Economists and Race – An Issue Worth Discussing

Are economists as rational and intellectually progressive as they would like to imagine themselves to be?

Let me begin by saying that, in recent decades, economists have done a commendable job of systematically and thoroughly dismantling what bigots might term a "rational basis for racism." From labor economics to econometrics, economists across disciplines have made rigorous cases for advancing principles that are central to how we look at race today – whether it be studies showing how much bigotry costs firms (hint: a lot), or the countless econometrics papers that show that race can (and must be) separated from socioeconomics in explaining economic status. Economists deserve ample praise for demonstrating, in a way that only perhaps natural scientists can rival, that racial differences are not what our grandfathers would have us believe.

Yet I cannot help but be struck by how stereotypes, if not outright racism, continue to haunt the profession. Perhaps I am merely seeing symptoms of a field that is famously repetitive in its idealtypical set of stories and examples. Case in point: I would love to meet the Economics major hasn’t gone through the requisite "beer and pizza" budget constraint graph, or who learned expected utility on a curve that wasn’t either square-rooted or logged. Economists have their examples, and they stick with them.

But sticking with old habits is not just a good way to build field’s discipline; it is also a classic way to reinforce bad stereotypes. For every "apples and oranges" examples of comparative advantage, there are macroeconomists who will repeatedly refer to the fiscal discipline of Germans as something that is almost engrained in the German national ethos – and they do so in a way that, for a certain generation of Europeans, downright disconcerting. Indeed, the idea that Germans are "intrinsically" fiscally and economically disciplined carries of whiff of truly unpleasant stereotypes that is not aided by the economics roots in similarly-Anglo-Saxon Britain.

It’s also difficult not to be a bit unnerved by the field’s consistent use of race dummies in studies. It is true that in advanced studies, this form of controls has allowed us to isolate factor that cannot be confounded if we want to pursue good social science – factors like race and education and income. It’s also a fact that, given the general lack of data that practically every economics study faces, race is useful as a datapoint that is commonplace and relatively reliable in its accuracy. Yet despite all these factors, I cannot help but feel uneasy when, in a recent paper by Gruber (1997), I read, as I have a many times, a sentence that is downright disconcerting at many levels: "The unemployed have a much lower real wage and consumption level [...], are more likely to be female and black, and are less likely to be highly educated or married."

I know for a fact that Gruber, like all those macroeconomists talking about German prudence, means no offense and almost certainly harbors no explicit ill thoughts. The data points he raises are very important, his work is critical, and he should certainly not self-censor what the data shows. And yet, the recurring statement (one that couples race, poverty, low income, and low education) in these academic papers is one that, were it spoken outside the context of an academic paper, would raise many eyebrows. Quickly the line between “reporting the data” and affecting how the next generation of Americans looks a race is a thin one. When does “reporting the data”  become an excuse for the next French politician to brand Polish immigrants as “Polish plumbers?”

I don’t know the solution to issue of stereotypes and racial analyses in the social sciences. But I do believe that the profession could do worse than to bring the issue out of the footnotes and into faculty lounges and lecture halls.

Leave a Reply