Ask the grumpies: Should economists not teach anything about race?

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.

29 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Should economists not teach anything about race?”

  1. Matthew D Healy Says:

    My career has been in Biopharmaceutical Research; I helped put several antiviral drugs on the market. It’s impossible to understand Epidemiology without understanding racial and economic disparities: just about every factor that makes some people at higher risk of dying from COVID-19 affects Black and Hispanic people much more than it affects White people.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Last night we had a zoom discussion with students and I asked them this question and one of the white dudes was like, I don’t see how Dr. [Ancient Whiteman’s] trade class could possibly include anything on race or equity. Which I said was kind of an indictment of that class and our program in general. He was not happy about that but a white international student alum smoothed it over by making him think he said something he didn’t actually say and getting him to agree with it. It was politician worthy.

    • Sara Says:

      I watched a webinar recently that reminded me how poorly medical research handles race and how much implicit bias affects patient care and outcomes (e.g., racial “corrections” for spirometry and kidney function measures, the flawed methodology behind “race-based medicine” clinical trials, etc.). Even the National Kidney Foundation’s website attempts to justify the GFR standards by buying into the myth of race as a genetic cause of innate of innate differences in muscle mass.

  2. EB Says:

    Help me out here. I’ve read 2 of Roland Fryer’s studies about police killings (and hoped or rather felt intuitively they were wrong). Why is his method wrong or inadequate? I’m not an economist but do know my way around quantitative research a bit.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      So one of Roland Fryer’s papers does a ton of conditioning where he’s like, if you condition on the fact that black people are more likely to be stopped, and condition on the fact that they’re more likely to be told to get out of their car and condition on the fact that I dunno, the police officer is more likely to get out his gun etc… then the black person is equally likely to be shot. All of that conditioning means that hey, black people are more likely to be shot by police because if they’re in a situation in which they’ve pulled a white guy out of the car and pulled a gun, it’s REALLY serious, whereas they might just be having fun harassing the black guy. Fryer takes this as evidence of lack of police brutality or something. It’s just awful. And its flaws are so obvious it should not have been publishable. I think we have a post on it somewhere from when it came out, actually as an ask the grumpies.

      I lost all respect for him many years ago the day he and Steve Levitt did a talk at a conference in which they’d done no research at all, but pulled up a copy of a woodcarving of a slave trader licking a black man and claimed that was proof that all of the differences in health in the US are caused by different levels of salt retention leading to heart problems. Which… is a theory that was popular in the 1970s by racists but has been disproven over and over again, AND we know a ton about how STRESS (from, say, racism) and poverty and Tuskegee and medical treatment and segregation and… I CAN’T EVEN. UGH.

      Also he’s a known serial sexual harasser, which I only found about about in that NYTimes article but made so many comments I’d overheard make sense.

      There are so many amazing black scholars in economics (not as many as there should be of course), but the only one at Harvard for a long time has made his name as the Clarence Thomas of economics.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      can’t find it… maybe we didn’t use his name or maybe it was just me going off in the comments like I just did now.

  3. af184793 Says:

    I don’t know anything about economics, but I am so glad to see that people in this discipline are having these debates. This should be happening in every field. Bear in mind, though, that African American/Black Studies/Ethnic Studies/etc. is a very diverse field in itself- some schools may be strong in the social sciences but weak in the humanities; might have great political scientists of a certain type but no one who really does econ; or – of course – the whole discipline might have been decimated by administrators who as recently as a month ago had decided that this field was trivial or impractical or whatever. So if your university doesn’t have someone on the faculty who does a good job of covering race in your field and you don’t feel qualified to teach it, then you should figure out how to get qualified.

    This won’t happen all at once, but at a minimum, start looking at syllabi from other universities where the subject is taught, do some initial research, and identify at least a few articles or a book that specialists see as central, and put that on your syllabus for the fall.

  4. Jenny F. Scientist Says:

    Interestingly enough, there are a ton of racial disparities that come up in science- like when we’re taking about oncogenes, but actually it turns out one of the best ways to either not get or to survive cancer is to be rich (for example, and this is true even in, e.g., Canada. So how much is genetic? Well… less than the students think. Or we talk about “intelligence genes” ( I don’t think they’re real), vs. parental income. Or obesity and night shift work. There are a lot of bad, harmful ways to talk about these things, but I feel I’d be doing all these mostly -white future doctors a disservice if I didn’t even try to open their minds to disparities in both research and medicine. And I really want them to question their assumptions.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yep, a lot of those exact same things show up in some of my econ classes. Not fancy words like oncogenes, but things like any reason for mortality differences. My students have gotten used to suggesting “socioeconomic status” as an omitted variable even when it doesn’t make sense, or when they’ve not been paying attention in class and get cold-called (that usually gets a laugh from the class). And of course we have to talk about what *is* SES, and how is it measured differently based on what information we have and so on… I mean, this is my stats 101 class!

