhood” born from the first conference. The Sadie Collective already has big plans for the next one.

When asked what she hopes to accomplish with a career that’s already remarkable at her young age, Opoku-Agyeman answers that she wants to be an “economist of the people,” studying policy issues related to labor and diversity. She ultimately hopes to combine the qualities of two of her mentors: the academic brilliance of Lisa D. Cook, Associate Professor of Economics at Michigan State University and a former Obama White House aide, and the public scholarship of Julianne Malveaux, who makes economics “real and tangible.”

With champions like Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman and the members of The Sadie Collective, there is hope for the future. The power to transform politics – and policy – will soon be theirs. With brilliant but accessible scholars dedicating themselves to closing the racial wealth gap, promoting Black businesses, and ending income inequality, the United States has a chance to become a more economically equitable society. The women of The Sadie Collective will be the ones leading the way. 

 


About the Author

Keri Leigh Merritt works as a historian and writer in Atlanta, Georgia. Her award-winning first book, Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, was published with Cambridge University Press in 2017. She is co-editor, with Matthew Hild, of Reconsidering Southern Labor History: Race, Class, and Power (University Press of Florida, 2018), and also writes shorter pieces for publications like the Washington Post, Bill Moyers and Company, Aeon, and Smithsonian Magazine.

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One comment

  • joelgoza

    A remarkable article. I was a business and economics major and worked in the world of financial analysis. One of the tragedies of the discipline and profession is a complete inability to even imagine what economic justice could look like. I pray women of color can bring sight to the blind and equity to the marginalized. Great job Keri.

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