The Politics of Race in Economics (and Elsewhere)

The article, “Economics, Dominated by White Men, Is Roiled by Black Lives Matter,” published in The New York Times (June 10, 2020), written by Ben Casselman and Jim Tankersley, takes up the complaint that there is not enough diversity in the discipline of economics. The complaint here is part of a larger discourse on the importance of diversity in deepening knowledge.

The occasion that draws the attention of The New York Times to this subject is a tweet by the editor of The Journal of Political Economy, a top academic journal, University of Chicago economist Harald Uhlig (a German national), in which he criticizes Black Lives Matters protesters as “flat earthers” for wanting to defund the police. Predictably, there are calls for Uhlig to resign his editorship.

Spotlight on Giving: Dr. Harald Uhlig | Heller-Hurwicz Economics ...
Chicago economist Harald Uhlig under fire for criticizing the Defund the Police movement

The NYTimes article begins: “The national protests seeking an end to systemic discrimination against black Americans have given new fuel to a racial reckoning in economics, a discipline dominated by white men despite decades of efforts to open greater opportunity for women and nonwhite men.”

The writers presume a cause they do not demonstrate—or at least fail to challenge. The constant assuming as given “systemic discrimination against black Americans,” or systemic racism (or institutional racism), lends the protests—even the riots—an undeserved legitimacy. The words “alleged,” “perceived,” or “supposed” would be very useful here.

On the specific matter of lethal officer-civilian interactions, which is the inspiration of this article, the evidence does not support the BLM claim. Relative to population, blacks are more likely to be killed by a cop than whites, but disparity does not necessarily indicate inequity. There could be reasons other than racism that explain the disparity. In fact, there are. Research of the claim finds that black overrepresentation in serious crime explains racial disparities in lethal office-civilian interactions.

The article ignores those studies and instead uses White House National Economic Council Larry Kudlow as an example of the problem the article presumes. Kudlow has told reporters, “I don’t believe there is systemic racism in the US.” For the reporters, Kudlow’s answer exposes a discipline that “remains nowhere close to a full-scale shift on racial issues.” A full-scale shift, it seems, is what the writers desire. The suggestion is the Kudlow is racist by expressing a belief that accords with evidence. That this is an indirect dig at Trump should be obvious.

The reporters identify two problems: (1) the field is discriminatory towards blacks, and by this they mean that it is not racially diverse enough and doesn’t promote or publish enough black scholarship, and (2) many economists refuse to acknowledge discrimination in country at large. I understand this last problem to mean that there are economists who find no empirical support for the claim that systemic racism lies at the center of the difficulties some black people experience and that not going beyond the data to toe an ideological line is a problem. The way the matter is put suggests that a correct ideological conclusion is more desirable than findings reached with science.

“As protests against discrimination have grown in recent days,” Casselman and Tankersley write, “a conversation has erupted—often led by black economists—over how the lack of diversity has left the profession ill equipped for a moment where policymakers are seeking ideas on how to combat racial inequality in policing, employment and other areas.”  

The idea that having a diverse field in a discipline increases the power and scope of scientific endeavor is identitarian. It is the mark of postmodernist corruption of scientific epistemology. This is the notion of the “epistemic privilege” of identity, namely that a person of one race can produce greater truths than a person of another race because of the former can see things by virtue of his identity, presumed as monolithic, while the latter is unable to see things because of his.

We hear this in the form of the throat clearing exercise: “Speaking as a black woman….” Imagine if I, a white man, cleared my throat with, “Speaking as a white man….” Who besides a white supremacist would find that addition to the point I am about to make as anything more than asserting a racial (and sexual) privilege?

How do phenotypic characteristics produce “ideas on how to combat racial inequality in policing, employment and other areas”? How does being a member of a particular race help a person, as Howard Spriggs, an economist at Howard University, suggests, “to reflect and rethink how we study disparities”? Are white economist lacking a gene for reflecting and rethinking?

Spriggs, an accomplished black man, also served in the Obama Administration. I raise the matter of Spriggs’ race because systemic racism doesn’t seem to have hindered him. Just like it doesn’t seem to have hindered Glenn Lowry, economics professor at Brown, also a black man, who sharply disagrees with the identitarianism expressed by academics like Spriggs. (Why wasn’t Lowry interviewed for this story?)

Roland Fryer, an economist at Harvard, who found no anti-black bias in police shootings, did not come to that conclusion in spite of his blackness. (Why wasn’t Fryer interviewed for this story?) Perhaps not incidentally, Fryer’s paper on racial disparities in police-civilian interactions was published in The Journal of Political Economy.

Spriggs tells Casselman and Tankersley, “We find ourselves, as so often happens in these ugly police cases, having to prove that acts of discrimination are exactly that—discrimination.” But, as a professional economist, one whom I presume is interested in the pursuit of truth, does Spriggs really want other economists to not expect that he would have to prove his claims? I can’t imagine black scholars like Lowry and Fryer agreeing with that.

The reporters relay anecdotes told to them by Lisa Cook, a Michigan State University economist, of students asking her “where does this racially hostile environment come from?” They ask, “Why does this racial discrimination exist in the pinnacle of the social sciences?” Again, the premise is assumed without demonstration. To buttress her claims, Casselman and Tankersley locate an article from 1962 where Nobel Prize winning economist George Stigler contends that blacks do poorly in the workforce because they are less educated and not as ambition as white workers.

The language Stigler uses certainly looks bad in the light of almost 60 years of progress. The reporters themselves admit, “Few scholars today would use such language.” “But the ideas persist,” they continue. “Economics journals are still filled with papers that emphasize differences in education, upbringing or even IQ rather than discrimination or structural barriers.”

As readers of my blog will know, I am highly critical of research using IQ. I do not regard IQ as a valid or reliable measure of intelligence. However, research emphasizing education and upbringing is hardly indicative of the assumptions supposed to be lying behind Stigler’s 1962 article. I am a sociologist, and education and upbringing are important factors to account for in explaining the life chances of individuals. So are factors of discrimination and structure barriers. But these are factors to be demonstrated and measured, not merely asserted.

Economics is a science. The racial identity of economists brings no more to economics than it does to physics or biology. The assumption is that a white economist will shape analysis to fit with a bias, which is hardly transparent way of saying that white economists produce scholarship advancing their racial interests. What goes along with this is the idea of “unconscious implicit bias,” a phantom of the social sciences.

Validating the notion that one’s race gives them special powers of perception lies at the core of this story. The pervasiveness of postmodernist epistemology is something that those who do science—and those who depend on science in a technologically advance society—must confront. It is inherently corrupting to the enterprise of knowledge production. It weaves into the fabric of apparent scientific conclusions systemic bias, namely that of ideological standpoint. It accuses science of a race bias on the grounds that the majority of scientists are white (in a white majority society) and seeks to rectify this alleged bias with the introduction of race-conscious politics. If that sounds paradoxical, that’s because it is.

Unfortunately, many scientists are reluctant to ask whether race actually has the power to deepen scientific knowledge because for decades the cultural ground of the academy has been worked in a way that to ask such a question leaves one open to accusations of racism. Racism has become not the intentional actions of person, but the failure of persons to admit the presence of phenomena they are to take on faith. The exercise is anti-science. Under pressure from university administrators, whose interests do not always lie with facilitating the production of objective knowledge, to diversify their departments on the basis of racial identity, the injection of racial politics into science is becoming normal.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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