  5. Jenny F. Scientist Says:

    It’s extremely depressing how many health outcomes are just a combo of racism and wealth.

  6. omdg Says:

    Such a fascinating post, I wish I had something intelligent to add to the discussion. I wanted to say:

    1) I know Becker is sexist and racist from you (thank you).
    2) What is with the entitled douchey know-it-all white boys who are drawn to economics?
    3) Robert Fogel? Yay or nay? (after all, he is white)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Bob Fogel was wonderful. Definitely imperfect and not always aware of his privilege, but a generous and kind mentor to all genders and deeply interested in issues of disparities and racism in ways that I, at least, don’t find problematic. (I was taught Time on the Cross by a Fogel student and had a very different read of it than a sociologist who learned it as a racist piece of work from one of her sociology profs, so I think it can be read differently given that the writing tends to lean more neutral– the basic idea is that slavery was profitable, which doesn’t preclude it being wrong or profits being the only motive for treating black people terribly. But it probably doesn’t say that straight out enough.)

      When I did meet him very briefly at a conference, he was much older and my impression was mostly someone who had a personal assistant taking care of his scheduling and so on, and he didn’t believe in powerpoints and instead read his paper aloud. But his reputation among economists as a good person and good mentor is very strong. If you were a woman or minority (including international students) at Chicago while he was still alive, History/demography and the population center was really the place to go. Plus I’ve met a lot of his staff (mostly Mormon women, but not all) and they had nothing but praise for him as a boss.

      Would I exempt Fogel from that heuristic about just using stuff from minorities when you’re starting out. Nah, his fundamental stuff on race is summarized by black economists too. If you’re an economic historian, then you should not have been just starting out on issues of race! If you’re just starting, give yourself a few years in which you’re less likely to screw up because someone prominent is awful and you didn’t realize (hypothetical you here, not omdg). I’d rather lighten up on the women restriction before the prominent nice guys restriction, because it can be hard to tell at the beginning.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I should note that we probably read an updated version of Time on the Cross and not the whole thing, so the original version may have had racist stuff in it. Or we may have only read non-racist chapters. Or (and this would be worse) I’m not remembering the racist bits. I don’t think the latter would be the case though since I remember SO many racist bits from so much else. (I took a lot of labor economics.)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      re: 2: I partly blame the way we teach Econ 101. A little econ is a dangerous thing to have.

      I mean, it’s partly selection, but it’s also partly training. I mean, part of economics training is learning to feel like you’re a superior thinker than everyone else because you can *think like an economist*. I definitely think highly of myself, but I also used to *think like a mathematician* and I think very highly of my husband who *thinks like an engineer*. So I understand that it isn’t that other fields are inferior to mine, it’s just that being trained in a certain way of thinking can help with problem solving. Also I’m female and that helps with the humility. Stupid patriarchy. Sometimes I joke that being an economist *almost* balances out my being female enough (and vice versa) that we have an even split of chores in the household.

  7. becca Says:

    There was a Tweet I read earlier today about a certain troglodyte Senior Lecturer in Economics at U Chicago who taught Freshman, and which included a snippet from him along the lines of this:

    “if we have 500 students who want to take the class, and only 250 slots, how should we decide?
    1) give the slots to the students whose parents donate the most money
    2) fight club
    3) give the slots out according to whoever looks most like Penelope Cruz (my preference)”

    Anyway, in ADDITION to that being a SPECTACULAR sexist douchebag comment that obviously alienates young women from the field, it is ALSO a good highlight of the problem with economics. What he’s doing here, among other things, is a little “hehehe transgressive shock value will help force everyone to adopt the “preferences are neutral” framework that I believe my field depends on!”

    Like, I know what you MEAN, but I don’t think “taste based discrimination” is the correct term. Rather, it’s “racism by racists”. I know that’s not what they call it in economics. That’s the point. My concern is that when white people who *are* socialized in a particular academic discipline engage in a detached supposedly “neutral” analysis of the world as it *is* without condemning anything, that could scan as an endorsement of “the way things ought to be”… the whole approach *can do great violence to people of color*.

    Now keep in mind, I’ve had this problem as a biologist, describing the *myriad* factors behind Covid19 deaths, for example. There are several that do not depend on racist white people. But many do, and I worry we focus on those far too little. Like I was trying to figure out if it was something weird about Covid19, or just “respiratory pathogens hit Black people harder” and ran into this HUGE emphasis in the literature about Black Americans having less “adherence” to flu vaccine recommendations. It’s like immunologists couldn’t come to terms with ideas like “doctors be racist, yo” or even “chronic cortisol epigenetically reprograms your bone marrow and oppression is STRESSFUL AF”… instead they WANTED “Black people are reluctant to get flu shots, because Tuskeegee”. It’s altogether too pat.

