The Power of Narrative in Economic Policy

In the summer of 2016, the Insight Center embarked on an ethnographic research project to develop a policy agenda to address economic well-being and inequality. A pioneering organization in racial wealth inequity work, we were eager to understand which bold economic policies would resonate with a cross section of Americans — rural, urban, liberal, conservative and across race.

We wanted to test how policies like baby bonds, universal childcare, federal jobs guarantee and guaranteed income — among others — held water across groups, and how they needed to be messaged to garner support. What we found was no matter what the policy platform is, our policy work could fail immensely without first tackling narrative.

Narratives — our cultural understandings, frames of reference or mental models — play a significant role in how leaders create and implement policies, and how people on the ground react to them.

More than just stories of specific people, narratives contribute to our sense of the world and helps us create order in a fairly chaotic landscape. Specific stories inform the narratives that we hold near and dear in our hearts and minds, and narratives in turn become an endless story that we build upon and continuously shape.

For example, the “Great American Pioneer” was a story that contributed to the individualistic, “pick yourself up by your own bootstraps” and “American Dream” narratives. That story has now morphed into the Silicon Valley entrepreneur, which contributes to the bootstraps and American Dream narrative. We bounce new ideas and concepts up against our deep-seated narratives, and our narratives inform who we build empathy for, and who we don’t.

What’s tremendously important to understand for those of us fighting for racial and economic justice in America, is that the narratives we hold are based on a hyper-focus on the individual versus systems, and are rooted in racism, xenophobia and sexism.

This lethal combination makes it extremely difficult to pass the policies we need to make comprehensive, transformative structural change toward economic, racial and gender justice. As Rashad Robinson says, “Narrative builds power for people.”

The question we must grapple with is, who are our current narratives building power for, and who do they purposefully leave behind?

Read the full piece on Medium here.

Episode 27: Dr. Lisa D. Cook and Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman

Listen to Dr. Lisa D. Cook, Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, and Jhumpa Bhattacharya discuss the extreme underrepresentation of Black women in economics and why that matters for the field – and for public policy. 



“If you don’t see yourself in the text, and you don’t see yourself in the classroom, where do you see yourself?”

Among all recipients of doctoral degrees in economics, only 0.6% in the U.S. are Black women. Why? To explore this issue, Jhumpa Bhattacharya welcomed to the podcast Dr. Lisa D. Cook and Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, co-authors of a New York Times op-ed spotlighting the severe underrepresentation of Black women in the field of economics. 

Dr. Lisa D. Cook is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Economics and International Relations at Michigan State University. A former faculty member at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, Dr. Cook served as a Senior Advisor at the U.S. Treasury Department and as a Senior Economist on the Obama Administration’s Council of Economic Advisors. She has also held positions or conducted postdoctoral research at the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Federal Reserve Banks of New York and Philadelphia, the World Bank, and the Brookings Institution, among others.

Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman is a research scholar in economics at Harvard University, as well as a visiting research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research and a predoctoral trainee of the Inaugural NYU/Schmidt Futures Program. She completed her B.A. in Mathematics, with a minor in Economics, at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, as a Meyerhoff/MARC*U*STAR Scholar. Anna is also co-founder and CEO of ​the Sadie Collective, an organization that seeks to advance the representation of Black women in quantitative fields such as economics, data science, and public policy. 

Drawing on hard data and their own experiences, Dr. Cook and Ms. Opoku-Agyeman detail the intersecting barriers young Black women face in the field, from exclusionary practices going back to early education to racial and gender bias, stereotypes, and discrimination at the highest levels. Together, they explore the far-reaching consequences of the extreme lack of diversity in economics while discussing the impact of their op-ed in the field and sharing strategies for empowering Black women as scholars and leaders in economics. 

To listen to the full discussion, use the audio player above or subscribe to the Hidden Truths podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or Android. And if you like what you hear, leave a review for Hidden Truths on your favorite podcast platform.

Read the transcript here or download as a PDF.


Read the op-ed co-authored by Dr. Lisa D. Cook and Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman for the New York Times, “‘It Was a Mistake for Me to Choose this Field.’

Learn more about Dr. Lisa D. Cook’s work by visiting lisadcook.net and following her on Twitter. To learn more about Anna’s work, visit sadiecollective.org and follow her on Twitter.

A “New Normal” Fuels Instability — and Inequality — in California

By Anne Price | Medium

Under a state of emergency, Californians are watching in dismay as fast-burning fires rage across the state, destroying homes and businesses, scorching tens of thousands of acres, and forcing hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate.

These fires will continue to burn hotter, longer, and bigger without a concerted, transformational effort to address climate change in California. In the meantime, the short-sighted planned power outages implemented by energy utilities are also posing potentially dire long-term consequences.

Some experts claim the economic and human costs of preemptive power outages are incalculable. Pacific Gas & Electric deems these outages as a “new normal,” necessary to prevent its equipment from sparking a catastrophic fire under high winds and dry conditions. These types of shut-offs could last a decade as the company seeks to modernize its vast network.

While the devastating effects of both fires and outages are being felt by all Californians, they are not affecting them equally.

Skyrocketing home prices along the coast have pushed lower-income, struggling residents eastward into the most fire-prone regions of the state, putting them directly in harm’s way. And even as fires strike more affluent communities near the coast, their residents flee while domestic workers and laborers find themselves in danger after showing up, unwarned, for work.

Amid pre-emptive shutoffs, those with the most wealth can independently power their homes and businesses with generators and energy-battery storage. And when disaster does strike, they can rebuild homes sometimes worth more than the ones that burned.

Those who are already struggling the most, however, may never be able to fully recover…

Click here to read and share Anne’s full letter.

Sexual Harassment isn’t a “Women’s Issue”—It’s an Economic Epidemic

By Rakeen Mabud and Jhumpa Bhattacharya

Opera is dramatic and incisive, known for its ability to swiftly expose universal truths about human nature in just a few acts. But just as art imitates life, so too does life imitate art—and in the case of Plácido Domingo, who resigned as director of the Los Angeles Opera following multiple sexual harassment allegations last week, the line between art and reality has become increasingly blurred.

The allegations facing one of opera’s most prominent voices has exposed deep truths about power in the workplace and the compounding repercussions that women, and in turn our economy, face in the wake of workplace sexual misconduct. But we must not lose sight of the survivors of the alleged harassment.

Twenty opera singers who worked with Domingo have reported incidents of sexual harassment going back decades—including groping, unwanted physical contact and persistent contact, often late at night. In response, these women developed an “oral tradition,” as one mezzo-soprano called it, where women would warn each other about Domingo’s behavior and share tactics for how to avoid him or get out of situations alone with him. That choice often stunted their professional growth.

Read the full article here >>

1/20/18

 

Issue Brief | Latinx Families in the Golden State: When Working Hard Isn’t Enough

New Data Highlights Income and Job Inequities for California’s Largest Ethnic Group

Despite a growing economy in California, Latinx families are systematically being left behind and struggling to get by. The Insight Center report, titled Latinx Families in the Golden State: When Working Hard Isn’t Enough, shows that more than half (52%) of all Latinx households in California—or 1.6 million families—are struggling to pay for housing, put food on the table, and keep the lights on while working full-time at one or more jobs.

Latinx Families in the Golden State uses census data and Insight’s Family Needs Calculator to examine what life really looks like for the largest ethnic group in California. Among other findings, the data shows:

  • Latinx families have limited access to quality jobs and are subjected to wages far below those of other ethnic/racial groups.
  • Latinx women in particular face sexism and racism in CA’s economy and therefore face additional barriers to achieving economic security.
  • Educational attainment is not an economic equalizer for Latinx people.

The report’s findings further reveal that despite working hard:

  • The typical Latinx household has an income that is $40,000 less than their white peers.
  • 65% of Latinx families with children are not sure how they will pay all of their bills each month.
  • About 61% of Latinx immigrant households can barely make ends meet.
  • The median annual wage among the most common jobs for Latinx women is only $27,000 a year.
  • White workers with a bachelor’s degree have a median wage of $105,045, nearly $40,000 higher than Latinx people with a bachelor’s degree.

The Insight Center offers specific policy solutions to address these issues, including extending EITC expansion to ITIN filers, Universal Childcare, and Social Inheritance Accounts (Baby Bonds).

Click here to read and download the full report (PDF). Region-specific data available upon request.

Transcript | Episode 27: Dr. Lisa D. Cook and Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman

Download the transcript (PDF) for Hidden Truths: Episode 27 with Dr. Lisa D. Cook and Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman. 

[ Music ]

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Welcome to Hidden Truths, the podcast where we examine the root causes of economic and racial inequality. I’m Jhumpa Bhattacharya and I’m thrilled to be joined by our guests, Dr. Lisa Cook and Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman. 

Dr. Lisa Cook is an Associate Professor in the Department of Economics and International Relations at Michigan State University. She earned a PhD in Economics from the University of California Berkeley and has held positions or conducted post-doctoral research at the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Federal Reserve Banks of New York and Philadelphia, the World Bank, and the Brookings Institution, among others. 

