The Two Women Fixing the Pipeline for Black Female Economists
(Bloomberg) -- The first Black PhD economist in the U.S. Sadie Alexander wasn’t able to practice her chosen profession. Born in 1898, Alexander couldn’t find work because of her race and gender, so she turned to practicing law instead. More than a century later, Black women account for only one percent of U.S. economists.
Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman and Fanta Traore are working to change that. In 2018, at the ages of 21 and 24, respectively, they co-founded The Sadie Collective, an organization addressing the pipeline and pathway problem for Black women in economics.
“What does diversity in economics look like?” Opoku-Agyeman, who studied math and economics at the University of Maryland, said in a recent video interview for the series Black in Focus.
“We are both entering spaces that are going to be predominately white and predominately male,” Opoku-Agyeman said. Traore also studied economics at Howard University, and spent two years working at the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, D.C. “How are we ensuring that we are seeing ourselves in those spaces, but also making sure that the resources that we have been so blessed to have are connected to our friends and our community.”
In a June 2020 Open Letter to Economic Institutions in the Face of #BlackLivesMatter, The Sadie Collective called on the Federal Reserve systems to commit to training and hiring qualified Black doctoral candidates and proportional representation among economists, researchers, and senior leadership within the Banks and the Board by 2030.
“For any organization, whether it’s a policy program, an economics department or a central bank, diversity is absolutely essential in order for good policy to be created,” said Traore, who is the organization’s chief executive, during a recent video interview. “Economists help to shape the world.”
Karen Toulon, chief correspondent for Bloomberg Equality, talked with Opoku-Agyeman and Traore about why “Black Women Best” is good for all Americans, the policies they are excited about and the US Federal Reserve’s racial awakening. (Their comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Karen Toulon: The U.S. Labor Department’s Chief Economist Janelle Jones has caused a bit of a stir with her “Black Women Best” concept. It’s being interpreted different ways.
Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman: “Black Women Best” means the best outcome for Black women in the economy is a better outcome for everyone else. Black women are essentially worse off on a number of economic indicators across the board. And so if we are ensuring that Black women have access to housing, if we are forgiving Black women’s student debt, if we are ensuring that Black women have access to resources if they’re small business owners—then getting Black women those resources, forgiving that debt translates to every other group in the United States.
KT: U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell in June of last year spoke about the effects of racism, just about the same time The Sadie Collective put out its Open Letter to Economic Institutions. The fed’s been talking more about race as a factor in economic life. You made specific proposals to the Fed around hiring and training. Any progress?
Fanta Traore: The fed addressing systemic racism for the first time is pretty remarkable. And the other fed presidents across the system have also shared some statements around what the toll of structural racism is on the economy.
We’ve had Chair Janet Yellen involved with our [Sadie Collective] conference since the beginning in 2019. We’ve also partnered with the Chicago Fed and also the Board of Governors where we facilitated sessions around anti-racism specifically for staff at the Fed to engage with us and to think about what they can do differently and better.
One of the clearest ways to effect change is to hire Black economists. And currently at the Fed in DC there are zero Black economists out of 400. And that is part of the reason why we found ourselves in the Great Recession. The lack of diversity at the table. There was mortgage lending that was occurring to Black people who were in the middle class—Heather McGhee’s work speaks to this—who were getting terrible rates. And if there were Black economists with the lived experiences that are related to those communities, then maybe we could have caught it and not have had the impact we’ve seen globally.
KT: What are some policies that you are looking at, that you think need to get done?
O-A: Forgiving student debt is really about ensuring that Black folks can build wealth. Black women have the highest student debt, which is about $40,000. The only plan that addresses their debt is Senator Chuck Schumer and Senator Elizabeth Warren’s plan, which has been backed by Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley. That plan says it will forgive up to $50,000 in debt.
Obviously minimum wage increases. And that really comes along with a federal job guarantees. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley coauthored a resolution with economists Nina Banks and Derrick Hamilton and the cofounder and CEO of Policy Link. The idea is that everyone deserves a dignified job that pays $15 an hour that is offered by the federal government. This is really at the core of racial justice and economic justice. Ensuring that people have the ability to build wealth and have financial freedom.
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