Challenging the Orthodoxy: Race, Racism and the Reconfiguration of Economics

Books abound on what is wrong with economics (Chang 2014Keen 2011Nelson 2018Mazzucato 2018Raworth 2018Stanford 2015), and what we would have to do to change it. Given the little change we have seen in economics training and policy-effective economic thinking since the global finance crisis of 2007/08, and in light of the global environmental, inequality and health crises, it is to be seen whether these interventions can make any meaningful impact. What is good though: Half of these impactful books were written by female economists. Despite this ‘wind of change’ in an overtly male discipline, it is striking that these books still offer a glaring lacuna: the issues of race and racism (except for brief mentions in Nelson 2018 and Stanford 2015). For many people around the world, these are no mere ‘issues’, but integral to their daily struggles and experiences in White majority countries. These are part of a differentiated life– a life differentiated so much that it can be full of unrealized potentials, suffering and trauma, physical harm and violence, and premature death in the worst of cases. Therefore, while we could move on, building on these interventions and many others (e.g., Obeng-Odoom 2020Sarr 2019 or here), to discuss what would have to change in economic thinking (which includes economics training), policy and praxis to help achieve a “safe and just operating space for humanity” (Raworth 2018), the goal of this blog entry is more firmly tied to the question of how economic thinking would change if race and racism were taken seriously as structural-relational problems?

Much of economic thinking happens via economics. Therefore, my entry will often refer to economics as an institutionalized field. That said, expertise about the economy is not just rooted in economics. In fact, economists should not hold an intellectual monopoly over explaining how the economy works and should work (even though many of them, ironically, seem to appreciate that monopoly). That is why I as an economic geographer dare write this post. Pluralizing the economy, economics and economic thinking are separate but still interconnected projects. Some of the arguments that follow apply to other disciplines, too. Nevertheless, economics is singular among the social sciences in terms of its socio-demographic homogeneity (at least in countries of the Global North), prestige, student intake volumes, policy influence and partial self-isolation from other disciplines. It thus deserves particular scrutiny.

So what would an economics that takes race and racism seriously as structural-relational problems have to look like? To what kind of epistemic and institutional practices would it have to commit itself in an effort to effectively engage with these lived realities? A partial answer is already provided by economists who do study race and racism in a field called stratification economics, not to be mixed up with the so-called economics of discrimination that is largely rooted in a neoclassical economics framework. Building on some the insights of the former, and adding a few more perspectives, we can call for at least 10 ways of how to challenge the broader field of economics (i.e. variants of neoclassical and behavioural economics, but much more than that, as we saw above!) via race and racism.

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We Need to Talk about Economics

By Paulo L. dos Santos and Noé Wiener

What’s Wrong with Economics? The title of economic historian Robert Skidelsky’s latest book captures well a prevailing mood of popular disaffection with the dismal science. Many have come to associate the discipline with specific lines of political partisanship—including forms of market fundamentalism and the politics of austerity. Economics has also been widely criticised for its failure to grapple with actual, urgent economic problems. Within academic circles, the discipline has become widely regarded as insular and dismissive of the contributions other fields of social and historical inquiry make to the study of economic life. Among the public at large, the credibility of the discipline as a whole has faced considerable scrutiny, even while individual contributions by dissenting economists are widely debated and generally well received.

Recent political developments like the rise of the Movement for Black Lives and the #MeToo movement have helped broaden the sense of crisis in economics; encouraging examination of the discipline’s deeply problematic relationship with realties of race, gender, and other elements of people’s social identity. As a number of critics have noted, the problems are reflected most obviously in the profession’s basic institutional composition, which is grossly unrepresentative. In the United States women account for only 14 percent of full professors in PhD-granting departments. Of all doctorates conferred in the academic year 2015–2016, only 1.29 percent were conferred to Black or Latina women. This dismal performance was significantly worse than the 3 percent average across all STEM disciplines. That same year, only 3.6 percent of all full economics professors at PhD-granting institutions were Latino; a meagre 1.6 percent were Black.

The problem is also evident in prevalent attitudes and values among economists. Casual racism and misogyny among leading economists appears to have few or no repercussions. A 2019 survey of academic economists by the American Economic Association found that nearly half of Black economists reported being targets of discrimination in the profession. It also found that “only 45 percent of all . . . respondents (regardless of race) believed economists who are not White are respected in the field.” When the work on the economics of racial stratification by scholars like William Darity and Darrick Hamilton was finally included in the alphanumeric classification system for research topics in economics, it was placed in the last, residual category, “Z – Other Special Topics.” Recent work by Alice Wu uncovered evidence that these attitudes are prevalent among economics students, while work by Valentina Paredes, Daniele Paserman, and Francisco Pino found evidence suggesting that economics programs both attract and cultivate bigotry.

What has so far received comparatively less attention are the ways these attitudes are embodied in the basic concepts and analytical tools that most contemporary economists use to understand the world. Yet it is over this terrain that the discipline’s problems with issues of social identity prove most harmful to society at large.