Anna is a research scholar in Economics at Harvard University, as well as a visiting research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research and a predoctoral trainee at the inaugural NYU Schmidt Futures program. Anna is also the cofounder and CEO of the Sadie Collective, an organization that seeks to advance the representation of Black women in quantitative fields such as economics, data science, and public policy. 

Lisa and Anna, thank you so much for joining us on our podcast today. You both recently co-authored a powerful op-ed in the New York Times highlighting the severe underrepresentation of Black women in the field of economics and why that matters for our collective well-being. I want to start our conversation by asking, why did you decide to write this? Why does it matter that Black women are not represented as well in this field?

 

LISA COOK: Why don’t you start, Anna?

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Sure. So if you don’t have people in a room, right, the ideas that circulate won’t be representative of the people who are, you know, outside of the room in the sense that, like, for Black women not being a part of the economics profession in a significant way, the communities that Black women are a part of are, you know, tangibly affected by the decisions that are made by people who don’t look like them. Oftentimes those decisions don’t reflect the needs and concerns of the communities that Black women are a part of. And Janet Yellen is quoted saying that the financial crisis of 2008 probably would have been prevented or mitigated even faster had there been, you know, more voices in the room, had not the room been so homogeneous. 

So for us writing this op-ed was about first naming the problem, right? Because I think that people don’t want to admit that the underrepresentation of Black women in the economics profession is abysmal. And so we wanted to name that with the data that Dr. Cook so graciously analyzed and collected as well. 

But the other thing that we wanted to talk about were the solutions or some of the solutions, rather, to sort of the underrepresentation of Black women. There is actually a Tweet that Dr. Cook Tweeted out a couple months ago where she talked about how for Black women, you know, you have to cite us, you have to mentor us, you have to teach us, you have to amplify us. It’s not enough just to reTweet some diversity Tweet about, you know, we should be supporting Black women, but it’s about using the power that you have to tangibly affect our career trajectories and in part also the lives of the people that we end up impacting through our careers.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: I love that. And I think that there’s something that you said that I want to expand on a little bit when you said “Black women in the communities that we’re a part of” because I often think that people think that Black people in particular are just a monolith, right? But you’re not, obviously [Laughs]. And Black women, you know, you could be — I can see that people would be, like, “Well, that’s a community.” 

So can either of you speak more to, like, yes, this idea that Black women also are not a monolith, and there are actually multiple communities that you all belong to?

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Dr. Cook, that’s all you [Laughs].

 

LISA COOK: So [Laughs] well, you know, I’ll start with one if we’re picking up where the Janet Yellen quote left off. Just like other women, we are the primary purchasers in the economy. And if we are, there’s a lot of financial information that we have and that we use, and we might do things a little bit differently. We might pay bills a little bit differently, and that is worth knowing if we are — if there’s a calculation being done about the data that matter in, you know, in and out of a crisis, not necessarily just in crisis time. 

So we are members of many different communities — the community of women, the community of African-Americans. We wind up supporting many households, multigenerational households. So we know a lot about interacting with the economy in very different ways. So I think that’s one fundamental way, but I think that we have a lot of information that’s being overlooked and underused. 

And if I can pick up on something else that Anna was saying with respect to representation, as a professor, I am always the only Black woman. In this case, at Michigan State I’m the only Black person in the economics department and I often am visited by students of all races, many students of color, who see me as the only example of making it as an economist, of making this a real possibility. And I think that’s unfortunate. 

I never volunteered, never signed up to be in that position. But they want to feel — students want to feel as though they’re being heard, that examples are not just the negative examples that are in economics courses, negative examples are of women making mistakes in economics or somebody’s grandmother. But, you know, positive examples being used with respect to women, Black women, and underrepresented minorities. 

Or if there are films, for example, that are produced by — films, comic books, any materials — produced by the Federal Reserve system, I’d like to see Black women not just as the recipient of information from the central bank, but advising the heads of the Federal Reserve Banks or the FOMC. 

It seems intuitive to gather as much information as we can, and I think — with respect to underrepresentation — I think there’s an emergency. I wrote a Tweet thread about this. The share of Black women or the percent of Black women majoring in economics rose by 1% between 2006 and 2016, and for Black men it was 44%, the increase was 44%. There is something happening that is deterring Black women from pursuing economics. 

Now, this looks like women to a certain extent, women overall, but it’s not so stark. This is extremely stark. For 2% to 3% of all economists who have PhDs in economics to be of African descent is just a paltry number, but for 0.6% of those earning PhDs to be Black women is very small, which means that we’re missing — and our being missing is a statement in itself when we’re a much larger part of the population. 

And the information we gather, because we work in so many different sectors — and this fuels the economy — this is the highly marginal propensity to consume, especially let’s say the high marginal propensity to consume a sector of the economy. And this would be sort of middle class, working class people, this would be an important voice to have in the room at all times and not just as the recipient of economic information, but one who could help with making decisions about the economy.

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Right, so Dr. Cook and I met [Laughs] was pretty much Dr. Cook came and gave a talk at American University and I had never met a Black female economics professor until I met Dr. Cook. So I remember I heard her research on patents, African-American patents, and it’s one of her most well-known works. And after she spoke, I think I spoke to you on the spot, and I was like, “Can you be my mentor?” And she was like, “Yes. [Laughs] Also apply for the AU summer program.” [Laughs] Always plugging that. And so, you know, what she’s saying is really true, right? I’m a student, and it is really problematic that even when you read your textbooks, like textbooks in economics, for example, Black people aren’t in the textbook. 

So, like, not even white women are acknowledged in the textbook because I think that’s something that Betsy Stevenson did some research on using textual analysis. There’s just — it seems like economic textbooks, which are talking about the world supposedly, don’t actually represent the world. And so if you don’t see yourself in the text and you don’t see yourself in the classroom, then where do you see yourself? And so the question of, you know, why aren’t Black women going, even majoring in economics, right? 

Because the research that Dr. Cook just cited was Dr. Wanda V. Sharpe’s research. The question is, you know, it’s not that we’re not interested in this, right? And that’s what somebody will tell us, like, “Oh, you guys aren’t interested in this,” or “You guys can’t handle the math,” but it’s the fact that literally there are barriers in the system that are preventing us from really seeing ourselves in the space, and even thriving in the space.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: No, I think that’s a really important point. Because this is not about people’s decisions, this is not about individual choices, right? This is about personal responsibility, right? Like, we love that narrative in America, right? It’s your fault you’re poor, you made some bad decisions, if only you knew how to save better, if only you studied harder, right? Like you would be getting that PhD in economics like everybody else. 

And I think one of the things your op-ed did so well was actually talk about what it’s like to be a Black woman in the field of economics, which is mainly, you know, populated by white men, right, quite frankly. So can you get into that a little bit? Because it’s not just about, like, what you were saying, Anna. It’s not like you don’t want to, but there’s actual barriers. So, like, what is it like as two Black women in this sea of mostly white men?

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: So I’m earlier on in the pipeline, right? So Dr. Cook can speak sort of the full experience because she has gotten her PhD, and she’s had a very illustrious and impressive career. But I’m just getting started, and I can kind of talk about what it’s been like so far. 

My first experience in economics began at the annual economics meetings/conference, it’s called ASSA — I actually don’t know what it stands for. But underneath that umbrella is mainly the American Economic Association meetings, and there’s a variety of different conferences that are under that. I went to this conference in 2017 shortly after I changed my major to math and then had spoken to some folks about economics. And pretty much what ended up happening was I wanted to go to, like, a Nobel laureate lunch. I thought it was cool, so I was like, “Let me go and see how it’s like.” 

And I got there, and I sat down, and I looked at the room. And I was like, “Huh, everybody here is white and male. Like, what is this?” And so then the high table came in, and I noticed that everybody was white and male, except for, like, two white women and a dash of brown. And I think the person was Indian, or just from the southeast Asian region of the world. And I was like, “Where are the Black people [Laughs]? You know, where are the Latinx folks?” I was just really confused. 

And I left that lunch kind of questioning whether or not I was supposed to be here and if anyone had sort of considered this like, just the lack of color in the room was really confusing to me. And it contrasted all of the other sessions that I went to where there were Africans or, you know, Black Americans, or — you know what I’m saying? Like, it was a lot more diverse, I could see myself in the room. 

That same year a lot of the committees focused on, like, underrepresented groups. So, like, minorities and women were talking about the intersection of the two, which is really important. So they were talking about mentoring underrepresented minority women in the joint session between the committee on the status of women, the committee on the status of minorities, and they were also talking about in the National Economic Association — which is, like, the body of Black economists for the profession, that, you know, the pipeline which we kind of addressed here with Dr. Sharpe’s research — she was actually the one that give the address that year — was really bad for Black women. And at this time I was there with my co-founder Fanta, and we’re sitting in the audience like, “Whoa, like, how bad is it?” 

