Featured Focus Month Human Rights

Challenging the Orthodoxy: Race, Racism and the Reconfiguration of Economics

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Source: M.B.M.

ANALYSIS Prof. Dr Stefan Ouma 31 May 2021

Books abound on what is wrong with economics (Chang 2014; Keen 2011; Nelson 2018, Mazzucato 2018, Raworth 2018, Stanford 2015), and what we would have to do to change it. Given the little change we have seen in economics training and policy-effective economic thinking since the global finance crisis of 2007/08, and in light of the global environmental, inequality and health crises, it is to be seen whether these interventions can make any meaningful impact. What is good though: Half of these impactful books were written by female economists. Despite this ‘wind of change’ in an overtly male discipline, it is striking that these books still offer a glaring lacuna: the issues of race and racism (except for brief mentions in Nelson 2018 and Stanford 2015). For many people around the world, these are no mere ‘issues’, but integral to their daily struggles and experiences in White majority countries. These are part of a differentiated life– a life differentiated so much that it can be full of unrealized potentials, suffering and trauma, physical harm and violence, and premature death in the worst of cases. Therefore, while we could move on, building on these interventions and many others (e.g., Obeng-Odoom 2020; Sarr 2019 or here), to discuss what would have to change in economic thinking (which includes economics training), policy and praxis to help achieve a “safe and just operating space for humanity” (Raworth 2018), the goal of this blog entry is more firmly tied to the question of how economic thinking would change if race and racism were taken seriouslyas structural-relational problems?

Much of economic thinking happens via economics. Therefore, my entry will often refer to economics as an institutionalized field. That said, expertise about the economy is not just rooted in economics. In fact, economists should not hold an intellectual monopoly over explaining how the economy works and should work (even though many of them, ironically, seem to appreciate that monopoly). That is why I as an economic geographer dare write this post. Pluralizing the economy, economics and economic thinking are separate but still interconnected projects. Some of the arguments that follow apply to other disciplines, too. Nevertheless, economics is singular among the social sciences in terms of its socio-demographic homogeneity (at least in countries of the Global North), prestige, student intake volumes, policy influence and partial self-isolation from other disciplines. It thus deserves particular scrutiny.

So what would an economics that takes race and racism seriously as structural-relational problems have to look like? To what kind of epistemic and institutional practices would it have to commit itself in an effort to effectively engage with these lived realities? A partial answer is already provided by economists who do study race and racism in a field called stratification economics, not to be mixed up with the so-called economics of discrimination that is largely rooted in a neoclassical economics framework. Building on some the insights of the former, and adding a few more perspectives, we can call for at least 10 ways of how to challenge the broader field of economics (i.e. variants of neoclassical and behavioural economics, but much more than that, as we saw above!) via race and racism.