The frameworks at the heart of contemporary economic thinking reflect analytical choices that ultimately betray the social position and outlook of those developing economic theory. In all of these choices, contemporary economic thinking has created a stilted conceptual terrain where it is easy to ignore or downplay the economic expressions of systemic inequities by social identity and class. This is evident in some of the discipline’s core analytical stances, like what is and what is not considered as economic activity, and in its rejection of social categories like gender, race, and class as useful in the analysis of markets and economies. It is also evident in the ways most economists think about the nature of discrimination, its relationship to market competition, and the statistical measurements of its effects on economic outcomes.

Given the outsized influence economics exerts across all fields of social inquiry and policy, these biases exert an insidious, conservative influence over public thinking and over the very framing of debates about those iniquities. Countering this influence requires understanding these biases, which in turn requires engagement with a few foundational methodological and technical issues in economic analysis. In what follows we draw on contributions by many critically minded economists and political economists, and on some of our own recent work, to contribute to a conversation among social scientists and political actors about these biases and about how they may be overcome.

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The Home, The World: Anti-Racist Feminist Politics and Communities of Care in a Pandemic

Without community there is no liberation, no future, only the armistice most vulnerable and temporary between me and my oppression.” Audre Lorde to Tony Morrison

The Home

Toni Morrison is one of the writers who wrote the most about ‘the home and racial justice’. In her emblematic novel Beloved, set in the post-Civil War South, she tells the story of a young girl murdered by her formerly-enslaved mother, Sethe. Sethe is importantly surrounded by the unheimlich (Freud), the stranger, where the foundations of our ethical judgment on slavery are found. In the United States, in the period 1882 to 1895, approximately one-third to half of the average black mortality rate corresponded to children under the age of five (Bhabha, 2002). We face the dilemma of judging these acts.

Sethe, in an act of love, kills her daughter Beloved to avoid her master’s appropriation of her daughter. Sethe was a pariah in the post-slavery society of the United States. She knew from when she was a slave what it meant for a woman to have her children taken when her breasts were full of milk; that she would have been beaten to exhaustion for others to take her milk. She was raped by her master, as was the case for many of the slaves of Sweet Home; that name itself being a mockery of a plantation that was held under a system of slave laws that collaborated on that tragic fate. If a female slave escapes, there is a double loss; the capacity for reproduction and for manual labor. The slave society must permanently produce new slaves for reproduction (Bidaseca, 2010).

Sethe insistently repeats:”It wasn’t a story to share. They forgot it like a nightmare (…) What should be forgotten before it is shared; what should be hidden and silenced as to not interrupt our present?”. I wondered in my book Perturbando el texto colonial. Los estudios poscoloniales en América Latina (2010): “This is not an easy story to transmit” but it needs to, as says Bhabha (2002), so that it may be engraved in our subconscious.

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Whose Anger? A Review of Angrynomics

The recent ‘insurrection’ on Capitol Hill should put an end to any liberal illusions that 2021 would usher in, in Biden’s words, a return to decency. Surreal images of the QAnon Shaman roaming the US Senate may yet become one of the defining photographs of the Trump presidency. In many ways it is symbolic of the President himself – inchoate and unashamedly atavistic yet, emboldened by law and order, obstructive and corrosive.

Many of these themes are touched upon in Eric Lonergan and Mark Blyth’s short book Angrynomics. In many senses it is a timely book, published just weeks after the murder of George Floyd and in the midst of the largest global recession since the Second World War, these are fertile grounds for anger. Certainly there is very little to dispute about Lonergan and Blyth’s premise:

“We have an abject failure of policy. Rather than presenting a major programme of economic reform, the global political elite has offered nothing substantive, instead choosing either to jump on the bandwagon of nationalism or insist that nothing fundamental is wrong… The political classes, bereft of ideas, are now desperately peddling old ideologies and instincts, or pursuing bizarre distractions like Brexit.”

As a result of this abject failure, people are angry. They are either publicly anger or privately angry. That public anger either manifests itself in moral outrage (think, for instance, of an Extinction Rebellion protest) or tribal rage (for example, and this is used in the book, fans at a football match). Private anger, meanwhile, gives us an insight into the daily micro-stresses of people’s lives. This is the Lonergan and Blyth typology of anger.

Whose Anger?

While the authors are clear that “we need to draw a clear distinction between legitimate public anger and cynical manipulation of tribal anger for political ends” (22), their analysis often fails to live up to the task. Through the centrality of “legitimate moral grievances in the Rust Belt” in explaining the election of Trump (25) and the “real stressors” of immigration driving the Brexit vote (111-112), Angrynomics ends up sidestepping important discussions of race for an overly simplistic explanation of class.

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Abolition Will Not Be Randomized

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By Anastasia Wilson and Casey Buchholz

In the wake of the current uprising in support of Black Lives Matter, there has been increasing interest in the use of mainstream empirical methods in economics — like randomized control trials (RCTs) and administrative data evaluation — to address issues of racism and violence in the institution of policing. These interests are well intentioned, but similar to prior debates, we are reminded that “there is reason for concern” about the relevance of these approaches amidst a mass movement calling for deep structural and institutional change. In just two weeks, mass protests have sprung up across the U.S. and the world calling for the defunding, disbanding, and abolition of police as well as the dismantling of white supremacy. This moment has the potential to bring about an institutional and structural shift in our politics, society, and economy. Given this, we will echo many of the concerns shared by economists about the limits of some empirical methods, the biases embedded in administrative data, and the relevancy of these approaches to the current moment calling for immediate change. Read More »