And so interestingly enough, when I was thinking about going into economics, I actually went to go speak to somebody. They’ll remain — who will remain, excuse me, nameless and that person told me on several occasions that he did not think I could get a PhD in economics. And for those who don’t know, he was definitely white [Laughs] and he was somebody who had the power to empower me, but instead undermined me by saying, you know — there was one instance where he was talking in front of other classmates, and he was telling me, like, “Do you understand the mathematical rigor that goes into a PhD in economics?” or something adjacent to that. And it’s — it was funny to me because I was like, “I’m a whole math major.” Like, of course I understand the math that it takes to do this because that’s why I’m doing it. But the fact that he had made assumptions about my ability before even meeting me — I think when I started talking to Dr. Cook more regularly and this was after we met, I believe, after the American University talk, and then we just started talking more after The Sadie Collective was created — was that this is just a sliver of my experience and this has been experienced widely by, I mean, you could name it, all minority groups obviously in the profession, but Black women in particular, face this literally at every level of their career. 

I actually Tweeted about this and it went somewhat viral [Laughs] in the Twitterspace. People were saying, like, “Oh, he’s just a bad guy.” You know, that’s the economic — bad actor, just an isolated incident — and what I was noticing was that amongst all those response, there were Black women saying, “Actually, this is the norm and you need to, you know, get a community of people who can sort of hedge against that because you’re going to be facing that as you move up in the profession.” And for me in particular where I have a little bit of visibility as, like, a pre-doctoral student, they’re saying, you know, people are really going to try to undermine you because of sort of where you are and how quickly you’re kind of moving through the profession. 

So that is something that I’ve experienced so far, and I expect to experience more pushback as I’m going through the profession. But I think Dr. Cook, as I mentioned before, can give you a fuller picture of what it means to be a Black woman in economics.

 

LISA COOK: So just to piggyback on that, I experienced the same thing 20 years or 30 years prior, that I was visiting schools, just talking about my interest in economics and without them even asking about my background — you know, didn’t ask about whether I was a Marshall Scholar or whether I had a degree from Oxford, whether, you know, I had done anything else — they started asking me about my math skills. 

And typically it was interesting, it wasn’t the professors. The professors seemed quite open to this notion of a Black woman coming into their PhD programs. I didn’t see any when I was visiting the top programs at that time, but there was a Black woman who was a post-doc, and yes, there was a Black woman enrolled at one of the top five programs — and she transferred the year after I had that conversation — but it was the graduate students who were giving me on-the-spot math tests just, you know, at a gathering and twice at dinner parties where graduate students were gathered and who were supposed to be hosting me. 

They, you know, some guy came up to me, some white guy came up to me and started quizzing me on mathematics, and it happened twice. And it was just striking. It was, like, the automatic response to Black women is you belong someplace else, and you definitely don’t have the math to be able to do this. And, you know, when I answered their questions correctly, it was only, you know, a day or two later or possibly even when I got home that I had realized what was going on — that I was being given a live math test. 

Like, why are you even here? You shouldn’t even be talking to us if you don’t know how to take a third derivative, for example. So I wrote about this in the AEA CSWEP Newsletter. And I keep telling young folks like Anna and people who would like to pursue economics who are Black women, my sisters at Spellman, you have to block out the noise. And this is something that I learned from desegregating schools in Georgia, you absolutely have to block out the noise because people will put on you their low expectations. 

I think that this is something that is, you know, commonly known as a soft bigotry of low expectations, and I see it especially pervasive for Black women. And Dania Francis’ research shows that Black women are, given all other factors, under-recommended for AP Calculus, which we know is the gateway to doing, first of all, to doing a college degree, but secondly, certainly with respect to doing an undergraduate degree in economics or in math and a STEM field. So if that is happening, this is starting really early and I suspect this is where that number, an increase of 1% versus an increase of 44%, is happening. Because Black women are being deterred early on.

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Yeah, and just to add onto that point really quickly, Dr. Francis’ work, she actually found that Black girls in the seventh grade are perceived as disruptive typically by their teachers, and therefore they’re not recommended for certain courses or whatever, and then the AP stuff is actually additional work that Dr. Cook is citing that Dr. Francis also put out. And I can say this as someone who was also very, like, considered as disruptive in the classroom to the point where, you know, everything that Dr. Cook just said, I’ve lived. It’s not like this is just some arbitrary study, this is a very real experience. 

You know, there were people who thought I could never do math. There were people who looked at me and they said, “She’s too disruptive, she’s too loud. Maybe she should go do something in the humanities,” whatever. Not saying that the humanities is a bad thing, right? But this sort of mystification — I don’t think that’s a word, but [Laughs] let’s just say it’s a word for now — this mystification or mystifying math for a particular group because they look the way they look, is ridiculous. 

And it’s weird, too, because, I’ll be talking to some of my friends, and they’ll say, “What did you major in?” And I say I majored in math. “Really? Wow. Man, I could never do that.” That is really the response you get from people who look like me and look like Dr. Cook, as if math is for a select group of people in the population and only they can do that, right? 

So I think that, yeah, we have to really talk about how this is not some problem. I think a lot of people are, like, “Oh, you know, Black people are underrepresented in economics, and there should be a magic bullet solution that’s going to fix it.” No, you have to think about the problem holistically. Thinking about it holistically means you have to start from the very beginning, which is actually when you actually entered the educational pipeline, and how educators interact with Black girls from the jump. Yeah.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Yeah, it’s, like, very hard for me not to be shaking with anger as you all are talking about your experiences. Seriously. And one of the things that I find really striking is that, you know, despite the age difference, right — so, Dr. Cook, you said this was happening to you 20 years ago, and this is still happening to Anna now. We’re not seeing shifts, right? The same history is just repeating itself to the point where it’s not history, it’s present and will be the future if we don’t, you know, name it and really do something about this. 

And I think that there’s something, you know, you all obviously are both Black women, and you are talking about this from the perspective of Black women and bringing an intersectional analysis to this, which I think is really important. I think we should dive into that more. 

Like, what would you say to folks that say, “Well, this is really more about racism, like, Black men aren’t all that well represented in economics, either.” So is it racism, is it racism and sexism? I mean, I think I know the answer is that it’s both but I kind of want to speak to that a little bit [Laughs], like, what is the difference? Like, why call out the Black female experience as opposed to just the Black experience?

 

LISA COOK: Well, I think I’ll start there. Basically, we’re looking at the data on economics undergraduates. You know, again, this 44% increase versus a 1% increase suggests that it’s not race; these are both Black women and Black men between 2006 and 2015. There is something that is happening to Black women that is deterring them much more than disproportionately to study economics — deterring them from studying economics. 

So I think that it is racism, and sexism, and possibly stereotypes. It might be segregation. So if we’re living in an increasingly segregated society — and we are — the baseline of segregation is already high but it is also increasing, that means that you might not encounter people who look different from you. And you probably aren’t encountering that many Black women if, for example, they are being deterred from studying higher-level math classes. I would say that this is isn’t — you know, we can talk about this being 20 or 30 years ago for me and being, you know, now and present for Anna, but this is happening to my aunt, 60 years ago, 70 years ago. 

She’s a professor of mathematics at Virginia State University, was the chair for a long time, and she receives that kind of treatment. She was often in all-Black settings so I would say that this was a common view that women shouldn’t be taking higher-level math courses. And she passed with flying colors her courses at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign when it was one of the top, and it probably still is, one of the top math departments in the country. So that myth was debunked. 

And I think that’s why I never thought about this not being a possibility, that something that was math-intensive never seems like it was out of reach because all of the women in my family, at least on my mom’s side, were math and science folks. They never said, “This isn’t something you could do.” It’s just when we interacted with the school system or when we went beyond college that this became an issue.

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Yeah, so to answer your question and sort of echo what Dr. Cook is saying, I think to understand the experience of Black women in economics, you must look at the first Black woman who has done a PhD in Economics, who also was the first Black person to get a PhD in Economics, and it’s Sadie T.M. Alexander, Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander. She got her PhD in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1921. She was also the first president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated — just want to make sure I got that correctly.

 

LISA COOK: Good.

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Thank you [Laughs], Dr. Cook is a Delta [Laughs]

So that being said, one thing that I heard when we were at the first conference — the first Sadie T.M. Alexander Conference for Economics and Related Fields, that the Sadie Collective organized — from her daughter, Ray Alexander-Minter– Dr. Ray Alexander-Minter was that she never saw her mom as an economist. In fact, her mom didn’t, her mom talked about economics through her speeches, as Dr. Nina Banks has shown through her work, but her family did not — from my understanding — see her as an economist. And so the question is why, right? 

Well, it turns out that if you look at the history, racism and sexism kept Dr. Alexander out from sort of, the networks that would be needed, as well as some of the professional development and the professional trajectory that would have been required to become an economist. So a lot of people sometimes want to say, “Okay, it’s just a racism problem,” right, because we’re Black. But not necessarily. I would make an argument — and Dr. Cook can either correct me or back me up on this — that some Black men have tried to erase the fact that Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander was the first Black person to get a PhD in Economics, right? 

