RSF Visiting Scholar Trevon Logan Discusses the JEL Symposium on Race and Economic Literature

January 31, 2023

Trevon D. Logan is Hazel C. Youngberg Trustees Distinguished Professor of Economics at The Ohio State University. His research focuses on health economics, economic demography, and economic history. He is a current RSF visiting scholar, an inaugural RSF-Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Pipeline Grant Competition mentor, and an RSF research grant recipient. In this new interview with the foundation, Logan discusses the Journal of Economic Literature (JEL) Symposium on Race and Economic Literature, which he co-edited with former RSF visiting scholar, author, and journal editor Samuel L. Myers Jr. (University of Minnesota). The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Read the JEL Symposium on Race and Economic Literature here.

Q. What motivated you to organize the Journal of Economic Literature Symposium on Race and Economic Literature? What are you hoping to accomplish?

After the death of George Floyd, the American Economic Association issued a statement about taking a stand against racial inequality and thinking about organizational changes that can be made about it, which was very common in the summer of 2020. They noted in their statement that economists should think about racial inequality and that we should read the research on economic dimensions of racial inequality, but they couldn’t cite their own journals for that research. At that point, the American Economic Association had the American Economic Review; American Economic Review: Insights, which is for short papers; the Journal of Economic Literature; the Journal of Economic Perspectives; American Economic Journals: Applied Policy; American Economic Journals: Microeconomics; and American Economic Journals: Macroeconomics. And despite owning all of those journals, in the AEA’s statement, they told people to read the Review of Black Political Economy, a publication of the National Economic Association, which was originally founded as a caucus of Black economists.

They’re telling people, “If you want to read about racial inequality, you really can’t read anything that we’ve been publishing.” The American Economic Review is more than 100 years old, and we haven’t had a lot of work on racial inequality. That got me thinking that one of the things we could do in the Journal of Economic Literature was to look at several different facets, of what I would call, the Black intellectual tradition in economics that should be highlighted for this audience. I sit on the editorial board, which gave me the ability to suggest this. The Journal of Economic Literature is a very good place to put that sort of symposium because it’s about the economic literature. And this would be, in some dimension, about the exclusion of Black economists, and the concepts and outcomes they’ve developed. It would also be an opportunity to review that literature in a mainstream outlet.

So, it was really motivated by the American Economic Association’s own statement and thinking we need to provide a resource for economists to think about these topics in a number of different ways. After that, we focused on how to organize it, finding authors for the contributions, and deciding what we wanted the contributions to be about. We decided that two of the publications should be about stratification economics, which is a new theoretical intervention in thinking about group inequality. We have two papers on public policy: one on public policy more generally and economic approaches to public policy and another on mainstream economic approaches about policy juxtaposed against what Black economists have thought about public policy. And lastly, a paper about the exclusion of Black economists from the economics of crime literature.

Q. What is stratification economics? Why are they important to examine?

Stratification economics is a conceptual framework. Theoretically, in my opinion, it still needs some axiomatic structure, which it doesn’t have right now. But there are some things that are coming out that I think are very promising and will help with that structure. It’s best to think about stratification economics in comparison to a traditional microeconomic theory. Traditional microeconomic theory says that someone has a utility function. They derive that utility from their own consumption of goods and they maximize that utility, which is subject to a budget constraint. What stratification brings into that is one’s identity and the utility that one can derive directly and indirectly from being a member of a particular group. So, it goes beyond the traditional views of economic identity. It says that there are real, tangible, material benefits to belonging to a racial group or any other kind of group depending on the hierarchy. Grieve Chela, Darrick Hamilton, and James Stewart’s piece in the Symposium talks about this by looking at property rights and Whiteness. Darity’s article traces the intellectual history of stratification economics, paying particular attention to its interdisciplinary links and its connections to a larger literature on social inequality that reaches outside the United States.

Stratification rationalizes things that people think about for example, when they say poor White people are voting against their own interest. But if their interest is in being White and being part of the dominant racial group, they’re not actually voting against their own interest. It may only matter that someone gets less, not that I get more. These are the insights that stratification can help bring about.

Explicitly, it isn’t about politics. It’s about social organization in a way that moves away from these individual-level models. We have these models that are just about individual people. Then, we do this applied work on racial inequality, and we have people who are Black or White, but there are no Black or White people in traditional macroeconomic theory; we don’t have people of any racial origin in these theories. Yet, we have all this racial inequality, which isn’t explained by economic theory. It is a fact that these identities matter and group affiliation matters, and it carries out in the way people enact social policy, political policy, and economic policy.

Q. What other topics does the symposium explore? Why are they important to the field of economics?

The first article, “A Nation of Laws, and Race Laws” by Nina Banks and Warren C. Whatley utilize contributions from Sadie Alexander. Sadie Alexander was the first Black economist in the United States, period. She was the first Black person to earn a Ph.D. in Economics, which she earned from the University of Pennsylvania. Of course, she couldn’t practice as an economist. She became a lawyer and was the first national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. So, she had a very long and illustrious career outside of never actually being able to be an economist.