  1. First, such a reconfigured economics has to account for history in much deeper ways, beyond Eurocentric writings of history (Blaut 1993). Economic thinking and colonialism have been firmly entangled (Sheppard 2005). Colonialism built on projects of racialization through which dispossession and violent rule over colonialized and racialized others in the name of White supremacy and the delivery of ‘modernity’ and ‘progress’ were justified. Many of these legacies live on. While (at least mainstream) economics is often accused of being ahistorical, it is particularly the omission of relational histories of rule, accumulation and oppression via the establishing of racial and other forms of hierarchies that have put ‘modern economics’ in a particularly bad position to deal with issues of race and racism in structural-historical terms. If they have entered the mainstream, then as a matter of individual preferences – innate (‘exogenous’) and irrational “tastes” that are eventually cleared via the market in the interest of a higher common good.
  2. Second, connected to this, economics needs to acknowledge its own origin story. Certain powerful strands of economics not only display colonial tendencies and are even proud of it (Hirshleifer 1985; Fine and Milonakis 2009), but they themselves are characterized by a “deep coloniality”, whereby key thinkers in classical and modern economics had (and still have) relations to imperial and colonial projects (Kellecioglu 2020). This would include accepting that assumingly innocent and taken-for-granted economic categories such as ‘rationality’, ‘property’, ‘growth’ and ‘efficiency’ have racial histories and racial lives. Since this is a legal blog, I would only like to flag the notion of ‘property’ and the need to scrutinize how it historically is entangled with racialized hierarchies of rights in property, particularly in settler-chirsholonial contexts. One could go on even further to argue that there is “property interest in whiteness” – “”the right to prohibit infringement on settled expectations” and the economic, social and political privileges that come with Whiteness (Harris 1993). That the entanglement of property and Whiteness needs to be thought together beyond settler-colonial contexts is demonstrated by the current COVID-vaccine patent situation, in which private property rights ensuring windfall profits for Western pharmaceutical companies seem to be more important than to ensure equal access to vaccines to everyone around the globe. The outcome of this has been a deeply racialized global hierarchy of access to a post-COVID life. Indeed, we live in a “colonial global economy” (Bhambra 2020).
  3. Third, a reconfigured economics would have to combat the fallacy of being a “positive science” (Friedman 1953), offering a ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ take on the economy that operates beyond vested interests and ideology. All knowledge is situated. All knowledge comes not only from somewhere but also from someone. Some are more heard than others are, not because they are necessarily smarter or better researchers, but because they speak from a positionality that makes them more likely to be heard. The fact that race (and gender) does not matter for most economists is not only because of the prevalence of certain modes of thinking, but also because they are often White, male, and thus can afford to NOT to engage with race/racism or gender for that matter. There is surely something ‘non-neutral’ and normative about the practice of excluding ‘the other half of the world’ in your engagement with the economy (gender) or the experiences of millions of people around the world when it comes to racial discrimination, and deem these ‘exotic’ topics that break rather than make careers (there have been repeated reports on the internet that younger economists have been advised by their ‘self-made’ colleagues that focusing on ‘soft’ issues such gender and race would not help advance their careers; see also Obeng-Odoom 2020).
  4. Fourth, it needs to transcend methodological individualism and acknowledge power-saturated structures and relations through which the economy is made and lived. To reduce society, or the economy, for that matter, to an aggregation of independent individuals meeting in a ‘free’ market place crowds out how racialization informs how we connect, progress, produce, consume, access education and experience life at large (Komlos 2019), including premature death (Gilmore 2007). While the individual of methodological individualism may be quickly defended by many economists as a generic abstraction that symbolizes all of us and who, as a nice side-effect, is easily amenable to economic modelling, it is quite a particular individual. It in fact not only represents the White economic man, but also helps maintain his position of power (Nelson 2018). In other words, it helps reproduce a particular “rule of experts” (Mitchell 2002) – one with a long history. Chéri Samba, an artist from the DR Congo, has captured the racialized dimension of this epistemic condition powerfully in his 2001 painting Les économistes à bicyclette.
  5. Fifth, a reconfigured economics would need to bring in intersectionality, i.e. other categories that most economists have also problems with, and, to make things worse, relate them to each other in the analysis of economic process, forms and practices! Most notably, this would include class and gender, but also age and other markers of difference such as (dis-)ability. At a time when even the World Economic Forum talks about intersectionality (albeit in a reductionist ‘business case style’), it seems puzzling that most economics programmes would by-pass it.
  6. Sixth, it needs to be pluralist in methods: Race, gender and other social complexities can only effectively be approached when multiple methods are accepted as legitimate tools for knowledge production. Mathematical modelling needs to partly give way, and partly be complemented by ‘real world economics’ that talks to people and also accepts a ‘small n’ as a base for making claims about economic affairs. Large data sets and number crunching are, of course, also welcome, but they need to be able to speak to questions of racialized inequalities and be complemented with other methods where needed. Mathematics and statistics can and should be used for social justice, but they should not remain the only tools.