And I mean, let’s call a spade a spade right now, right? There are people who don’t want to explicitly state the problems that Black women have and try to absorb it into some larger issue, but this is a fairly, like, intersectional problem here. Because on one hand, Black men are doing — the Black men who are in the profession are doing fairly well. And, you know, according to the survey that we cite that Dr. Cook worked on, Black women specifically have to go through the most measures along with Latinx women to avoid discrimination, and harassment, and stuff like that. Not to say that Black men don’t face those things, but we face it a slightly different level. 

And so the sexism piece — the sexism piece comes into play as well. Because Sadie T.M. Alexander was in class with white women, and those white women kept her out. And we don’t want to say that because we want to say, “Rah, rah feminism. We’re all in this together,” um, sure. But let’s really state the facts here. My experience as a Black woman is going to be fundamentally different than your experience as a white woman. And sometimes what ends up happening is that white women will use their whiteness to get to where they need to go. We don’t want to say that, though, because it’s easier to just talk about one problem. 

So one issue that, you know, Dr. Cook and I’s op-ed is responding to as well is that you had this profession-wide media fueled conversation about sexism in economics, right? But then when you looked at the articles, all of the women they featured, except one, Dr. Cook [Laughs] were white or white-passing. And so your issues, sure, are definitely difficult obviously. 

Like, sexism is — it affects you, duh. But what about me where I have to deal with race, ethnicity at times, right, and being a woman? And I think that’s, like, really sort of the fundamental argument we’re making here, it’s a two-front battle for us. Then that’s excluding any other identifiers that you choose to, you know, associate yourself with. So if I were queer, for example, this would be an uphill mountain, okay? 

And so I think we need to talk about how, like — one thing that baffles me in just the professional space, especially the academic space, is that people can’t wrap their head around people not being in buckets, right? Like, in the sense that people assume, like, “Oh, you’re Black. Oh, you’re a woman. Oh, you’re this.” And, like, there’s no fluidity happening between those different categories, so to speak. And so then — 

 

LISA COOK: Or nuance —

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Thank you, or nuance!

I remember when this op-ed came out and people were, like, shocked, legitimately shocked that Black women had a really hard time — that’s an understatement of the century — had, like, the most difficult time like, “Oh my God, you guys are facing all of this?” And it’s like, “We did told y’all. This is not new information.”

 

LISA COOK: Right, right. To the climate study, a number of people said once that climate study came out that we didn’t necessarily need the climate study to tell us that we were sort of oppressed in the field. But I think what it showed was — first, I don’t believe that because I think that economists don’t believe it unless there’s a number attached to it. So I don’t agree with that. But I think that what it does show is that we’re not just oppressed like other women, we’re not just oppressed like other Black people. But we are the most with respect to these discriminatory activities, including reporting being discriminated against the most for promotion and pay or having to take steps. 

We’ve had to take more steps than anybody else, just counting the steps. So not even asking, you know, about discrimination itself but taking more steps to avoid these things than any other group. So I think that the evidence is clear and compelling in this regard. And I think that our pulling out the data and then pulling out the quotes —

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Yeah.

 

LISA COOK:  — the quotes that appeared in the climate study, I think that while economists would like to say that they’re more convinced by quantitative evidence, I would say without the quotes from the open-ended questions, they wouldn’t have paid as much attention. In many cases they just don’t know or they don’t have to think about it, so they don’t. 

So the fact that Black women — you know, we pulled out a quote about a Black woman who is a professor. And she was saying that she knows that she’s a good teacher, and she gets much lower scores than her white and female counterparts and that this, you know, puts her in a special bucket, and this needs to change. This is one of the things that we were proposing in the op-ed piece, that this be one of the first things that’s looked at with respect to climate. 

Because I think that there’s a large and — oh, I know there’s a large and growing literature that addresses the racial and gender bias in student evaluations and they’re used everywhere and all the time, and they determine the outcome of many people’s futures. I mean, the research — one, universities are in the minority across the country. Most of the work that’s being done at universities involves teaching. So this is a real barrier to entry into and sustainability in the profession if these student evaluations continue to contain these biases.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Yeah, I think what’s really fascinating to me is that both things can exist, right? Like, yes, it’s hard for any Black person, like, racism does exist, and it’s harder for Black women, and that doesn’t take away from your experience as a Black man. It doesn’t mean that we’re not acknowledging there’s something happening to you, but let’s expand our minds and, right, like, it’s happening at a different level. 

And I think part of this is, like, this scarcity mentality or, like, everyone needs a piece of the pie, like, you can’t acknowledge more than your own experience because then it’s like, oh, you’re not giving credence to something. I don’t actually understand it, to be quite honest with you, but that’s just kind of my theory, is that it’s about wanting to be seen, right? Again, this is a response to white supremacy because most of us are not seen. People of color are not seen, and so then let’s just fight amongst each other. 

But it’s, like, yes, both things can be true. It can be hard for a Black man, and it can be harder for Black women and that shouldn’t be that difficult to wrap your heads around, but I don’t know, for some reason it seems to be for a lot of people. 

I want to talk a little bit about how the op-ed has been received, both kind of in the general public — You started talking about this a little bit, people saying like, “Wow, I had no idea, right?” I call that, like, the hidden figures problem. Like, I thought that was in the past, I thought, you know, [Laughs] that happened then, I thought things are all good now. — but and particularly within the economic field, too, I think there’s — I’m kind of fascinated to hear if the reactions were similar or different.

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Yeah, I’m a digital native so I have not read the comments because comment sections are cesspools [Laughs]. Like, I’m not going to — some of my friends are, like, “Yeah, you know, this person said this.” And I’m like, “Okay, thank you. I didn’t ask for you to tell me about the negative comments that I was getting.” And people — I mean, apparently people did have, you know, their whatever racist, sexist views about what we had written. I mean, the facts are plain, so I mean, you either agree with them or you don’t. 

That being said, I think in the economic space, at least on Twitter, it was received quite well and with this element of surprise, right, which I thought was interesting [Laughs]. I think what Dr. Cook said is absolutely correct. The quotes really allow the data to be crafted in a narrative that really talks about the experience of Black women, right? 

The quote that says I would never recommend this field to my children. Like, if you have children, right, and you’re reading this, you’re like, “Whoa, what has gone on here that this person wouldn’t even — this Black mother wouldn’t even recommend this to their child?” Um, yeah, we’ve gotten some pretty good reception. Some folks have been interested in talking with us about, you know, what this means for the profession. I think that’s really important. 

And, you know, some, like, very well-known economists, aside from Dr. Cook, of course, have also responded with, you know, they’re really happy that the op-ed was written. My only qualm [Laughs] with the response is that it has stopped at just responses, right? No one has — one of my friends, Adrian Davey who’s actually a PhD student in Chemical Engineering at UC Berkeley, put a Tweet out recently saying, like, you know, when you guys — and he’s talking about white folks in particular — hear about we need more diversity or we’re addressing this lack of representation problem in the academy, what do you guys do after that? And that’s my question, right? 

Some folks are like, “Well, I’m just going to donate to the Sadie Collective.” You know, we’ll take your money [Laughs], of course, because it helps this cause, right? But I think you have to — that’s a bandage for a deep, deep wound and it’s not enough. And I think it’s something that, you know, when you write a piece like this and people suddenly say, like, oh, there’s a magic bullet solution to this problem, there’s not. And I think for — the first and foremost thing that you have to do is acknowledge the fact that the academy itself, like, by its inception was never created for Black women and more broadly Black people in mind. And that is why people have a fundamental sort of confusion that is associated with seeing Black people, and specifically Black women, in the space. 

So a good example right now would be Dr. Cook. Dr. Cook is an exceptional researcher, exceptional scholar, and on top of that — she’s, like, I’m gassing her up [Laughs] — on top of that, she is an excellent mentor. She’s all of those things. And the thing is, the mentorship component, which arguably as the Director of the ADA Summer program, which is for minority students, is facilitating the pipeline for diversity into economics. 

Would you believe me if I said the academy does not reward that? Like, they don’t see value in that, clearly, right? Because you’ll hear about people that do some more work, and they’ll be penalized for that. Or it will quote unquote “affect their research productivity,” and so then they might not be recommended for tenure, might not be recommended for a promotion. 

And then note for me — sorry, going off on a tangent — I got kind of annoyed when people were applauding the Sadie Collective for existing, right? So the Sadie Collective is a group of young Black women. They’re saying, “Oh my God, good for you guys. We love the work you’re doing.” And I’m glad you love the work we’re doing, but I also want you to acknowledge the fact that we shouldn’t be doing this work, right? It’s like applauding somebody for driving on the road that they are fixing themselves when you had the power to create the road in the first place. It’s an insult [Laughs], like it’s really insulting. Yeah, go ahead.

 

LISA COOK: And the young — I mean, young folks shouldn’t be the ones doing this. And this is a supply-side answer to a problem that has both a supply side and demand side. And we were saying in the — and much more starkly in the earlier drafts of the op-ed piece — that you have to address both. The demand side being the profession and the climate, and the supply side being what Anna and cofounders have done with the Sadie Collective. 

