AEA Hides Its Racist Past
By David Henderson
I posted on Thursday about the fact that the officers and governance committees of the American Economic Association don’t know much about the literature on the economics and discrimination. In their statement, they wrote:
We recognize that we have only begun to understand racism and its impact on our profession and our discipline.
I had thought at the time that they were simply ignorant of the literature. But it may be worse.
Commenter Richard Ebeling pointed out something I had missed: the AEA’s statement linked to literature on the “History of race and racism.” Take a look. Some of the items are excellent. The Richard Rothstein book, The Color of Law, is an example. I reviewed it positively here. Also, they recommend the movie Just Mercy, which my wife and I saw last month, and which is excellent. But the fact that they came up with a list would suggest that they did some kind of search. Where is the mention of work by Gary Becker or Thomas Sowell? Or how about work by Kenneth Arrow or Thomas Schelling?
And, most important, given that the list is presented by the AEA, where is the literature on Richard Ely,
one of the founders, and the first secretary, of the American Economic Association, and a renowned racist? It’s not as if he hasn’t been studied. Princeton University economist Thomas C. Leonard wrote an excellent book, Illiberal Reformers, in which he documents the views of Ely and other Progressives. Ely called blacks people who “are for the most part grownup children, and should be treated as such.”
The straightforward way to deal with the AEA’s racist past would be to acknowledge it. There’s lots to choose from. How about, for example, the time (1888) when the AEA “offered a prize for the best essay on the evils of unrestricted immigration?” (The quote is from Leonard’s book on p. 143.) A lot of the anti-immigrant sentiment at the time, Leonard notes, was based on race.
Or how about Ely’s hostility to Chinese immigrants? He wrote:
[T]he fullest unfolding of our national faculties requires the exclusion of discordant elements—like, for example, the Chinese. (1894, “Thoughts on Immigration, No. I”) [quoted in Clifford F. This and Ryan Daza, “Richard T. Ely: The Confederate Flag of the AEA?” Econ Journal Watch, Vol. 8, No. 2, May 2011, pp: 147-156.]
Or how about the fact that from 1962 to 2020, a prestigious lecture held every year at the annual AEA meetings was the Richard T. Ely lecture? To its credit, the AEA has suddenly deleted Ely’s name in the last few days. To its discredit, it says nothing about why.
Are we to believe that the AEA officers are ignorant of all this? One tell is that, as noted, they deleted the “Richard T. Ely” identifier from the annual lecture. Why do that suddenly if not for the fact that they do know something about the AEA’s racist past?
Of course, it’s possible that some of the AEA officers are ignorant. If so, I would recommend that they start with Thomas C. Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers. And if they are unwilling to take the time to read it, at least they should put it on their own reading list.
Here’s Russ Roberts’ interview of Leonard.
Here’s Arnold Kling’s review of Leonard’s book.