    You are correct that you cannot DESCRIBE the economy accurately without IDENTIFYING a lot of racism. But in order to be anti-racist, you can’t keep up the “all preferences are equally valid” ruse. Some people’s preferences are racist AF. Those preferences suuuuuuuck.
    Your post here seems like great advice to fellow white professors, and I think your instincts about what to teach are good. But the question of *how* to teach, how much to train your students to “think like economists” and how much to point out that how economists think can justify some Serious Bullpockey? That’s a hard one.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      One of the weird things about the bull pockey guys is that as soon as it comes to race or gender they throw thinking like an economist out the window. Suddenly they assume people are irrational. They ignore actual facts. They act like standard questions are emotional attacks they don’t have to answer. And a good economist can pick it apart. There’s a terrible moretti paper (he’s someone who seems really nice in person but does horribly sexist and racist work) published in a top journal that relies on all women having 28 day cycles and never does the placebo regression for men, that would have shown that men had the same pattern of absences. Like… that is bad economics and should not have been published at all. They didn’t check the treatment and they didn’t do falsification exercises. Someone else did later and found out the pattern is an artifact of a five day work week.

      Also: all preferences aren’t equally valid to a social planner. This is an Econ 101 problem. Preferences that affect other people are either more valid if they help people or less valid if they hurt people. Econ isn’t what you think it is.

      Different problems that lead to differences in treatment have different solutions. (Taste based is also called animus) We use discrimination for all of those reasons. You would like Bill spriggs article, but there are solutions to the obvious and terrible problems he talks about in the article that don’t require throwing out the entire structure.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Also I didn’t hear about that guy but Chicago just reinstated the racist JPE editor who kept being racist on twitter. And yet, some great people also work at Chicago.

      • becca Says:

        To be clear, I don’t mean economists in your own personal bubble are fully obsessed with a pretense of rationality and “all preferences are neutral”- I’m sure as you get past a superficial level in the field the debates about those ideas are lively and nuanced.

        That said, I do worry for both of our fields that white people embedded in the socialization of a specific academic discipline are unlikely to *feel* ways it does violence. Today on twitter someone patiently explained to me why including the race of the patient from which a cell line is derived is problematic.

        And to reiterate- I absolutely think you have to cover various ways racism manifests in the economy, but I would nudge you to call it out as monstrous a little more than might be comfortable in your default academic economist socialization.

        Econ is a perfectly good tool for studying racism. It is a terrible tool for dismantling white supremacy.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        The thing is, all forms of racism are bad. Part of what the Spriggs article is calling out is the pretense that *only* taste-based discrimination is bad (because that’s the only kind that is inefficient for firms, especially if you assume away incorrect stereotypes). That’s why all kinds of race discrimination are racism and we don’t reserve the term solely for animus like you suggested.

        And yes, Econ does not deal well with dismantling structures, only studying the effects. But that’s ok. Neither does psychology. That’s why one reason we have sociology.

        The NBER did come out this year to clarify that we can provide the value judgment that discrimination is bad, which is a good thing. (The number of things the NBER allows value judgements on is very tiny.)

  8. Michael Nitabach Says:

    Totally agree w all of this! And also agree w other commenterz this applies to ALL academic disciplines. The Myth of Objectivity that sez we can/should/must decouple humanity & its history from “science” or any other kind of “knowledge” is a big fucken lie that itself is grounded in racism & white supremacy.

    • Michael Nitabach Says:

      What *is* essential is that other field-specific scholars defer to & learn from the established experts who actually focus their scholarly inquiry on how racism & white supremacy intersect, as opposed to just making shittio uppe.

  9. kt Says:

    I like your addendum that it shouldn’t be just a unit, but instead woven through the class. When I was teaching math, I tried to weave through some history and context — there was no time or place for me to do a ‘unit’ on the culture of mathematics, but I could bring up the context of statistics being developed in France, or that the Kerala school of mathematicians developed basically what we call “Taylor series” expansions of trig functions in the 1500, or that the first work constructing magic squares up to order 11 was done in the 1700s by a Nigerian mathematician Al-Fulani Al-Kishwani. I didn’t feel equipped to do a ton of interdisciplinary stuff in class, but I could certainly provide a slightly more accurate view of math than “all math was invented in Europe by men” and then when we got to algorithms I could have students work a lot with bias, errors, bad data, and feedback loops. I tried to find resources for class, too, published & provided by a diversity of mathematicians (even through, gasp, blog posts!) which not only exposes students to different ways of interacting with the math, but also underlines that it’s a living discipline. For instance, when we talked about matrices and dot products, I linked to which is informative, grounds linear algebra in broader mathematical concepts, and also connects students (if they click around) to a thoughtful real alive mathematician.

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