And I think one of the things that I would like to say about the reaction is just how emotional it has been. I mean, I don’t even think I told you about this, Anna, but I was in three different cities after the article came out besides my own. And people have been pulling me into rooms, thanking me for writing this. And it’s been, you know, it’s just been really emotional as — and some said, you’re giving voice to voices that have been ignored for so long that people were, you know, I wouldn’t say this but this is how it might be perceived, that we’re actively being silenced over the years. So I really feel that this is something, and I always felt that this is something beyond ourselves. 

I mean, my idea was just to pull out something from the climate study, you know, one of those stark results and talk about it. And it has had a reception I just could not have imagined. And I’m glad that it did that to give people voice who haven’t had voice before. I’m glad that that’s what it did. People were high-fiving me. People were — have been writing me. And I have to — I actually have to Tweet about this. There’s no way I’m going to get to all the emails that I received. [Laughs]

But I really appreciate the positive response from people across the spectrum, young and old, and not just Black women. So, you know, people throughout the profession. So I appreciate that they wanted this heard. And if it took this long for it to be said and for us to say it, I am sad. That saddens me. But I’m glad it was — I’m glad it was done. 

One of the funny things that happen was, you know, you never know how what you’re going to say is going to be received. And certainly if you’re, you know, pre-tenure or pre-decision of some sort, you might be a little bit tentative, a little bit cautious about what you’re going to say. And, you know, for a few days I didn’t go into my department. I was like, “Everybody’s going to be mad at me. I don’t know if my emails going to work. You know, [Laughs] I don’t know if I still have a job.”

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: That’s real.

 

LISA COOK: Right [Laughs]. So I was just — I kept checking, kept logging into my email to make sure, you know, my account hadn’t been deleted or my name hadn’t been removed from the roster. But, you know, that was just a bit of paranoia, I suppose, in hindsight. But still, I think that some people in the profession are very thin-skinned. If you talk generally about race as opposed to gender, they just — they receive it in a very different way. And I would like for us to proceed on both fronts. 

And that’s why we ended the op-ed piece on a hopeful note, just acknowledging it is the first step. Let’s acknowledge it first and as Anna was saying, we’ve got to come up with some real solutions that run the gamut, that go from one stage of the profession to the other. There are a lot of Black women stuck at the associate professor stage. There are a lot. 

That’s, I think, possibly because many people in the profession don’t want us to see them as — see us as their peers. And I think that that’s a stereotype. That’s a stereotype that has existed. If this — if we’re some of the people they haven’t come into contact with because we’re under-recommended for AP classes, you know, if you don’t run into people, you embrace stereotypes. And if all you’re watching is Real Housewives of Atlanta or something like that, you’re not seeing yourself as a peer and that’s not the — that’s not the right reference point. 

But I think that this is a real issue. And I would hope, as Anna’s friend was Tweeting, that more is done once this conversation has gotten started. And I hope that my work with the AEA, now that I’ve been elected to the executive committee, I hope that we’ll be able to implement some of the changes that we’ve proposed and that others have proposed.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Yeah, so I want to end on that, actually. 

What outside of donating to the Sadie Collective, which everyone listening to this podcast should do — what are kind of some concrete steps that folks can take to — I mean, I love this analogy too that you have to look at the supply and demand on this issue. That’s a very good economical answer [Laughs]. 

But yeah, so what are some kind of concrete things people can do to help address this problem? I mean, number one, it seems like naming it and acknowledging. What are some other things?

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Sure. So I think institutions need to make a commitment to foster the next generation of Black women economists. And commitment looks like going beyond just reTweeting what Dr. Cook puts out about, you know, supporting Black women or supporting the Sadie Collective. 

Commitment looks like, you know, when you see a student who’s got advice poorly by one of your colleagues, you snatch them up like Dr. Cook mentioned, and you give them the mentorship that they need to succeed. Commitment looks like making available resources that students who look like me, a Black woman, wouldn’t otherwise see had they not talked to you. So there’s different channels, for example, that people learn about — research assistantships that are something that you do after college that gets you prepared for graduate school. And I would have not known anything about that had I not had a network that facilitated those conversations for me. So commitment looks like bringing Black women into that conversation and giving them the opportunity to be known and to be cultivated in such a way that allows them to realize their full potential. 

And I think finally what I will say is that it’s really important for professionals and academics to prioritize Black women. And I think what Dr. Cook said was really powerful. We’ve been actively silenced by this profession — actively from the beginning of, like, the inception, right? Dr. Alexander was actively silenced by her peers, by her colleagues, by editors, what have you. And so my challenge to listeners who are not Black women who are part of the economic space is to use your power to empower the next generation of Black women who are coming in, as well as your Black women colleagues. 

There are a lot of people who have the potential to be incredible economists. And Sadie Alexander’s a great example of someone who had the potential to become an incredible economist, but because of racism and sexism compounded upon each other, we missed them completely. 

And so the question now becomes: What will you do to ensure that we don’t miss the next generation of Black women who are entering economics?

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Do you have anything to add, Dr. Cook?

 

LISA COOK: I just want to say that beyond mentoring, we also need sponsorship and that becomes even more important as people work their way through the economics profession. So that means, you know, when there’s a job opening in a place, you get the email. Or for many raises, for example, I hear colleagues saying all the time that they just emailed their dean and show where they had been — they had been sought out as a person who would vie for that position. You know, encouraging them to apply for that position, that would never work [Laughs], you know, with a Black woman. It just never works. 

We’re the group that is the least retained when that happens, when there’s an outside offer, for example, Black women typically leave if there’s an outside offer because the institution doesn’t stand behind them. So I think that academic leaders and those who are prominent in the profession have to take a much more substantial role. 

And everybody can take a role. As my colleague Peter Blair was saying, everybody can do something — mentor, sponsor — but it has to happen at every stage. It can’t be just at the beginning of the pipeline. And that will, you know, that’s enough to change things. Opportunity exists at every juncture. So if you’re talking about giving equal access to opportunity, you can’t do it just at the beginning, it has to be at every single stage. So that’s where the profession needs help.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Thank you so much. This has been a thrilling conversation, you both are such deeply passionate and engaging speakers. And, again, thank you so much for taking the time to share your expertise with us on our podcast today.

 

LISA COOK: Thank you all so much.

 

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Thank you.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: And that you all for tuning into this episode of Hidden Truths, the podcast of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. 

You can learn more about Dr. Lisa Cook’s work by visiting lisadcook.net or following her on Twitter at @DrLisaDCook. 

To learn more about Anna’s work, visit sadiecollective.org and follow her on Twitter at @ItsAfronomics. 

For more information about the Insight Center, please visit insightcced.org. And if you like what you heard today, leave a review for Hidden Truths on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or other platforms where you like to listen to this podcast. And please help us spread the word. 

Thank you, everyone.

[ Music ]

Spell It with a Capital “B”

By Anne Price, President

“When a copyeditor deletes the capital “B,” they are in effect deleting the history and contributions of my people.” – Lori L. Thompson

Last week, in a step to modernize and commit to greater inclusion, The Brookings Institution, a well-established Washington D.C. think tank, announced that it would update its writing style guide to capitalize “Black” when referencing Black or African American people. For Brookings, this is not merely a typographical change but, rather, an intentional effort to recognize how people’s experiences are represented.

While there’s no standard rule on whether references to race should be lowercase or capitalized, most media outlets and publications that rely on the AP Stylebook refer to Black people in the lowercase. The APA style calls for capitalized Black and White, and The Chicago Manual of Style allows the authors to capitalize Black based on their preference. Major news outlets like The New York Times and the Associated Press both use lowercase black and white.

The question of how to properly refer to Black people in print has deep historical roots. In an 1878 editorial entitled “Spell it with a Capital,” Ferdinand Lee Barnett, husband of Ida B. Wells and founder of a Black weekly newspaper, asserted that the failure of white people to capitalize Negro was to show disrespect to, stigmatize, and “fasten a badge of inferiority” on Black people. In 1898, sociologist, historian, and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois proclaimed, “I believe that eight million Americans deserve a capital letter.”

This is precisely why capitalizing Black also matters…

Read Anne’s full piece here >>

Old Ways Wont Open New Doors sign

Episode 26: Angela Hanks and Janelle Jones

Listen to Angela Hanks, Janelle Jones, Anne Price, and Jhumpa Bhattacharya break down dominant economic myths and narratives while discussing pathways to a more equitable, inclusive economy.


“We’ve been living through this lie and seeing how it has not delivered for the majority of people in this country.”

Free markets. Meritocracy. Personal responsibility. These prevailing conservative economic narratives have influenced public policy and perceptions for decades, with profound outcomes for our economy—now marked by record income inequality—and society.

How can we push back against dominant economic narratives and practices that leave so many people out? And how can we chart a path toward a more inclusive economy that works for everyone?

Angela Hanks and Janelle Jones, both of the Groundwork Collaborative, joined Anne Price and Jhumpa Bhattacharya on the podcast to dig in on these questions and more.

