SLAC prof asks:
In a tweet, Trevon Logan says
The whole thread has more information. It makes me want to give up. He says economists do race all wrong. What do you think? And what does one need to do/know to be qualified to teach about race?
Ok, so first off: I am not black. Also I know and hugely respect Trevon Logan and his work (and I’m fairly sure we referee each other’s papers and I’ve always been impressed with his!)
But I disagree with him. I think this is ok for two main reasons:
First, I have had a relatively large number of black (mostly female) students, many of whom have taken some of these cross-campus classes he discusses, and they have always asked me for more on race, not less. You just cannot teach health economics without discussing disparities (and many of the big papers in this area are from epidemiologists and demographers, not economists). You cannot teach labor economics without having a huge section on discrimination, and while many of the white male economists working in this area have blinders on, it is fairly easy (if you have been listening to people, or if you’re female/minority) to point that out and modify their theories into something more realistic and less bigoted. Like, of course taste-based discrimination exists, we don’t have competitive markets, duh. (And current US events during my last semester’s class made it very clear that discrimination can lead to monopoly power, not just be a consequence of it.) Theories of statistical discrimination should include incorrect stereotypes because we don’t have perfect information, honest to FSM. Your (not privileged white male) students can generally point out these flaws themselves just using their own experiences and common sense. You cannot teach public finance without talking about the political economy of race and how these programs affect different groups. Heck, Political Economy is less than half a class without discussing race. Similarly, Law and Economics (even if you’re planning on limiting to patents and contract law, race is still a factor!). Sports economics! You just cannot do justice to any subject that affects money or people without discussing how race impacts it. So I include these topics and every year my students have more ideas for things to add. (Like yes, in health economics we do need to talk about how white doctors have used black women’s bodies and DNA without their permission, you are absolutely right. That would be a great addition to the Tuskeegee paper we already discuss.)
Second, I have listened to the troubles of our young black female faculty across campus (I was on a university-level thing to improve things, which we sort of did but also mostly didn’t … in any case, we did a lot of listening in addition to convincing the university to allow salary equity bumps and a few other things) who primarily teach these classes that Dr. Logan is suggesting we send our econ majors to. It is really unfair to them to inundate them with mostly white male econ majors who have been taught that it’s just fine to play devil’s advocate and haven’t really examined their implicit biases at all. I have enough trouble breaking them in in my intro stats classes. Can you imagine how disruptive they would be in a discussion based class with women and minorities from what they consider to be lesser majors? That is going to have huge negative spillovers.
I have other reasons to disagree which may be less ok, and I would modify his advice some. (Note that since I wrote this post– several other people in the comments of the twitter thread have made these or similar suggestions.)
First off, I agree with him 100% that most of the white dudes in econ who gatekeep and work on racial discrimination start from racist assumptions and for many of them, their main goal is to show how it is Black people’s fault (or women’s fault etc.) for not being more like White men. It’s only recently that economics has started thinking that no, maybe Black people and women are rational, they’re just playing a different game. This problem can easily be solved by just saying, “Don’t teach any papers on race by white men (or by Roland Fryer who may be black but has serious issues).” You can even modify this advice to “Teach only papers on race by black scholars (except not Roland Fryer).” There’s plenty of great work by black scholars and some by other minorities and women that don’t start with racist assumptions or trying to bend evidence to “prove” racist ideas. There are even textbooks and summary articles that would be great for lower-level undergraduate classes (William Darity Jr. is a good author/editor to start with).
And there are a LOT of white economists who could themselves benefit from reading this work. Maybe they should start with So you want to talk about race and/or White Fragility and following Black scholars on twitter. Then they can move on to articles in academic journals.
In terms of whether or not economists think about discrimination incorrectly… some of them do, but I think we benefit from looking at how different social sciences deal with race and discrimination. NONE of them give a complete picture. The assumptions and questions asked are different. We gain tremendously from thinking about these different viewpoints and different ways of modeling. (I took Race and the Economy from an amazing Black woman and she incorporated overviews from other fields in the class. It can be done.) I could go into huge detail about this, but that would get too long… suffice to say that these different viewpoints complement each other; they are not substitutes. An economist can learn a lot from how anthropology, sociology, psychology and other fields conceptualize discrimination and other questions involving race. (Insert rant about irritating white male gate-keepers in labor economics here who think innovation and interdisciplinarity is incorrect.)
Maybe the better advice would be for economist professors themselves to take a few classes across campus, or at the very least, read a textbook from another field, before adding race to their classes. They should also read up on how to make their classroom more inclusive so that students don’t feel scared to speak up when the professor screws up.
As for me, I have been including race in my classes since I started and I cannot imagine stopping now. The more I teach, the more I listen to my students, and the more I learn from them, which helps students the next time I teach. It is a learning process for everybody. Did I have some cringeworthy moments when I first started, probably, but minority students have been gentle with me and each year I’ve learned more and gotten better and future students benefit from that.
Update: The more I talk with my colleagues interested in adding a race unit in their classes, the more I’m convinced that my suggestion about only using papers written by minorities is the correct one. I had no idea that people didn’t know Becker was a huge racist misogynist jerk(!) I mean, I thought everybody knew that. People knew it back when he was still young, like decades ago. So no, DO NOT read Becker in the raw original. Many of his theory structures are lovely, but read them with the sexist and racist assumptions removed by someone else; there are great minority scholars who have explained the baseline theories and added to them, so go with them. (William Spriggs talks about some of the problems still inherent today.)
I swear, my colleagues are all going to give up and just end up covering Bertrand and Mullainathan, though I did convince one to try Quillian et al. (in PNAS) instead. Look, it’s not that B&M isn’t a great paper, it is, but the really horrible overlying thing is that it got into the AER because everybody, including labor economists who should have known better, thought this was the first time a correspondence audit had been done, completely ignoring ALL of the correspondence audits done by Black scholars or non-Americans– I learned about them in my undergrad economics class on Race in the economy. What I mean is, I’m fairly sure that racism is the reason those earlier audits by black people aren’t known at all. Quillian and coauthors do a good job of collecting them and plotting their results over time. (It should have been published in Science, but the racist editor overruled like 7 referees who all said it was must publish.) Quillian is also white, but he’s a sociologist, so maybe he gets a pass? Plus he’s very nice. I’m not sure if there are any minorities in the “et al” portion. (Plus the econometrics textbook we use has B&M as one of their datasets and students replicate all the ttests and regressions, so it’s not adding that much for our majors.) Any time I explain this to a White labor economist they get really mad at me because B&M is somehow the first hardcore proof they’ve ever seen about racism against black people other than those small scale in-person audits from like the 70s that somehow Jim Heckman “disproved” in the 1990s (spoiler: he didn’t really).
Update 2: Last night we talked to a number of students and alumni (mostly underrepresented minorities) and they said to be careful to make sure that the lesson is integrated into the curriculum, and to not just have it as a separate unit unconnected with the rest of the class.