Recently, Nina edited Sadie’s speeches and writings. From early on, Sadie was thinking about economic justice when it comes to institutional structures and how – and I love this point – we have a system of laws and then a system of race laws. And that’s consistent with the time period she’s writing in; we also have Pauli Murray’s Laws of Race and Color from that time. And what Sadie’s really thinking about, which is related to stratification economics, is that these institutional structures, these legal structures, can give you property rights in Whiteness. And what Nina and Warren look at in the piece are several applications of that throughout American history. If we’re looking at the Reconstruction Era, we’re looking at a time period in which we’re granting access to the franchise of Black men, we’re seeing the results of Black political participation on outcomes. And that is, literally, completely undone in a legal way of disenfranchisement and voter suppression. We have explicit race laws at that point.

When we think of undoing these sorts of things, we have to look at explicit and implicit race laws. For example, when the minimum wage was first set in the United States, the occupations that were deliberately excluded were disproportionately held by Black people. It’s long been presumed that a big driver for closing the income gap between Blacks and Whites were anti-discrimination laws in the 1960s, but some recent work by Ellora Derenoncourt shows that 30% of that was really the expansion of minimum wage to those occupations. These are the sorts of insights about public policy that come from the Black intellectual tradition, which the second article, “Black Economists on Race and Policy: Contributions to Education, Poverty and Mobility, and Public Finance” by Dania V. Francis, Bradley L. Hardy, and Damon Jones touches on. It looks at several different aspects of policy and the ways in which Black economists working in this tradition have and others have not. A justice frame is much more likely to come from the Black intellectual tradition and the ways Black economists approach policy as opposed to mainstream approaches in the profession.

The third article, “Racial Isolation and Marginalization of Economic Research on Race and Crime” by Patrick L. Mason, Samuel L. Myers Jr., and Margaret Simms moves to the area of economics and the criminal legal system, which has grown significantly. Russell Sage has been very pivotal in supporting Black economists who were working on the economics of the criminal legal system. But, overall, given the racial disproportionality of Black involvement in the criminal legal system, the insights of Black economists are not as prominent.

Sam Myers is one of the earliest forerunners in the economics of crime literature. He’s been working on this for more than 30 years. And, I have to say this for him, he is not cited as much as he should be. So, the innovations in this area come about from a group who have a very different experience with the criminal legal system and this literature than the people who are impacted by the system. I’m working on a piece about segregation and it’s the same thing. We all live in segregated communities, but the people who are writing about the economic effects of segregation are people who live on a very different side of the segregation process than the people they’re writing about. The piece by Patrick, Sam, and Margaret shows how extensive the exclusion of Black scholars in that area really is.

So, the overall impetus for the Symposium and thinking about policy is really to show we have all this work. For example, now people are really concerned about the Black-White wealth gap. But, from the early 1970s – the earliest year that the Review of Black Political Economy was in publication – Black economists were writing about the Black-White wealth gap and differential ownership among Black people. If everybody catches up 50 years later, that’s great, but this is not something Black economists have ignored. And I think that the marginalization of Black scholars in economics is implicit in the background there.

When I say marginalization, I don’t mean a deliberate exclusion, but a lower weight placed on Black scholars’ intellectual contributions, lower rates of citation, et cetera. It creates a really weird space where White economists who are now interested in racial inequality can essentially attempt to co-opt some of these old ideas and put them out as new. So, another reason why we wanted this in the Journal of Economic Literature was not only for people to read it, but, in some ways, to plant a flag and say, “These ideas are not novel and new.” They’re part of this Black intellectual tradition in economics. And we don’t want anybody to ignore it because now they’re interested in racial inequality, and they go and write all these papers on racial inequality under traditional practices and continue to marginalize and exclude Black scholars.

Q. What does the recent increased interest in the issue by economists mean for the future of economic studies, policy, and practice?

It’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times. It’s the best of times because people are genuinely interested in racial inequality and are seriously looking at and thinking about the long-run, persistent, historical dimensions of this work. It’s the best of times because there is now more attention being paid to this as a substantive area of research. This isn’t a side project. This isn’t something that is intellectually less interesting. All of that makes it the best of times to be working in this area.

But as someone who has worked in this area before the current time, it’s also the worst of times because many of the people moving into this field are not sufficiently trained to deal with these issues. They don’t understand the stratification framework. So, you still see square pegs trying to be fit into round holes. You will still see a lack of engagement with the historical literature, literature in sociology, and other social science disciplines, which have a much longer intellectual tradition of dealing seriously with race issues. And I think that makes it the worst of times. People moving into the field will put forth ideas as if they’re new when they’re actually really old ideas, which highlights the enduring effects of the exclusion and marginalization of Black scholars.

Then there’s still the traditional old-school economics of just plain old racism. The field is disproportionately White and we don’t have a strong pipeline of diverse scholars into the profession. So, you could organize a conference in, say, my own field of race in economic history, and you could take all of the top and prominent scholars in that field, and you wouldn’t find a Black person in that audience. And that will be true in a lot of other areas where there are people doing this work. And people would like to think that if you look at microeconomic theory, then this shouldn’t be a problem. But I’m not wedded to theory. This is a problem and it's not just a problem of optics, it’s a problem of substantive import. It’s a problem of the voices in the room and it’s a problem of who is and isn’t being listened to. And that remains a problem. I’ve seen symposiums and sessions organized on these topics and nobody Black is involved. So, even as we turn our attention to racial issues there’s still a dramatic extent of exclusion.


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