Angela Hanks is the Deputy Executive Director of the Groundwork Collaborative and a regular contributor to Forbes.com. She previously held roles at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) and the Center for American Progress (CAP), and she served as a counsel on Congressman Elijah E. Cummings’ (D-MD) legislative staff.

Janelle Jones is the Managing Director for Policy and Research at the Groundwork Collaborative. Previously, Janelle was a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute, the Center for Economic Policy Research, and the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Her research has been cited in The New Yorker, The Economist, Harper’s, The Washington Post, The Review of Black Political Economy, and other publications.

Angela and Janelle joined Anne and Jhumpa to discuss their efforts to advance a cross-cutting economic narrative for the progressive movement, centered around the idea that “We are the economy.”

Breaking down the faults and falsehoods of mainstream economic narratives, Angela and Janelle discuss the work and value of seeding a new economic vision that puts people over profits, centers women of color and other historically marginalized groups, and integrates more diverse voices as experts, agents, and stakeholders.

To listen to the full discussion, use the audio player above or subscribe to the Hidden Truths podcast on Apple Podcasts

Read the transcript here or download as PDF


To learn more about the work of Angela Hanks and Janelle Jones, visit groundworkcollaborative.org.

Transcript | Episode 26: Angela Hanks and Janelle Jones

Download the transcript (PDF) for Hidden Truths: Episode 26 with Angela Hanks and Janelle Jones

[ Music ]

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Hi, and welcome to Hidden Truths, the podcast where we examine the root causes of economic and racial inequality. I’m Jhumpa Bhattacharya, and I’m thrilled to be joined by my cohost, Anne Price. Hi, Anne.

 

ANNE PRICE: Hey, how are you?

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: And our guests, Angela Hanks and Janelle Jones. Angela and Janelle are two of the visionary leaders at the Groundwork Collaborative. A think tank and advocacy organization dedicated to advancing a cost-cutting economic narrative for the progressive movement. 

Angela is the deputy executive director at Groundwork Collaborative. She previously held roles at the Center for Law and Social Policy, or CLASP, the Center for American Progress, CAP, and served as counsel on Congressman Elijah E. Cummings’ legislative staff. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Atlantic, among others, and she’s a regular contributor to Forbes.com. 

Janelle is the managing director for policy and research at Groundwork Collaborative. Previously, she was a research at Economic Policy Institute, or EPI, Center for Economic Policy Research, and the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Her work has focused on labor markets, racial inequality, unemployment, unions, and job quality. Her research has been cited in the New Yorker, The Economist, Harper’s, The Washington Post, and The Review of Black Political Economy, as well as other publications. 

Together, Angela and Janelle are a powerhouse bringing a wealth of policy knowledge and experience with a particular focus on narrative change and advocacy around race, wealth, and the economy. You can see how we’re really, really, excited to have these two fabulous women on our podcast today. Because there’s so much intersection, I think, between the work that we here at the Insight Center do and what Angela and Janelle are leading over on the East Coast. So thank you both so much for joining us today.

 

ANGELA HANKS: Thanks for having us. We’re really excited to be here.

 

JANELLE JONES: Yeah, this is great. Thank you guys.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: So I kind of wanted to start our discussion by talking about the Groundwork Collaborative’s vision, which is really centered around this foundational concept which I love, which is, “We are the economy.” 

Can you tell us what this means and why you thought this particular message, “We are the economy,” was important?

 

ANGELA HANKS: Yeah, so Groundwork’s mission, as you mentioned, is to advance a coherent, persuasive, progressive, economic worldview and narrative. And the reason why we exist, the reason why we came together, is sort of this idea that one, frankly, doesn’t exist right now. 

On the progressive side, we have a lot of values and things we care about, but we haven’t done a great job articulating how those things fit together and our vision for the economy. So as we’ve been working on this project – and sort of the consequence of doing that means that even in progressive spaces, we tend to, all of us, tend to sort of fall back on the dominant, conservative narrative which is both damaging, and frankly, just wrong. It’s incorrect. And so much of our work is dedicated to making sure that we are advancing a worldview that is both true, that’s inclusive, and that actually reflects the reality of people’s lives. 

So that’s how we get to this, “We are the economy,” idea. The economy often is characterized as the stock market, or GDP, or all these things that, frankly, are intangible for most people and actually tell us very little, in fact, almost nothing, about actual people’s lives. So, “We are the economy,” sort of re-centers people in the economy and reflects the fact that it’s us. It’s our interactions. It’s the demands we create. It’s the labor we provide that actually creates the economy. It’s not sort of these esoteric measures that actually have nothing to do with how people live day to day.

 

ANNE PRICE: This is Anne. I want to jump in on this a little bit, especially around narrative change, and we’re really talking about how people make sense of the world and how they think about issues like our economy. And one thing you said, Angela, in really looking at these kind of intangible measures, I really think about also the narrative around the economy as being this entity that kind of, just things just kind of happen, and that basically our economy is not built on man-made decisions. 

So can you talk a little bit more about how you see those narratives kind of taking place and what really is getting in the way of achieving what you think is racial and economic justice? What kind of narratives are really getting in the way of that?

 

JANELLE JONES: That is a fantastic question and really like the question that we want to answer with our entire organization. You know, people really think that the economy is something that is separate from, you know, what they do, the labor they provide. It’s separate from how their families are doing. It’s separate from how their communities are doing, and we know that that is not true. 

We know that there are a bunch of economic narratives that are really core to the way American capitalism works that are just not true. The one that, you know, people are just born with is that it’s a meritocracy, that really you work hard, you try hard, you major in STEM – somehow everyone’s a STEM major, I’m not sure. We’re just we’re all taking math and engineering classes, everyone majors in STEM, everyone goes to college, everyone majors in STEM, and that’s it and then we all win and we’re all at the top. And that’s, I mean, as an economist, as a mathematician, that’s not really how the numbers work. But it’s also just like not how the economy works at all. 

We know that there are systems and structures in place that make sure that absolutely guarantee, everyone does not go to college, everyone cannot major in STEM, and everyone cannot be at the top. So I think this idea that it really is just individual behaviors and practices that keep people from, kind of, achieving the Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg life is something that’s really based into the way people think about the economy that is fundamentally wrong. 

I think another thing that we tend to downplay is really the importance of public power and public structures. So people, you know, we need roads to go to school, we need public teachers, we need – I was going to say we need police, but like I don’t know. We can circle back to actually whether or not we really need police. But we need some rules to keep us from anarchy. And those are things that people are paying for and investing in with public dollars that also lead to the way the economy is kind of structured. So I think people tend to kind of remove themselves and their sense of agency from what they can do in affecting their economic outcomes. And those are kind of some of the narratives and structures that we are trying to displace.

One way that Angela talks about doing that is really unlearning the conservative, dominant worldview which, you know, tells people all these things are true. And instead, focusing on people and putting the way people operate into the economy at the center of what it means for an economy to be working, for an economy to be successful.

 

ANNE PRICE: I want to just ask one point related to that and that really is around the fact that really what we’re dealing with, it’s a neoliberal narrative, one that actually puts markets first over people. That says that basically we, you know, markets work well on their own, that they reward you – and this is obviously a deep-seated narrative, one that people have poured billions of dollars into over decades, to reinforce policy change. 

How are you all looking at this dominant narrative, and do you think that given conversations around some of the economic failures of neoliberalism, that there’s a door opening to dig in on that narrative?

 

JANELLE JONES: Yeah, I think that there is. I mean I think one of the reasons, you know, now is really the time to talk about it is that we’ve been living through this lie and seeing how it has not delivered for the majority of people in this country. We have been saying that markets will make sure that everyone gets a fair shot, that everyone, you know, gets an opportunity to kind of live their best economic life and what we’ve seen is that when we do that, it actually doesn’t work well. 

We have inequality that is the highest it’s ever been since we’ve been tracking it. We have entire communities, and particularly people of color, who are not even, like, considered in terms of measuring economic success. So I think now is really the time to talk about why that narrative is not working. And because we have just like so, so, so much data, and research, and lived experience of folks on the ground who can say that, you know, when we leave things to markets, when we don’t regulate, when we don’t use public power, when we don’t invest in worker power, these things don’t work out and here’s how we’re seeing that it’s not working.

 

ANGELA HANKS: I totally am going to plus one everything Janelle said, obviously, and also add that we’ve seen the failures of neoliberalism play out, and the consequences for actual people. And to Janelle’s point, the data are really there that show that this is actually not the right path forward. 

I would just add that not only that but I think as we think about sort of what’s gone wrong, part of what our task is here is to think about what an alternative vision looks like. So, you know, the economy is not a bunch of rich people getting richer and hoarding their dollars in Swiss bank accounts and not investing in the economy, while the rest of us struggle to get by. 

