Top Federal Reserve officials from a dozen regional banks met on April 13 to discuss the racial-disparity problem within the world of economics.
According to Christopher Rugaber of The Associated Press, “top Federal Reserve policymakers on Tuesday underscored their concern that Black and Hispanic people are sharply underrepresented in the economics field, which lessens the perspectives that economists can bring to key policy issues.”
In a study from the Brookings Institution released on the same day, Peter Conti-Brown, a financial historian at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, wrote that bank directors as a whole “are overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly drawn from the business communities within their districts, with little participation from minorities, women, or from areas of the economy — labor, nonprofits, the academy — with important contributions to make to Fed governance.”
“If we don’t have a diverse group of people in the field, we won’t have the right topics to focus on,” said Eric Rosengren, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
The message comes as 2020’s racial justice protests continue to illuminate longstanding racial and gender disparities within the U.S. economy, with “unemployment rates chronically higher for African Americans and Hispanics and levels of wealth, income and homeownership sharply lower,” Rugaber reported. “Yet even in that context, economics trails other fields in measures of diversity, and the profession has been slow to address racism as a source of economic inequality,” he added.
Raphael Bostic, president of the Atlanta Fed and the first Black president of a regional Fed bank in the system’s 108-year history said, “Race is a variable that economists are lazy about. That means we’re drawing conclusions that are often not reflective of reality.”
During the meeting, Ebonya Washington, an economist at Yale University, said that “just 2.8% of economics Ph.D.s in 2019 were granted to Black students and 5.8% to Latinos,” even though African Americans earned more Ph.D.s in mathematics and other scientific fields as a whole.
In other words, the problem isn’t just the result of needing to build a bigger “pipeline” but rather a more general need to make the field of economics more inviting to young Black students. “It’s not about solely changing the student to fit into the flawed profession, but let’s change the flawed profession,” Washington said.
Other scholars in the meeting pointed out that in nearly 20 years, the five major economics journals published just 29 papers specifically looking at race and ethnicity — less than 0.5% of all publications during that time. Scholars also pointed to a lack of representation in economics for people of color, which contributes to a lack of role models in the profession.
“Participants in the webinar [also] noted that academic economists have often been dismissive of racism as a factor in incomes, employment and other economic barometers,” Rugaber reported. “A result is that young minority students who are seeking solutions to racial inequalities might be discouraged from pursuing a career in economics.”
More troubling, William Spriggs, chief economist at the AFL-CIO, said, “There appears to be no evidence that will get economists to admit, yes, there is discrimination, and yes it matters.”