The Economist Placing Value on Black Women’s Overlooked Work

The American economics profession has begun to grapple with the diversity problems in its field. In June, when Black Lives Matter protests swept across the United States and then the world, the American Economic Association — the establishment voice for economists — acknowledged “that our professional climate is a hostile one for Black economists.”

More diversity and inclusion initiatives, research avenues and high-profile promotions have sprung up since a 2019 survey by the association found that experiences of sexual harassment and assault were “not rare” for women, and Asian, Black and Latino economists reported “substantially worse experiences” of discrimination than their white colleagues.

Dr. Banks’s career bears these scars too. Her study of Dr. Alexander is the result of a career knocked off course. She originally planned to become a development economist, a field that studies the growth of low-income economies. But in the 1990s, during an internship at a U.S. government agency focused on development, she was sexually harassed by an economist.

“I decided not to pursue development economics as a result of that experience,” she said. Only a little more than two years ago, emboldened by the #MeToo movement, Dr. Banks complained to that workplace.

“When it came time to write a dissertation, I really wanted to focus on something meaningful to me,” she said. “Something that honored the long history of Black women engaging in work for the African-American community.”

The legacy of this switch is apparent in her latest paper. Her goal is to develop a theory “to elevate the community” as a site of production that deserves as much scrutiny as other work. And to highlight the long-lasting impact of these women.

She goes all the way back to 1908, when the Atlanta Neighborhood Union was founded, led by Black women to survey the needs of their community and provide basic social and health services that the city failed to give. It inspired the Women’s Political Council in Montgomery, Ala., which worked to increase voter registration and later engaged in political protests, including the Montgomery bus boycott. It resembles some of the work done today by Black women, such as those in Georgia, to register voters in service of improving their communities and reducing inequality, with remarkable consequences.

In 1985, a group of Black women in Los Angeles came together to stop the construction of a toxic waste incinerator in their neighborhood, enlisting professors and health officials to their cause. Two years later, the city dropped its plans. The group, Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, still exists as a nonprofit, developing affordable housing, running youth programs and cleaning streets.

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Jonny Richards

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