A well-functioning economy is actually one that invests in people, that exercises public power, to Janelle’s point, that ensures that people are able to live a life where they are able to exercise power on the job, where they are able to invest in their communities and be invested in through the public sector. And all those things are conditions that we can create, both as folks who work on policy, but also as people who exist in this economy and in this country.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Hi. I love this discussion and I really think that we’re getting into something really meaty here, right? 

So we’re talking about neoliberalism and the narrative that it pushes particularly around kind of personal responsibility, right? And this idea that if you’re poor, it’s your fault that you’re poor, and it’s all about individual choices. And we don’t look at kind of the structure of the economy and see ourselves in the economy, right? These are kind of the big narrative themes that we’re talking about, but I want to hone in specifically. 

You know, we are four women of color on this call. Three of us – or three of you – are Black women and I think we would be remiss if we didn’t talk about gender and race specifically. I know you all have a lot to talk about how race, and gender, and specific narratives around race and gender impact our economy or the way we think about our economy or the way we think about race and gender specifically as it relates to communities and the economy.

 

ANGELA HANKS: I think going back to those narratives around personal responsibility, it’s really a powerful and very convenient narrative that it’s all individual. You know, your success or failure in the economy or in the labor market, is entirely on you. It sort of allows us to avoid real questions around race, and gender, and power that I think all of us on this call know are sort of at the heart of a well-functioning economy – effectively grappling with all of those things. 

But neoliberalism doesn’t deal with it at all, right? So you have this system where it’s like, “Oh well, it’s up to you. If you fail, let’s disregard decades or centuries of oppressive policies that have gotten us to this point, let’s just focus on where we are today.” The reality is that’s just not – it does not reflect what’s actually happening to people and it also leads to some really wrong conclusions about what we need to do to create an economy that works for everyone. 

Focusing on personal responsibility, again, it sort of allows us to think less about race, and gender, and power. But if we are thinking about those things and we’re centering, you know, for example, anti-blackness or misogyny, in the way that we’re thinking about the economy, then we come up with a different set of solutions that acknowledge both historical and current structural impediments to people engaging in the economy in all kinds of different ways. 

So going back to this, “We are the economy,” idea. When we say “we,” it’s a shorthand for emphasizing the fact that we have to center the most marginalized folks when we think about building an economy that actually works. Because if people of color are left out of the economy, if women are left out of the economy, then the economy actually isn’t really working. 

That’s really where we should start when we think about what makes the economy function – if the most marginalized among us are not doing well, then definitionally, the economy cannot be doing well.

 

JANELLE JONES: Yeah, I mean obviously all of that is absolutely correct, and I mean the Groundwork motto is, “We are the economy.” 

My own personal economic ideology is “Black women best.” It’s what I’ve been saying all across the country for months, at this point Angela’s heard me talk about it at length. And it really I mean  –

 

ANGELA HANKS: Yes, it’s a great theory.

 

JANELLE JONES: It’s a fundamental theory because even though it sounds exclusionary, it’s not. It’s like if the economy is working well for Black women, what does that mean for literally every other group of people in the economy? It means everyone else is doing absolutely fine. And it is a way to center the folks who have been completely left out, completely marginalized, in a way that, like when they are doing well, we know everyone else is doing well. So I think that it’s, you know, it’s actually a way to ensure that the rest of us are the economy, is to kind of center black women.

 

ANNE PRICE: I love how you’re talking about centering Black women. Here at Insight, we’ve also been talking about how we need to center Blackness and how that could tell us a lot about how we can lift up all Americans. 

And it seems that, you know, doing this work over many years, that kind of moving to this kind of thinking is very challenging. People are still really focused on class narratives and class issues of classicism. And while race has really become part of the discourse in the last couple of years, there’s still this not a sense that somehow centering Blackness, centering Black women, is foundational and could actually help all Americans. 

How are you all really thinking about how to push that conversation further than it’s been?

 

JANELLE JONES: Oh, yeah, I’m definitely not saying that it’s easy. I don’t think, you know, I don’t think it’s going up on billboards. I don’t think it’s going to be the leading motto for whoever is the presidential candidate, but I think it’s important. 

I think it’s a way to talk about all of the things that actually include a bunch of other communities and it’s, you’re right, it’s making that connection. People, you know, I come from the economic space where the conversation around class is like the way we get everyone’s buy in, tt’s what we lead with, it’s how we get a cross-racial coalition, and what we’ve seen is that doesn’t lead to a cross-racial coalition. The way to get to that is to, actually surprisingly, talk about race. 

So I think it’s really hard, it’s really challenging. I think the way we’re doing it is really trying to connect it through, “We are the economy.” It’s giving people the language, the idea, and also like, the research, and the data that shows that when we lift up the people who have been marginalized, it actually lifts up everyone else. When we do things that are targeted towards communities of color, it’s hard to do the economy well for people of color and white people not get any benefit, right? 

It’s hard to make sure that it’s just a small group of, you know, Black women in the Midwest who are thriving but everyone else is doing terribly. That is impossible to do in the way that our economy is set up and the way that U.S. capitalism works. So it’s really just trying to give people the language and thinking around that idea, but it’s definitely challenging.

 

ANGELA HANKS: And I would just add that so much of our sort of policies around class are incredibly racialized. So if you think about domestic workers, you know, the modern labor law was developed to explicitly exclude largely Black women workers. And the result is, you know, 80 years later, we have an economy that still largely excludes this group of people who are still largely women of color. 

And in fact, what you see in the labor market is work is actually trending more toward being worse for more people in the way that we’ve sort of set it out for this particular group of people, as well. So it’s not just if you improve the working standards of – I mean, certainly if you improve the working standards of women of color in those positions, you improve them for everyone. 

But it is also, you know, we ignore those conditions to the peril of everyone, as well.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: And this just leads me to another narrative I think that is really dominant when we’re thinking about our economy which is like the scarcity mentality, right? Like there’s only so much of the pie and so, therefore, we all have to scramble to get our piece of it. 

We’re taking plays into this idea like, if we start to talk about “I love Black women best,” I think that that’s awesome, I’m totally going to steal that. I’ll credit you but I’m going to use it.

 

JANELLE JONES: You don’t have to steal it, it’s everyone’s, please. I want it to catch on, truly.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Because we are the economy, yes, I love it. 

But this idea that, can we speak to that a little bit, about how like when we talk about something like “Black women best,” what happens to other folks? Because we’re living in this scarcity mentality, which is actually completely false.

 

ANGELA HANKS: Yeah, I mean a lot of our work is sort of dictated by an abundance frame. Again, this scarcity mindset is one, like an artifact of neoliberalism. But also one that is frankly totally pervasive in our economy and cuts along class lines, particularly across racial lines, and it’s not productive for anyone. 

If we start from the scarcity frame, we’re going to get policies that assume there is too little and most of us have to fight for scraps. And that’s not the reality, we have an incredible amount of untapped public power that we don’t use. 

We, at the federal level, don’t raise nearly enough revenue. We don’t – our anti-poverty programs, our programs around redistribution, are incredibly ungenerous and this is sort of all born out of this idea that there is very little to go around and so we’ll behave as if resources are scarce. 

I think what we are trying to advance is that a strong economy is one where there’s plenty to go around, and crucially to that, it actually does have to go around. It’s not just that we can create a bunch of millionaires and billionaires at the top and six people have enough wealth to make us one of the wealthiest countries in the world. It actually has to get around or else our economy fundamentally is not one that works.

 

JANELLE JONES: Even on the private sector side, what we’ve seen is like GDP is what, doubled, in a generation and what we know is that like the income for workers, for the typical worker, is actually, like, the same as it was 20 years ago. So it’s not even just on the public side, which is, you know, an entirely different conversation to have that’s crucial to this, but it’s also like we are actually growing the economy. 

The scarcity frame is complete and utter nonsense because the economy is always growing. Like GDP is always growing, we’re always innovating. Productivity is- it’s always moving up. What’s not moving up is security, and stability, and wages for the typical American worker. So it’s only scarcity when it comes to people who are not billionaires and millionaires. 

That’s the only time when like we’re running low, is when it’s for like the typical worker. But for everyone else, there seems to be just like, not just one yacht but like a super yacht, not just a neighborhood but like, an island. There’s plenty for people who have enough money. But it’s just when you’re poor that like, “No. I’m sorry. TANF can only be this amount of money. We’re out, we’re just out of benefits.” So it’s just- it’s nonsense all across the board.

 

ANGELA HANKS: I 100% agree and I would actually even say that when you think about scarcity, I think what we’re actually talking about is a power imbalance. It’s exactly what Janelle said, it’s that all of this is accruing somewhere. It’s just that regular folks aren’t able to access it because folks with a lot more power have been able to rig the rules so the benefits just go to them, even if it’s workers, families, and communities whose labor and demand are actually making the economy grow.

 

JANELLE JONES: Right. The thing that is scarce is the power to actually decide how policy is made, and that I’m willing to just like, take from the people who have it.

 

ANGELA HANKS: Yes.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: I love it. I’m like snapping all over the place but you can’t hear me because I’m putting myself on mute [laughs] while you’re talking. But this is amazing. 