  7. Seventh, it needs to look inwards and question its own socio-demographic make-up at various levels (including the editorial boards of journals), as well as its internal structures of racial and gender discrimination, and the toxic professional “bro-culture” buttressing these. There is something distinctly patriarchal and masculinist about how much of the economics profession operates and frames its questions. Social media recently has been full of such accounts (for one example, see the account of the Indian economist Devika Dutt). Studies and experts in the field also confirm the problem (Nelson 2018; Wu 2018)
  8. Eighth, a reconfigured economics needs to abandon the so-called Parsons’ pact (the division between economics and other social sciences, particularly sociology). This pact would divorce economics from sociology and led to the cementation of neoclassical economics and its variants. A utilitarian rationality as the exclusive mode of economic action lies at the core of such a research program. As a prominent economic sociologist once remarked, “the neoclassical market is shorn of social relations, institutions, or technology and is devoid of elementary sociological concerns such as power, norms and networks” (Lie 1997: 342). This ‘non-social’ stance is most boldly captured in a short essay by Milton Friedman, one of the most prominent proponents of neoclassical economics in the 20th century. In his famous 1970s essay on the “Social responsibility of the Business…”, he argues that the “(…) political principle that underlies the market mechanism is unanimity. In an ideal free market resting on private property, no individual can coerce any other, all cooperation is voluntary, all parties to such cooperation benefit or they need not participate. There are no values, no ‘social’ responsibilities in any sense other than the shared values and responsibilities of individuals. Society is a collection of individuals and of the various groups they voluntarily form.” From this quote, it becomes clear that variants of economics resting on methodological individualism and utilitarianism operate with a particular understanding of social order, which is grounded in ‘free’ individuals acting rationally to maximize his or her (actually there is no ‘her’ as gender does not matter from this perspective) own utility within the liberating environment of a competitive market. In many accounts, besides power/violence/coercion, gender, class and race, other structuring ‘variables’ are missing, too. All men (sic!) seem to be equal, even though in the reality of racialized socio-economic life, some wo*men are more equal than others. Some argue that sociology was not a passive by-stander when economics established itself as the sole discipline of the market, but an active collaborator. Following another prominent economic sociologist, David Stark (2009), it can be argued that it was not only the neoclassical emancipation from 18th and 19th century classical political economy and from variations of the historical/old institutionalist school after the marginalist revolution in the 1870s that led to the analytical separation of ‘value’ from ‘values’, of ‘interests’ from ‘passions’, and thus the separation of calculative action from its social and normative context and the crowding out of power. This demarcation was later stabilized with the formation of the pact named earlier – “Parsons’ Pact”. It represented an architectured disciplinary division of labour between US economics and sociology that was consolidated between 1930s and 1950s, with the powerful sociologist Talcott Parsons at Harvard University playing a crucial role as a disciplinary demarcator. “We do economy, you do society”. Both disciplines were actively engaged in boundary drawing practices by creating distinct realms of ‘the economic’ and ‘the social’. Thus, economic thinking that incorporates gender, race, racism and other assumingly social issues needs to transcend Parsons’ pact. The economic is social. Related to this is the imperative to abandon the idea that only economists can speak about the economy. Interestingly, often White economists from the Global North tell us what is good and bad for the economy, but want to crowd out ‘social noise’ at the same time. ‘The social’ matters, that is part of the reason why they speak and are heard.
  9. Ninth, it needs to acknowledge that certain policy recipes based on mainstream economic advice have often done little to no good to racialized minorities in many White majority countries (Komlos 2019), but also to many people in former colonies because they have not tackled the underlying structures of the colonial political economy; nor have they been good to the environment. Indeed, the long-persisting “growth mantra” has produced a fallout with highly racialized impacts (from the current COVID crisis which several experts link to ecosystem destruction induced by unfettered growth to environmental racism;  on the latter see here and here).
  10. Finally, it needs some humility and should abandon the god’s eye view that many economists so readily perform. Among social scientists, economists not only enjoy the largest power over policy, backed up by a prize that seems more NOBEL than it actually is. They also have the greatest liberty to speak about almost anything without having to proof grounded fieldwork experiences (like writing books about ‘African development’ without having been to ‘Africa’ longer than two weeks, if at all) or without having to engage with what has been already said by people from outside economics (e.g., on the topic of race and racism) or by people (within the broader field) who hold different intellectual positions. A cursory look into the reference list of many economics papers or the flagship reports of the World Bank – the World Development Report (for an example, see here) – suggests that many in the discipline seem to ‘know it best’ without the engagement that would be required to come at least close to this desirable but perhaps unachievable state of knowing. Race and racism can only be effectively tackled if much of the field moves beyond its “mono-disciplinary arrogance”.


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