I think that, you know, I feel this way, and I will just speak for myself. But often, for those of us that are doing this work around economic and racial justice, we’re often on the offensive, right? We’re constantly battling harmful policies and narratives that are either already present or continue coming down the pike, particularly with this administration. 

We rarely get the time to kind of, sit down, and reflect, and be proactive, and dream about what is that thing that we actually want to create, right? Rather than just reacting to stuff, like let’s actually sit, be proactive, and dream, and vision about what does this world look like, right? So I just want to do that in this podcast for a minute. 

Like let’s, kind of, close our eyes, take a minute, and dream right now. What is the economic structure that we want to create, right? What does that look like? What does that community feel like? What does it taste like, right? And what do we need to build to get us to that place?

 

ANGELA HANKS: I want to share something that I’ve been carrying around with me for a little while. So actually, we’ve been going around to different cities across the country over the last year asking a similar question to folks who are sort of front lines in the movement, so mostly people who are working locally, that are really sort of advancing racial justice and economic justice in different places across the country. 

And in one of the conversations where we had this discussion and we asked a similar question, a woman said something that I found so striking and I think it sort of speaks to the economy and the structure that I want to see, but is much better than whatever I would say, so I’ll just quote her. 

We asked what would the economy look like or what it would feel like, and the first thing she said is, “My body wouldn’t ache.” 

And I thought that was so powerful because that is the kind of economy that we should —

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Wow.

 

ANGELA HANKS: — be working toward. It is one where you are not, sort of, sacrificing your body in order to make an extra dollar or 50 cents an hour. That you have access to affordable health care and time off, time with your family, and that you’re able to work, see the fruits of your labor, and be able to enjoy that. 

And that to me is such a good way to think about what we want out of the economy, and I think there are certainly policies and structures that flow from that, but that’s been something that’s been sitting with me for a while.

 

JANELLE JONES: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think I was in the room when that woman said that and it was just silence afterwards. It was like, “Yes. Yes, that’s exactly what it looks like. That’s exactly what it feels like.” 

And I think, you know, the systems and structures, Angela, in the case would be changed is if we had different people in power. I think, you know, the economic field would look differently. We would be calling different people experts on the economy because we are the economy, and we’re all experiencing it, and we’re all contributing to it, and we’re all like reaping the benefits. You know, but the economy is entirely man-made. Right now, it’s like entirely mostly white man-made, so we would have some different people making those decisions. 

We would have people who kind of look like the folks on this call deciding how the folks who look like us are impacted by the policies and structures that are in place. So I think we would definitely see a little bit of that. We would also see kind of a redistribution of power. We talked a lot about it on this call and I mean, like, worker power, public power- all sorts of ways in which power is basically isolated and concentrated with wealthy corporations and individuals, all of that is just like, no more. It is the fundamental restructuring of who has control, who gets to decide, and who has a voice, and that’s what I would like to see.

 

ANNE PRICE:  Wow, that’s great. I love how you’re really bringing in ordinary Americans, their voices, into thinking about the economy. And really seeing this is not just an academic exercise, but one in which we’re going to have to build power to change the rules that are causing such great pain and inequality. 

I just want to kind of close my questions on one note, and just thinking and hearing you all speak and really thinking about the fact that we often don’t hear women’s voices in these spaces. We certainly are lacking women of color in these spaces. 

So I’d love to just hear on a personal note from both of you as we bring this podcast to a close, what do you think that you bring that is really adding to discussions around the economy that we’re missing? What do you think that women are adding in this space that is kind of moving this discussion forward?

 

ANGELA HANKS: I can speak totally personally. One of the things that drew me to Groundwork and to what we’re trying to build here, is that we’re doing it with women of color. We are a majority of women of color organization, majority women overall, and I think it really, frankly, changes the way that you approach this work and so I think that’s one thing that’s been incredibly beneficial. 

And I think to Janelle’s point earlier, kind of beyond our individual organization, I think something that I’ve found to be, it’s changing slowly but it is changing, is that increasingly, there are more of us in this space. It needs to change a lot more quickly but, you know, it’s hard to talk about justice, and power, and sort of upending systems that were not designed to include us, when we’re not in the room. And so I think one thing that’s really been heartening, especially as we’ve gone out to other organizations across the country, is that you are seeing women of color really at the forefront of change and really at the forefront of economic and racial justice. Whether that’s activists, economic policy experts, academics- I think that there’s a lot of exciting work going on and I’m glad to be a small part of it and to witness the incredible work that folks across the country are doing. You both included, Jhumpa and Anne, of course.

 

JANELLE JONES: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think we are, you know, this organization is something that I have not seen replicated in many other places, so I’m excited to see that. And I think, you know, the question about, kind of, making space is really important to me. 

So I think, you know, Angela and I are leading this organization and we’re really trying to make sure that something that we do is bring more people who look like us into this space. And not just as, you know, I mean everyone should be doing what they can across the movement, but we’re also bringing people into this space as experts, right? So you don’t need to have a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard to understand that like your community has not recovered from the last recession so you’re not prepared for the next recession. That is something that people know. That is something that people know to be true and those people should be on panels with Larry Summers, and Jared Bernstein, and Jason Furman because they have just as much to say. 

So I think for me, making room in the movement for other women of color is something I care a lot about doing. And I think, you know, I’m thinking a little bit of Nina Banks, a Black woman economist who has spent a lot of time talking and thinking about the way Black women have, kind of, always done the work. You know, in the history of this country, we’ve always really done this work in our families, in our churches, in our communities and I think now is the time for us to really take the platform that’s been given and do it across the country. 

And so, you know, nothing makes me more excited than seeing a movement that is led by women of color. And it’s how we get to fight for 15, right? It’s how we get to a national minimum wage of $15. So really since we’re women of color, because we just we have the tools, we know how to do it, we’ve been doing it for generations- really just kind of giving women of color a bigger platform to do the work on a national scale is something I’m super excited about, and I think is important right now.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: I love it. Let’s plot to take over the world. I think that would be so much of a better world to live in, I really do.

 

ANGELA HANKS: Yes, let’s do it.

 

JANELLE JONES: I mean, that’s something I’m really telling my boss every day and he’s like, “Breathe. Let’s breathe.” So we’re trying, we’re taking baby steps but we’re getting there. We’re getting there, tt’s true. We’re well on our way.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: Thank you so much, Angela and Janelle, both of you, for sharing your time and expertise with us on our podcast today. It has been a pleasure listening to you. Seriously, I was just like sitting here in awe just listening to you speak and in complete agreement with everything that you said. 

And am excited to be a part of the economy with you all and really continue the momentum that’s been growing. I really feel like in the last year or so, I just feel like we’re – people are hungry for a change, you know, and hungry to see something different. Because everyone feels just how terrible our policies are right now and this continued, you know, priority of profits over people is hitting people and in a very distinct way. And I think people know, like deep inside that there has to be something different.

 

JANELLE JONES: We’re happy to do it with you all, for sure.

 

JHUMPA BHATTACHARYA: This is awesome. Thank you, again.

And thank you all for tuning into this episode of Hidden Truths, the podcast of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. You can learn more about Angela and Janelle’s work at the Groundwork Collaborative by visiting GroundworkCollaborative.org. For more information about the Insight Center, visit InsightCCED.org. Thanks, everyone.

 

[ Music ]

 

Actualizing the Potential of the 1619 Project

By Anne Price, President, and Jhumpa Bhattacharya, Vice President of Programs and Strategy

On August 18, 2019, the New York Times launched the 1619 Project. Curated by writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, the 1619 Project is a collection of essays and artwork from renowned researchers, activists, and artists brilliantly documenting the ways in which the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and anti-Blackness continue to undergird our economic and social systems and policies, and deeply impact our American culture and narrative.

Among social justice advocates, 1619 quickly became the talk of the town. Our Twitter feeds were filled with high praise and love for it.

Yes, finally, we thought. This is exactly what we need to be able to diminish the false race vs. class dichotomy. Now more than ever, our colleagues won’t shy away from talking about the impact of structural racism in economic issues. Race will become a part of our collective vernacular, and we will finally stop hesitating to talk about how anti-Blackness — the devaluing and de-humanizing of people who are Black — is deeply rooted in our economy, the criminal justice system, and public benefit programs.

Perhaps that was wishful thinking.

We are headquartered in the Bay Area, which prides itself on being a progressive bastion of justice and equity. In some ways we are, but when it comes to talking about race, we’re no gold standard. There is still a great deal of reluctance, even among the progressive minded, to talk about race specifically, to consider the Black experience as unique and foundational to shaping our nation’s economic and social policies, and to embark on a serious and sustained effort to center Blackness as a necessary condition of economic liberation for all Americans.

We continue to encounter a class focus in our work on fines and fees, government-sponsored child support debt, and the future of workers — all of which disproportionately impact Black people. Many well-intentioned advocates working in these and other spaces are still not speaking to race for fear of backlash.

The 1619 Project shows us that we can no longer shy away from talking about race when talking about justice of any kind…

Read the full letter here >>>